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Classical Scene 2018
The Future of Classical Music is Female

Salome 2018: Asmik Grigorian (Salome)
Photo (detail): © Salzburger Festspiele/Ruth Walz; E-Mail: ruthwalz@gmx.de

In 2018 the debate on sexual harassment in the film industry and cultural sector started to infiltrate the classical music scene, at the same time women started to gain ground in the realm of conducting and directing. The festivals in Bayreuth and Salzburg scored hits with interesting productions, and in Wuppertal there was a boom in digitally supported opera.

By Michael Struck-Schloen

Since 2018 it has become clear that on the classical music scene there is also something quite wrong in the way women and men deal with each other. The scandal triggered by the sexually predatory film producer, Harvey Weinstein, and the ensuing reaction under the label “#MeToo”, unleashed  an extensive debate about the more or less subtle power structures pervading our society – a debate that has now spread to the world of classical music. In March 2018 James Levine was dismissed after four decades as musical director of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, because of “credible evidence” of him sexually abusing young men. After almost two years in office at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam Daniele Gatti had to go because of “inappropriate behaviour” towards female musicians. Similar allegations led to conductor, Gustav Kuhn, losing his job at the Tiroler Festspiele in Erl in October.
After the main whipping boys had been punished, the ongoing analysis and evaluation of how people deal with each other moved to the lower levels of the cultural sector. The Deutsche Bühnenverein (German Theatrical Association), which represents orchestras and theatres on the employers' side, published a value-based code of conduct for the prevention of sexual assault and abuse of power. It questioned hierarchies and dependencies on the opera and concert circuit and the discussion was characterised by anger and insecurity, not least in the social media. Since 1994 the Echo Klassik had been Germany's most prestigious  music prize, awarded in the separate categories of classical, pop and jazz – a way for the music industry to reward its best-selling products. The fact that it was cancelled this year shows that the music industry has generally become sensitive to both overt and latent discrimination of all kinds. After vehement protests against the perceived anti-Semitic and homophobic texts of award-winning rapper duo, Farid Bang and Kollegah, all the Echo awards were abolished. A new, hastily ushered-in award came onto the scene in October – the Opus Klassik, but it remains to be seen, whether it will be able to refute the criticism of the commercial nature of the award.

Ruthless women, headless men

Among all these discussions and, sometimes over-heated, reactions the question also arises, whether the male-dominated world of music and theatre really represents the whole creative potential of the Federal Republic. The Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, which is endowed with 250,000 euros, has only ever been awarded to a woman once since 1974 (the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter) and in 2018 it also went to a man, the undoubtedly great composer, Beat Furrer. At  music theatres, the ratio of male directors to female directors is still 4:1 - and yet the wind of change seems to be blowing. It is not just the major opera houses that are  inviting more and more female directors onto their stages (Amélie Niermeyer  recently staged Verdi's Othello at the Bavarian State Opera), in medium-sized and small theatres remarkable works were performed, directed by such people as Eva-Maria Höckmayr (Weimar), Elisabeth Stöppler (Mainz) or Barbora Horáková Joly (Wuppertal) - to name three directors of the younger generation. A few female conductors also managed to assert themselves at various opera houses: the highly gifted and imaginative Joana Mallwitz in Nuremberg or her experienced colleague Julia Jones in Wuppertal; in 2019 Anna Skryleva and Ariane Matiakh will take up their posts in Magdeburg and Halle an der Saale respectively.
And let us not forget that two of the most important German music festivals are run by women who are descended from Richard Wagner: the Bonner Beethovenfest (the Bonn Beethoven Festival) and the Bayreuther Festspiele (the Bayreuth Festival). Under the direction of Nike Wagner the Bonner Beethovenfest focused this time  on the important topic of “fate” and also had as part of its program one of the last works of composer, Dieter Schnebel, who died in May. The Bayreuther Festspiele (Bayreuth Festival) is Germany's most-talked-about opera festival and is run by Nike's cousin, Katharina Wagner, and has thus been “in family hands” since 1876 (although not financially). For Richard Wagner's Lohengrin, festival head Wagner commissioned American director Yuval Sharon and the artist duo from Leipzig, Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, who bathed the legend of the Swan Knight entirely in blue with a mysterious electric power station in the centre. A lot of power also went into the musical realisation of the opera by Bayreuth music director, Christian Thielemann, who conducted an exquisite ensemble of singers with Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala, in the title role.
While Bayreuth's Lohengrin ended rather pleasantly with the appearance of the little green man they used to have on the traffic lights in the former East Germany, at the Salzburger Festspiele (Salzburg Festival) Italian director-philosopher, Romeo Castellucci, turned the creepy finale of Richard Strauss' Salome completely around. It was not the severed head of the Prophet Jochanaan/John the Baptist that appeared, as the composer intended, as a trophy for Salome (Asmik Grigorian), but his headless, naked body on which the princess struggled to place a black horse's head – there is no stopping this kind of woman (whereas the Salome in the Cologne production by Ted Huffman, equally as ruthless, guns down all the men).

Emergencies and creativity

While many concert orchestras in Germany today have found functional or even prestigious new homes in buildings like the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie or the Anneliese Brost Musikforum in Bochum, things do not look so rosy when it comes to the architectural substance of the opera sector. Most of the buildings constructed (or rebuilt) in the post-war period are stuck in a renovation backlog. In Frankfurt am Main, Bonn and Dusseldorf it is actually being debated whether a new building might even be preferable to the necessary renovation. In Frankfurt at the end of the year financially powerful citizens, in fact, set up a foundation to finance a new opera house. Cologne's Opera House on Offenbachplatz, however, has been closed since 2012 for refurbishment, due to some botch-up during the renovations they have to use alternative venues until further notice. Such emergencies, however, can also unleash enormous creativity - as can be seen at the Cologne Opera House, which offers a diverse program in the former exhibition halls of the “Staatenhaus”, ranging from Mauricio Kagel's scenic cantata Mare Nostrum from 1975 and the light opera Im Weissen Rössl, all the way to Richard Wagner's Ring des Nibelungen (Ring of the Nibelung) staged as a children's opera.
It was, above all, the opera in Wuppertal that was particularly creative when it came to extending the cultural experience into a digital experience. Its artistic director, Berthold Schneider, adopted an offensive approach to tackling the issue and, together with researchers from the University of Vienna, he developed a smartphone app that explains the content of the piece during the performance in German, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, English and Italian (but only in the back rows). An extended version of the app also supplies background information about the production and the working processes to be found in the theatre. The project provoked various reactions and is still undergoing further development. The staging of Francesca Caccini's baroque opera La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'isola d'Alcina, which the audience watched with their smartphones in their hands, most definitely showed that Wuppertal is not content to make do with a traditional opera audience, but also wants to introduce “digital natives” to the wonders of Caccini, Verdi and Offenbach.