Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Classical, Contemporary and Early Music 2021
Reawakening and setbacks

Ronny Graupe | Photo (detail): © Frank Schindelbeck
Ronny Graupe | Photo (detail): © Frank Schindelbeck

Racism, abuse of power, Covid – 2021 was another year of controversy and profound social debate in the early, new and classical music scene. Hannah Schmidt looks back on some of the main issues and incidents – and how the German classical music scene coped with another pandemic year.

By Hannah Schmidt

It could have been the year that cultural life awoke out of its Covid-19-induced coma. A year of gradual theatre reopenings, thoroughly corona-tested festivals and launch parties “lite”. “The way out of this pandemic has begun,” said Health Minister Jens Spahn after the first vaccinations were administered in late January 2021, and in March he went on to say we’d “probably” even reached the “homestretch in the pandemic marathon”.

At times it really did look as though the performing arts might just get off with a couple of black eyes: on 20 March, the Berlin Philharmonic played to a thousand people as a pilot project, their first live gig since the Covid outbreak, and it was a big success. Other venues and promoters took note and gradually cracked their doors back open, though in some cases selling only a fraction of the seats and abridging the programme – but no matter: the show went on.

This hybrid cultural spring and summer was partly funded by the Federal Cultural Foundation to the tune of €30.5 million out of its “Cultural Reboot” programme for the independent scene. The results answered the hopes of music-starved opera, concert and festival-goers: the Salzburg Festival, Bayreuth, the Donaueschinger Musiktage centenary, Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, Tage Alter Musik in Herne, Schwetzinger Festspiele, the Ruhrtriennale – all these festivals actually took place last year. The staging of all those world premieres, concerts and productions that had been postponed from the previous year elicited a look of – albeit reserved – relief on the faces of the performing artists and their audience. “Concerts and operas again, at long last, enveloping us in sound like amniotic fluid enveloping an embryo,” wrote Jeffrey Arlo Brown in VAN magazine as late as mid-September. “To feel again, at long last, the milliseconds it takes for sound to reach the eardrum.[...] We even almost missed the rustling of candy wrappers and the sound of people coughing into the magical silence, simply because they’re signs that we're listening to music together with other people.”

The fourth wave, a déjà vu

And yet, the daily case counts, which began coming back up in July, loomed like a sword of Damocles over these cautious attempts to get back to normal. And then there were all the hoaxes and misinformation about the long-awaited mRNA vaccines, proliferating protests against Covid rules and, at just under 70 per cent, enduringly insufficient vaccination rates. As Germany, Austria and Switzerland slid, almost unchecked by the powers that be, into a fourth wave in the autumn, the performing arts scene began coming undone again: musicians who’d toured the world last summer, playing one gig after another, began striking engagements off their calendars again. Austria and Saxony were the first to shutter their theatres and, by the end of November, audiences in Bavaria were reduced to 25 per cent of capacity – “smaller than they’d ever been during the pandemic”, wrote dramaturge Victoria Weich in her “crisis journal” for the German theatre magazine Die Deutsche Bühne.

Germany’s music venues and festivals had previously weathered the pandemic spring and relaxed summer in different ways, drafting elaborate schemes to minimize infection risk, which took various forms. Spectators at the Tage Alter Musik in Regensburg and the celebration of the Donaueschinger Musiktage’s centenary, for example, had to wear medical or FFP2 face masks and, under the 3G rule, furnish proof of being geimpft, genesen or getestet, i.e. vaccinated, recovered or tested. Thanks to these precautions, the Salzburg Festival could even be held without any capacity restrictions. In June, Tabea Zimmermann, on the other hand, had to accept her Siemens Music Prize in a virtual ceremony without any live applause. Then again, just a few months before that, the ECLAT Festival had already showed that live streams can actually be just as popular: the organizers had opted for a hybrid production and streamed all the concerts live from Stuttgart’s Theaterhaus. The feedback was so positive that they made videos of the whole festival available on demand a fortnight later.

Opera, festivals and Covid

Live streams in general reached a large audience: the Ruhrtriennale, for example, was followed online by roughly 40,000 home viewers – adding in the 20,000-odd attendees on location, that came to just as big an audience as before the pandemic. Last year's digital state of emergency has become the new state of normality – streaming is now been established as a fully-fledged medium for the enjoyment of live music. Productions like Im Stein at the Halle Opera (music by Sara Glojnarić, directed by Michael von zur Mühlen), for instance, made the most of this opportunity to play with various camera angles. Dortmund Theatre’s online audience could vote via smartphone on alternative plotlines for the opera Persona (dir.: Zsófia Geréb). And, in the Hamburg State Opera production of Udo Zimmermann's Weiße Rose, David Bösch's team used digital image distortion as a stylistic device. But the omnipresence of screens can also serve as an aesthetic device on stage, as the Dead Centre proved in their production of Olga Neuwirth's opera Bählamms Fest at the Ruhrtriennale: reality and digital fiction fused on a ginormous screen.

The independent scene is still touch and go

After a good summer season, highly productive freelancers found themselves yet again in a rough patch. So in November, the Deutscher Bühnenverein (a nationwide organization representing German theatres, opera houses, ballet and opera companies, and orchestras) felt compelled to demand not only benefits for short-time workers and financial support for the performing arts sector from federal, state and local governments, but also a resumption of federal aid for wholly or partly self-employed solo artists. The gulf between the security of steady employment and the precariousness of freelance gig workers could hardly be any wider. FREO e.V., a network of independent ensembles and orchestras in Germany started up in 2016, has become one of the leading mouthpieces for ensembles and musicians in the independent scene.

“Sign a contract these days as a freelance musician and you're almost sure to find a clause in there annulling any entitlement to recover fees in case of Covid-related cancellation,” conductor Kevin John Edusei said in an interview in November. He feels that publicly funded orchestras are “moral obliged to take care of their guest musicians”. And it was already apparent at the beginning of the year that at least some opera houses and concert halls could afford to discharge that “moral obligation”, as was borne out by their financial reports in the spring: despite a drop in box office receipts, many of them were back in the black.

How racist is the classical scene?

Whilst the pandemic was wreaking havoc around the world, a long overdue debate was raging in the music and theatre scene: the fact that the classical canon is made up almost exclusively of works by white males isn’t news to anyone, but it had gone unquestioned for a very long time. In previous years, amid the #MeToo debate, performing artists and journalists had already called attention to the underrepresentation or total absence of women composers on concert programmes as well as among the ranks of conductors and band leaders (although in August 2021, Oksana Lyniv became the first woman ever to conduct at Bayreuth).

The fact that systemic discrimination is not only gender-specific, however, but based on other categories too, such as race and class, went almost unmentioned in the debate – until around the spring of 2021, when musicians, journalists and academics, spearheaded by American music theorist Phil Ewell, began scrutinizing classical music for evidence of racism. Ewell’s thesis is that American music theory – along with the classical canon – is based on the racist and sexist notion that white people are superior to people of colour, and men superior to women. Consequently, non-white and non-male composers have been “erased” from the canon. Regardless of its objective quality, their work is written off a priori as inferior merely on account of their identity. Furthermore, as a great many recent essays point out, a number of canonical works, from Bizet's Carmen to Mozart's Magic Flute, reproduce sexist and racist stereotypes. So more and more directors are towing the new line: Christiane Theobald, for example, the Berlin State Ballet’s new director, decided in November not to go ahead with Marius Petipa's 130-year-old choreography of Tchaikovsky's traditional Christmas ballet The Nutcracker, which includes blackface as well as various racist clichés. That decision sparked a tremendous outcry, recalling the February announcement by Alexander Neef, the new Paris opera director, that he’d be scrapping Swan Lake for the sake of diversity and inclusiveness.

Ongoing abuses of power

But the issue of racism wasn’t confined to the repertoire last year: over at the Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus, actor Ron Iyamu was repeatedly the butt of racist jokes. The experiences he recounted in a WDR interview in mid-March triggered widespread debate in the national press. In reaction to a piece by essayist Bernd Stegemann in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a group of theatre people sided with Iyamu and addressed an open letter to the author, which, according to Peter Kümmel over at Die Zeit, became “one of the biggest signature campaigns against a single man in the history of German theatre”.

Moreover, there was no respite last year from scandals involving sexual abuse and the abuse of power in theatres, orchestras and cultural institutions; on the contrary, things actually got worse in this regard.

The pandemic continues to throw social and systemic injustices into starker relief than before. But the digital transformation of work and recurring lockdowns have also opened up an important resource for some people: access to culture and, ideally, time to take part in public debates.