World cultural heritage metropolitan theatre - Jens-Daniel Herzog, director of the opera in Dortmund
An interview about tradition and progress (and being short on cash)
"Lively, contemporary, with passion and intellect", says Jens-Daniel Herzog, the Dortmund music theatre shall act in the upcoming season. In the interview, the renowned director talked about the way of an experienced house away from negative press to more modernity and popularity at the same time but also about "Superior Football" and the Westphalian itself.
In your first season as director you were confronted with a lot of expectations that were partially of a more economic than artistic nature. Could you draw first conclusions how you managed to combine these two aspects to draw from it for the next season?
That's a good question. First of all, I'm quite enthused because I have rarely seen such successful premiers as here in Dortmund. Even with representations that typically cause mixed reactions, we received clear signals: The people in Dortmund are not looking for old-fashioned theatre but lively popular theatre, just like I would like for it to be. Naturally, there are a few discrepancies between people who attend and those who don't attend yet. And with regards to this aspect - and everyone agrees on this - a house is needed that steps out of the negative focus or as I like to put it: a house that picks up the thread which was once lost. Are a moving into the right direction step by step.
If your own perception plays tricks on you because all you see is a happy audience at the premiers instead of those people that didn't go there, I tend to get a bit more nervous than necessary because I don't see progress as fast as I'd like to. I am then reminded of the fact that patience and persistence are required to attract the potential audience. I was once told: "Ask a Westphalian what he knows how to do best. He will then wait for five minutes and reply: "Quick-wittedness." As I said, my surroundings save me from becoming too impatient. Everthing takes some time.
I know a slogan that goes like this: "What's the first thing you hear from a Westphalian? Get off my property!" How did you settle in at your new workplace?
I clearly committed myself to this city by taking my family along with me to settle here. I like the people here as they are quite open - of course this means that they sometimes tell you their opinion no matter if it's good or bad for them. As director, you certainly need a thick skin sometimes but I think I can manage. The audience and I correspond well because they don't want detached art but stories they can relate to. I'm not a director that thinks around four corners but who wants to keep things comprehensible.
Yet with plays such as the "Football Opera" about the current German titleholder and cup winner in professional men's football, you went straight for potential disputes. That was certainly something that everyone wanted to debate about.
It was really a balance act between "too embracing" and "too critical, both dangerous cliffs. Football fan culture is a phenomenon of society that's worth being explored. We soon came to find out: There is a Sovereign in this city - and it's footie! Thus, this fact will be reflected in popular theatre.
In some reviews we read that in your own works one can find offices or airport lounges that cannot be found in their original counterparts. Do you go towards topicality to the point that the original character of the works is affected?
There are always three time levels: The one of the composer, the one of the time that he describes and the one that you create with your work. Thus, you have to tell the story in a way that the audience of today feels frightened and compassionate - you have to supply means that allow for identification. The people who complain about something like that will not find themselves here any more. And I'm well aware of that. If I host "The Flying Dutchman" only partially at a trading post, there's a simple question behind it: How can I make the fact that a father sells his daughter to a stranger comprehensible for people today? I tell the story of his bankruptcy and not the one of a ship that flies through the air. Wheras the story is the same in the end. These old masterpieces can take it and speak to you if you ask them.
Soon, you will open the Salzburg festival and you will be active in other places besides Dortmund. Some might find this too cosmopolitan. Doesn't this city profit from its engagement as you can see with the flood of new artists and cooperations in the programme?
It was clear right from the beginning that I am going to foster my international career as director. Local pride can grow from the fact that I open the most renowned festival worldwide and that I'm also wanted in class A houses such as Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich and Zurich. Naturally, I get to know singers this way who would otherwise not come to Dortmund. With the few means that we have, we have to move somewhere in between the Scylla of lacking finances - we are understaffed - and teh Charybdis of high expectations by the audience by entering a lot of cooperations.
In Essen, we're facing medium-term layoffs because the wage agreements are adhered to. In other cities, there are no long-term contracts in place any more but "project-oriented" hire & fire...
A grand heritage in Germany from the times of the multi-ethnic state where every court had its own theatre. This tradition led to the unique system that we should treat like a world heritage in my eyes. My agents often say: "You should be glad to work in Germany or Europe - in particular in the German-speaking area." Nowhere in the world will you find such high level. It's important that the people are in training - that's when world careers will continue to be formed here. Yet we have to ask society time and again if it's willing to sponsor this. If the arts are played off against social matters, then we won't be able to enter the conversation. I realise that the community does its best to keep this culture in place. And we don't have a state share of 30 to 50 per cent like Bavaria or Baden-Wüttemberg do, but only 3.5 per cent. Consequently, the community has to take care of it and the fact that it actually does can only make us bow before it. We are all working on maintaining the incredible abilities of German community theatre.
Thank you so much for the chat!