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Interview: Klaus Bertisch

Have you ever wondered what an operatic dramaturg actually does? We asked one of the best in the business. Klaus Bertisch – dramaturg at the Dutch National Opera – is stepping down this month after 28 years at the company and he shared his stories and experience in an exclusive interview.

Don't forget to check out our playlist of highlights from the Dutch National Opera 2018/19 season, only on Primephonic.

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What does the job of a dramaturg entail, day to day?

It always depends on who you are working with, and the opera house. Here at the Dutch National Opera & Ballet I always divide my workflow into three big steps. First, I work on research: what are the interesting operas out there to discover or rediscover? What are the new developments? Who are the prominent directors at the moment? What hasn’t been done for a long time from the regular repertoire? And so on. The next step is the production itself: to work closely with the stage director on what is the piece about, what are the subjects behind it, why it’s important to play this piece today. And the third step is bringing it all to the outside world: there is a lot of preparation and hard work behind the scenes that the audience doesn't really know about. Sometimes I write texts for program books, select material which we think is worth sharing with the public, write articles and interviews for the magazines. We want the public to come and understand what we are doing.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve disagreed with a director, or worked with a performer who doesn’t want to fit with the production? How do you solve those problems?

Of course, there are moments when you don’t agree at first, but you try to solve the problems by talking. When the director isn’t able to communicate their ideas and wishes to the performers, I try to explain and convince them. A long time ago we staged Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and in the Die Walküre, there’s a moment where Brünnhilde asks her father, “Was is it so criminal what I did?” The dimensions of the stage were enormous, and the singer asked why she had to be so far away from her father in such an intimate scene. And I replied, “Imagine you have to tell your father about something you’ve done wrong, and there’s no one else in the room. Would you stand next to him and ask these questions? Or would you try to be as far apart in that room?” I try to find the logical situation and transport it to the situation on stage. It’s always a matter of communicating with your singers, and luckily, nowadays singers are very open. Even if we perform an opera from the 18th or 19th century, the way we think today is different, and that experience has to go into the production as well. Opera is a relevant and living art form. I once had to do an introduction on a silent movie about Wagner, and it was the first biographical movie that was made about Wagner in 1914. I was watching it and thinking, “why is it so different from everything else I’ve seen before, and why does this figure come across in a different way?” and it was because it was made in 1914, and national socialism came after. Nowadays we often interpret Wagner with that knowledge, and we know how Wagner’s music was used in that period. This movie didn’t have that feeling, but for us it’s impossible to go back and see things the way people did before World War II.

Klaus Bertisch - De Nationale Opera

Above: Bertisch in 2004 during rehearsals for Wagner's Siedfried. Photo: Marco Borggreve

You’ve been working at the Dutch National Opera for 28 years – do you remember your first production with this company? In all that time, what have been the big successes, and failures?

The first production that I was closely involved in was Wozzeck with the director Willy Decker, who I worked with a lot later because we got along very well. For me it was a big step at the time to be accepted as a production dramaturg. As for a failed production, I wouldn’t mention his name, but there was a director I was in a very good contact with, but the whole production didn’t develop in a good way. At first, he thought he didn’t need my feedback, but when he was at war with everybody in the building, I was one of the few he trusted and could talk to. Despite the fact that it was his flaw, it was an important moment and I sort of had to keep him going. You have no choice when you have a schedule with a deadline, and a date for the premiere. You can’t postpone because the tickets are sold! It was a very tricky situation to keep everyone going.

How do you do that?

I’m a positive person, and when I go to the rehearsals I’m only trying to be constructive. It doesn’t help anybody if you just criticize without any reason. But you have to tell singers that they are doing the right thing, especially the singers in the main role because they hardly have a chance to watch from the outside and see how the whole picture comes together. This is how I see my role – trying to support and give positive feedback. They have to perform on stage in the end, and if they have a negative attitude, it projects onto the audience.

What is the reason for your retirement?

There are a few reasons. First of all, I’m old enough to retire. I always think that if the art is alive, it needs renewal, and now is the time to pass it on to the new generation, so I’m happy to share my experience and knowledge with those who are coming into the profession. Also, there are a number of directors who like to work with me on a regular basis outside of Amsterdam, so I’ll continue to work. I’m also planning to do some teaching here [in Amsterdam] and in Germany. The thing I’m most happy about is to stop having meetings and doing the administration side of the job – 28 years of that is enough!

You’ve worked outside opera. What are the differences between your work in theatre world and opera world?

My theatre experience is quite limited, but in a play you have to invent your own score and in opera we have a score, so the timing and choices are totally different which is good, but also quite challenging. Sometimes, you have the limitation of the score, but this score also gives you an incredible freedom. In a play, you have to stick to your own storyline and make your own choices. In the opera, you have a storyline and framework, and you can free yourself within that. When it comes to my freelance work, I have a great experience in staging recitals, putting together my own programs with songs and arias of the most varied range, and it is really surprising what can fit together and how you can find your own story.

Can you give an example?

I recently worked with a female singer on a piece that we created ourselves. It is sort of a biographical story of her mother, the child of a Dutch woman and German Nazi soldier. It was a story about acceptance and recognition, but it was so personal that I wasn’t sure if I could find a way to tell it without being sentimental. Then we started working with songs and popular music – from Schubert to Charles Aznavour. I wanted to use spoken text also, so we used the existing material – letters from soldiers, news reports, sound effects – and all of a sudden, everything fell into place. The singer was playing a grandmother, mother and child throughout the performance, and during our first tryout people started to cry which I didn’t expect to happen, but I was very proud of our work. Our next project is an existing piece on the same kind of subject: it’s about a Jewish singer in post World War II, going into an exile in the United States and coming back.

How did you get your start doing what you do now? How does somebody become a dramaturg?

When I was at school, we went to see Weber’s Der Freischütz with the class and I hated it. I loved the music but it was full of opera clichés: a fat soprano trying to play a young girl, a chorus with fake sausages in their hands and that kind of thing. As a student, I was very interested in theatre, film and literature, and at that time Volker Schlöndorff was a very important filmmaker in Germany. So when he directed an opera in Frankfurt, I decided to give it another chance. It was Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová, and I was so overwhelmed by the music, staging and performance of the singers that I bought a ticket for Salome a couple of days later. It was quite an old-fashioned production, but Anja Silja was playing Salome, and it was overwhelming in a different way. And from that moment on, I tried to catch and learn everything I could see. I finished my studies in German and English literature, but I secretly attended some lectures in musicology. Then at some point someone told me, “There is a vacancy in dramaturgy, you have to apply for it.” And I was totally green, but it was nice that they wanted someone green to form him, build him up, and the rest is history.

What do you think about recordings of operas? Do they lose too much in the staging and storytelling of a production?

One step up from that are live relays of opera productions to cinemas, which is very popular now, but I think even that can never be a substitute for the real performance. When you are in the theatre you make the choice of where to look yourself, and even if you focus on one singer during an aria you have the whole thing around you. Once you are in the cinema you have no feeling of what is happening around you. The live experience is the real thing. It’s the same thing when it comes to music because you have this impact of live sound on you – it’s such a physical experience that no recording or movie can do.

What can we do to make opera more accessible?

It’s not a question of affordability. When you go to see a musical or a football game it’s not much cheaper, so why not go to the opera and have this really physical experience of music making. It’s about making people understand why it’s important, what it can make you more aware of our society and development. When I saw Goethe’s play Iphigenia on stage, I learned how to accept other people’s beliefs, attitudes and opinions. I really believe that theatre, opera and music can do that. In our organization much more effort goes into educational programs in the last couple of years, and only because the politicians cut the school budgets, so the responsibility for the cultural education comes more towards the organizations who deal with it – opera houses and orchestras.

What are your highlights of Dutch National Opera 2018-19 season?

Jenůfa, I love this piece. I’m also interested in staging pieces that are not originally meant for this stage, like Vivaldi’s Juditha triumphans. I’m also involved in Tannhäuser, and there was a period when I was very often asked to work on Wagner. Some years ago one director said, “you are the Wagner dramaturg”. I’ve done a lot of Baroque in the last couple of years as well, but this year it’s another Wagner, and it is always a challenge.


Top image: Ariadni Kalemis