May 2004

Kirsten Harms: The willingness to produce art and to reflect

Interview with the new Artistic Director of Deutsche Oper Berlin

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Kirsten Harms: The willingness to produce art and to reflect

Interview with the new Artistic Director of Deutsche Oper Berlin

By Nancy Chapple / Photos: Jens Paape / Translation: Andrej Huesener

Kirsten Harms

In Summer 2003 you resigned as Artistic Director of Theater Kiel to focus on your career as a producer. And then Berlin called...
Indeed, the offer from Deutsche Oper was very attractive. My original plan was to work as a producer for a few years. Running an opera house did not figure at all. And then, totally out of the blue, I received a call asking whether I'd be interested in running Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Since leaving Kiel, did you have enough time for productions of your own?
Yes, I produced Romeo and Juliet in Dresden and Anatevka in Bonn. I had offers for more, but it is just not possible to produce that many pieces - nor would I want to. It was great fun doing two productions on opposite sites of the spectrum: a drama in Dresden and a musical in Bonn. Neither one was opera.

Given that you recently decided to work mainly as a producer, it must have taken a lot of courage to take the plunge and accept the call to Berlin?
Yes, I suppose so. On the other hand, I knew very well what to expect - after all I had been running a theatre for nearly eight years.

But Kiel's situation was unlike Berlin's, where three houses are competing for an audience.
You are right, but we were always in competition with other cities. The main challenge is to find and develop your own unique voice. It is not easy to work as an artist in the theatre and carve out your own niche, because subsidies are being cut everywhere. These politics take up a lot of energy if you are running a house. Just think of directors who run ballet companies - they are in an extremely challenging position, as ballet subsidies are cut more than anything else.

I experienced all of this firsthand in Kiel: if word got out about budget cuts, artists would nearly lose their mind out of fear of what was lying ahead. Such a situation makes it nearly impossible to produce good work. Say you have plans to put on a piece and suddenly you have to manage with much fewer production staff and cast ... or you may even have no budget at all! Then you have to begin from scratch, bin all concepts and all ideas, because your plans have become unsustainable. However, artists have contracts, and what do you do with the artists if a piece is scrapped ... I had to manage all these problems when I was running Kiel. No politician even considers how his decisions affect what's going on inside a theatre.

Kirsten Harms | Director and Producer

Kirsten Harms, born in Hamburg in 1956, studied Music at the University of Hamburg and Music Production at the attached College for Music and Art. In 1982, she graduated with a production of Ligeti's Nouvelles Aventures which she produced at Staatstheater Braunschweig. In 1983 Kirsten Harms was a co-founder of "Mimesis", a free company renowned for its experiments combining drama with music.

From 1985-1988 Kirsten Harms worked as an Assistant Producer at the Städtische Bühnen Dortmund, where she put on her first productions. She subsequently worked as a producer in Bremen, Hannover, Kiel, Saarbrücken, Darmstadt, Innsbruck and Mainz. Since 1992 she has been Associate Lecturer for Music Production at Hamburg's College for Music and Arts.

Continued in next sidebar...

Your contract officially starts on 1 September 2003 - have you already begun work?
Of course I have been developing concepts and ideas for the past few weeks and months. As artists we're always at work, so to speak.

How well do you know Berlin and your audience at Deutsche Oper?
I have been to Berlin a few times before and have also produced Semiramide here at Deutsche Oper.
I think the house is generally well loved. Whilst doing Semiramide I lived just opposite the main entrance of Deutsche Oper. I was able to observe the audience very well; for example, the older people who attend performances at Deutsche Oper, who have spent all their lives working hard and are now ready to ask meaningful questions.

Is your family moving with you?
Yes, of course! If you're running a house such as Deutsche Oper, you're here all day long.

You once said the main challenge is to get people away from TV. Do you think opera suits everyone, at every age? How can you enthuse especially young people for opera?
There are all kinds of possibilities. Take my own child for example... children start developing interests between the age of 8 and 14. They are capable of a high degree of passion, and if you take them to the opera, they usually react very enthusiastically... you need a specific approach to target children...?
Yes, they must be taken along and specifically promoted. Of course, children are extremely perceptive and open, with highly developed instincts. Musical education must tap into those natural abilities; however, schools are already stretched and stressed out, given the full curricula and lack of time for musical education. Cultural education starts early. Children's natural interest in art must be addressed early on, to bear fruit later in life. It is much more difficult to try and impress 16-year olds, for example.


In 1995, Kirsten Harms became Artistic Director of Opera Kiel. Opera Kiel made nationwide headlines through her production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. During her 8-year reign at Opera Kiel, Kirsten Harms continued to increase Opera Kiel's reputation, with premieres of works such as The Magic Fountain (Frederick Delius) and Der Schimmelreiter (Wilfried Hiller) as well as the production of rarely performed works and rediscoveries auch as Schreker's Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin and Christophorus oder "Die Vision einer Oper".

Her first production at Deutsche Oper Berlin was Gioacchino Rossini's Semiramide in 2003. She subsequently produced at Oper Bonn and the Schauspielhaus Dresden. Kirsten Harms will take over as Artistic Director at Deutsche Oper Berlin from the 2004/05 Season.

Official press release, Deutsche Oper Berlin

But in general, is opera "modern" enough, or should it be more shocking like, for example, the upcoming production of Mozart's Serail at Komische Oper?
Children are usually excited by all things "hip" or trendy.

Basically I think many more people should go to the theatre to train their perceptions and enhance their consciousness. The theatre has the power to tell stories about things, which in other circumstances are hardly strongly perceived. Say you ask someone "how are you", he may say "I'm OK", or "Not so good", but in order to understand what really is going on inside this person, you have to make his inner world conceivable, in a conscious manner. You cannot say to a child "this is what you are going to see". You must enable children to learn and experience for themselves, because they have the instincts to do so.

On average, children are watching television for 2-3 hours a day. Just imagine how this impacts their physical activity, their ability to move, ability to sing and listen and learn - innate talents are not being developed at all.

Will opera have to stand up to remain independent?
Immediately after the war, there were many efforts to show works and ideas which were banned during the war and did not have a public. This was based on the understanding that the freedom of the mind is incredibly valuable. And that is why the theatres were rebuilt so quickly, despite the struggling postwar economy. What this says is that the economy and the arts have the same importance... But who knows? Perhaps we'll be confronted with the opposite scenario very soon, if arts are not perceived as strongly and generally undervalued.

Main productions

PucciniMadame Buttefly1990Darmstadt
DonizettiL'elisir d'amore1993Bremen
BelliniLa Sonnambula1994Innsbruck
StraussDie Frau ohne Schatten1996Kiel
WagnerDas Rheingold1997Kiel
DeliusThe Magic Fountain [UA]1997Kiel
WagnerDie Walküre1998Kiel
HillerDer Schimmelreiter [UA]1998Kiel
StraussDie Liebe der Danae2001Kiel
StraussDie schweigsame Frau2001Kiel
SchrekerChristophorus oder „Die Vision einer Oper“2002Kiel
SchrekerDas Spielwerk und die Prinzessin2003Kiel
ShakespeareRomeo und Julia2004Dresden

Source: Deutsche Oper Berlin

You were not involved in the long-winded process to come to an agreement for the future of the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. Does this mean you are now faced with facts and have to implement somebody else's decisions?
Well yes, the stakes are claimed. However, the current Berlin Opera Foundation is only the framework. The actual structure within the framework is still under discussion and I actively participate in those discussions.

Do you think that the conditions for Deutsche Oper are unfavourable within the current Foundation structure?
Not exactly. Unfortunately, all three Berlin opera houses need to save huge amounts of money. And the only way you can save money in a theatre is to make artists and other staff redundant. There simply is no other way. Budgets for stage design and costumes are minimal, although audiences think that's where the bulk of money is spent. You employ people in the orchestra and the choir; then you have soloists who have travel expenses and are paid a fee. Then there are copyrights. And then you start thinking about where to save ...

You could reduce the number of performances in the year ...
Yes you could, but you still have to pay people which means you are effectively not saving at all - that's the misconception. Even if you cut down budgets for soloists, you are still left with costs for stage technicians, orchestra, the costume department and much more...

Would it be better to work with company principals rather than more expensive guest singers? Our impression is: rather work a solid well-balanced company than one star singer and three lesser soloists...
I absolutely agree. The way forward is to build a good strong company, which is occasionally supported by soloists - or voices which you cannot cast from the company - after all, there are very many different works with varying requirements...

Do you have your own favorite candidate for Chief Conductor at Deutsche Oper?

Is anyone interfering with the decision-making for Chief Conductor?
There are quite a few who have their own preferences. There are speculations, too. But all that doesn't really matter.

How well do you know the orchestra, singers, the stage technicians? Have you been able to build a rapport with the employees?
Some of them I know from my production of Semiramide. That's good because I got to know them under different conditions.

Kirsten Harms

What was the reaction of people here at Deutsche Oper when you got the job?
Reactions were positive and open. Many are looking forward to working with me.

Coming back to your time at Kiel: were there obstacles you had to overcome time and again? Or did you make any experiences which may help your upcoming challenges?
There are quite a few things: for example, the simplistic and populistic approach of many politicians who try to save money for arts maintaining that the arts are a luxury and money is more urgently needed elsewhere. As an artist, it is my task to make sure to find counter-arguments to this approach, to stop the continuous devaluation of the arts. Cutting arts budgets alone will not balance books. We are at the risk of losing a unique cultural landscape and identity, the envy of artists and other people all over the world. Giving up on arts means giving up a world-wide leading position without having any other wins to balance this loss. It would also mean a deterioration of artistic commitment. Of course, big houses in other countries have bigger budgets, spend more money and attract the star singers. However, what is unique to the theatres in this country is the willingness to produce art and to reflect. Here, theatre is not just reduced to consumption, not just dictated by market mechanisms. This is what makes theatre in the German-speaking countries so special.