Interview with Elisabeth Sobotka, Director of Bregenzer Sommer Festival
Bregenz, on 19. July 2019
Journey to Bregenz.
How would you describe in just a few words your journey to Bregenz?
I would describe my journey to Bregenz as a successful “seduction.” The President of the Festival Hans-Peter Metzler asked me if I would be interested in the position, because I would be, in his opinion, the right person for the job. So, I let myself be seduced.
How does it feel to be a director of such a prestigious festival?
Wonderful! I had my first encounter with the Bregenz Festival in 2006, and even then I was impressed by this venue, which provides tons of creative opportunities to present a large variety of formats and genres. And now, as a director, it’s particularly fulfilling, considering the two very successful productions since I started here: “Turandot” and “Carmen.” The enthusiasm of the 7000, with among nearly 5,000 young spectators, gives you enormous power and incentive to continue.
Director and company manager
You are still one of the few women in this kind of leading position as an artistic director. In a leadership position. It seems that the debates on gender equality have not yet penetrated every day theater live.
How would you assess the chances of improving the situation in the near future? What do you think has to be done to achieve fast results?
If we limit myself only to Austria, I would describe the changes as rather lean. In Vienna, for example, all female directors at the big venues of the city and at the Musikverein have been recently replaced by male candidates. Luckily here, and in Graz it is still different. Generally, being a woman at the top of this business is incredibly hard. And the aspired legal quota does not or will not change the situation either. I am convinced that without clear political control, hardly anything will change in the near future at all. On the other hand, as the head of such a company, if she has children, still is first a mother. And in a job that requires irregular working hours, it can really be a problem. So, without proper support from partners and family, she would have a hard time to manage it all alone.
Such a position brings with it an extensive package of duties, tasks of any kind, as well as responsibility to the public, the financier, the politicians, the artists, and the staff.
Where do you see and set your priorities as director of the Bregenz Festival?
Firstly, I can clearly define my chief priorities towards programming and its content. For example, to bring “old” operas again and again. One of the tasks is to continually redesign these old pieces and to question their contents and messages. Secondly, I was so lucky to have Mr Michael Diem, as a co-director of the Festival, by my side. Thanks to his expertise as commercial director and his support, I have the unique opportunity to fully concentrate on those as mentioned above artistic and content work as well as the representation of the festival abroad. Thirdly, it is essential to have a well-functioning, creative production team in all three venues. The one that fully supports you and relieves you during an extensive working period. Thus, one of my priorities is clearly to build such a team.
During the TV interview in April of this year, the Soprano Anna Netrebko expressed her own view of the situation with sexual harassment in the theater and called the allegations of the women affected a “bullshit.”
What do you think of Mrs. Netrebko’s statement? In your professional life, have there been moments when you were directly or indirectly involved in similar situations or witnessed such or similar one?
No, she is not right! And I personally did not experience such a situation. Of course, I can not judge individual cases, but for decades the rules in opera/theater world have been predetermined and exercised by male leaders a.o. with enormous power and pressure. And unfortunately you can not always fight back. It is not the women who have to defend themselves better, but the men who should have more respect for women. The vilification of the victims expressed by the Netrebko is wrong! Intendant should rather worry in advance! And, if these powerful men now have to question their behavior, then the whole #MeToo debate has already achieved a lot.
Festival everyday life
What do you consider to be the biggest challenge in everyday festival life? Was there a situation/development/step/event that you would like to undo?
No, I have not experienced situations that I would like to undo. For me, the only challenge is not having enough sleep. Though coffee and chocolate help a lot! But jokes aside, my job is a stress, yes! But it is positive stress that inspires me. It is enjoyable to work here, mainly because great teamwork takes place here, which enormously facilitates the everyday work inside the festival and also has a positive effect on the outside life.
In 2017, MET canceled or postponed one production with Calixto Bieito for an indefinite period. The reason: the targeted savings of one million dollars.
Would such a situation be conceivable here in Bregenz? How does the Bregenz Festival financially stays out?
No, such a situation is unthinkable in Bregenz. The festivals stays financially on the firm feet. From the overall budget of about 20 million Euro, 80% is generated by the revenue from ticket sales from the performances on the lake stage and from sponsors. Of course from time to time, we also make small program adjustments. But financing and budgeting here are long-term projects and are based on a reliable and thoughtful assessment of the current financial situation.
Do you have you very personal vision for the Festival?
I must say, here in Bregenz, I am very close to my vision of making opera as a genre and as music accessible to all. Especially for the beginners.
Do you feel that the time in front of you would be enough to realize this your visions? Are you satisfied with your program? Is there anything else you would want to change or optimize?
In terms of the years ahead clearly a “yes.” N term of the program, it’s more like “yes and no.” After my start here, two new program focuses have been established: an opera atelier and an opera studio. The opera atelier allows the audience to have a glimpse at the insight of the everyday opera production and the programming. And the opera studio gives the young singers an opportunity to present themselves, learn new things and work with great artists.
Arts and Politics
In your opinion, how politically can/should/may an artist or an artistic director be? Where are the limits of the allowed? Are there any limits at all? Like f.e. in the La Scala case?
The theater and theatrical work are definitely political, but not partisan. It is important to acknowledge the color, to show tolerance, and to be open to a constructive discussion. On another hand, everyday politics have no place in Bregenz rather. We want to participate in world events and to express this through our productions. In this sense, one could, for example, understand “Rigoletto” as a kind #MeeToo story. Considering the La Scala case and in my opinion, an unfortunate misjudgment of the situation took place.
Festival and the world
Have you been to Mexico before? Can you imagine to expand this far the geography of your potential new visitors? For example, also towards the Middle East, Central America, etc.? What is your primarily targeted audience?
No, I have never been to Mexico, and currently we have no grand ambitions to expand in this direction. We are very regionally anchored, and the audience comes more from Germany and Austria. How every, what I would like very much, is the expansion of visitor groups from Switzerland. But of course we are happy about every single visitor, and the visitors from Mexico are very welcome.
Theater and life
In an opera by R. Leoncavallo “Pagliaccio” in the prologue, we are confronted with a statement that “theater and life are not one and the same thing.”
Do you support this statement? And if yes, why?
I support it absolutely. When we attend a theatre performance, we do trust hat is happening on stage and it encourages us and inspires our lives
Bregenz as location
The Bregenz, as a location, is flourishing for a few months during the Summer Festival. It also is becoming a tourist city where international opera and music fans from all over the world meet, greet and exchange views.
How important is the festival from the economic point of view, for the city of Bregenz? How involved are the local entrepreneurs in the further development of the festival?
The Bregenz Festival is a significant economic booster not only for the city but for the whole region. Most of our sponsors are located locally, with the exception of BMW. These include Casinos Austria, the Liechtenstein LGT financial group, and Hypo Vorarlberg. The Illwerke VKW Group is our “Green Energy Partner.” We had once commissioned a study (2003) to investigate the Environmental rentability of the festival. It has shown that with around 250,000 guests (2019) and about 1,500 employees, the festival has an enormous environmental impact, and is a welcomed, reliable partner for tourism and business in the region.
What is life like in Bregenz outside of the festival? What do you do here in your spare time? Do you live in Bregenz? Do you want to stay in Bregenz?
At the moment, I feel comfortable in Bregenz, and I am doing very well here. So I want to and will stay in Bregenz until further notice.