Corona and the Opera

Five questions for Rolf Bolwin: Reflections on the current cultural situation in Germany.

The interview in written in German on May 4th, 2020


Titel picture: Rolf Bolwin. Foto private

Read in spanish on ProÒpera

Rolf Bolwin is a lawyer and acted for 25 years as Managing Director of the German Theater Association – Federal Association of German Theater and Orchestra. Bolwin is a passionate Theater and Opera lover and advocate of the improvement of the future financial and working conditions of performing artists in Germany. Since the beginning of 2017, he works as a consultant with his “City Point Culture” (Stadtpunkt Kultur) and as a lawyer in different areas of art and culture. In addition, Rolf Bolwin is involved in various committees that deal with balancing out the interests of performing companies and the social situation of the artists. Mainly as a member of the advisory board for the Artists’ Social Fund maintained by the Bavarian Pension Chamber, specifically created to secure an additional income for performing actors, dancers, singers, and musicians. Rolf Bolwin has several teaching positions, among others at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, at the Bavarian Theater Academy August Everding and Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. He is also a member of the Directors Committee for the Master’s Arts Administration Program at the University of Zurich.

Mr. Bolwin, Corona crisis has severely affected the creative and working capabilities and perspectives of the performing institutions and venues in Germany and Europe as well as the life and work of the performing artists. In your column “Infection Protection Act and Freedom of Art on the Legal Consequences of the Corona Pandemic on Culture” (Link in German) you write that “contrary to the fundamental right of professional freedom, the fundamental right of freedom of the art execution is guaranteed by Article 5 Paragraph 3 Clause 1 of Constitution (Grundgesetz) … and is not a subject to the statutory, legal law reservation (Gesetzesvorbehalt).”

Does this mean that, in theory, the theaters/festivals could seek legal actions against the government for its decisions/orders?

RB.: The German constitution guarantees its citizens, like all constitutions of any democratic state, various fundamental rights. These include freedom of religion, freedom of art, freedom of studying and research, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, the right to move freely in public space, protection of property, and the right to work. All these fundamental rights are currently severely restricted by governmental orders due to measures directed to protect the population from the Coronavirus. Several legal proceedings in Germany against these restrictions have already been initiated (by various non-cultural firms and companies. Note by the interviewer). The courts declare that citizens must accept these restrictions temporarily, and not in the long run. Theaters have not yet considered this kind of measure but legally could do so because of the massive violation of the freedom of art and right to work: Both are essential pillars of life in a democratic society, especially since freedom of art enjoys special protection under Germanys’ constitution. Thus, artistic freedom can be infringed upon only in an extraordinary situation.

Legal (statutory) reservation in Germany regulates a provision attached to individual fundamental rights, according to which a fundamental right may only be restricted by law or be based on a law (ordinance). It provides the possibility to restrict fundamental rights in an admissible manner. Because the restrictive regulation is reserved for formal law, it cannot take the form of a legal ordinance, an administrative act by the executive, or judgment of the judiciary. It also handles an assignment of powers of the democratically legitimized parliament (parliamentary reservation), that is particularly expected to provide protection of fundamental rights.
Corona try-out performance at the state Theater in Wiesbaden. Source

At the German opera houses and theaters, the opera ensembles are largely built of foreign singers. They possess a residence permit, mostly temporary, that must be renewed again and again. For many of them to work in Germany or the theatres of the German-speaking European countries is the only way to be able to practice their profession and achieve a stable income.

Which consequences will these artists face in the coming months?

RB.: It is crucial to remember that the approximately 140 of City and State theaters in Germany are so-called ensemble and repertoire theaters. It means that the actors, singers, dancers, and musicians, are permanently employed, at least, for several seasons. Even though most theaters are now closed, these artists continue to receive their monthly paychecks see Short-Term occupation box). However, this does not apply to the free-lanced, guest artists, who are only engaged for a single theater production or even for just one or couple performances. For these artists, the situation here in Germany is worrying. Governmental aid programs do exist, but they generally do not apply to foreign artists. Some theaters do try to compensate them by paying at least some part of the performance fee. Though in many cases, the lack of income from tickets sale makes this impossible. The lesson to be learned is to continue with the ensemble and repertoire production system. It ensures a fair balance between the theater’s artistic interests and the social protection of its permanent employees.

Where do you see the greatest danger?

RB.: Many private and free theaters that we have in Germany are, in my opinion, in great danger. They hardly receive any public financial support and are highly dependent on self-financing. All too are closed and in real economic need, which can eventually lead to permanent closure.

Kurzarbeit or Short-term occupation. Beginning of May 2020, an agreement was reached between The German Theater Association and three artists unions on a possible introduction of a short time occupation way of working and payment. However, this only applies to municipal theaters and orchestras. Kurzarbeit is a temporary reduction in working hours due to a lack of orders. This measure is intended to help firms through short-term economic difficulties: employees do not have to be fired and are ready to resume full-time work as soon as the situation improves.  

Beginning in 2013, a right-wing populist, partially extreme right-wing political party AfD (Alternative for Germany),  was founded. It is highly EU-skeptical and, in terms of culture, pursues a strongly nationalistic view. One of its leaders caused in 2018 an outrage throughout Germany and even among his party members when he defined Hitler and the Nazis to be “just bird shit in over 1,000 years of successful German history”.

In your opinion, could the current conditions lead to the situation when such parties could question the legitimacy of the theatre, opera institution as being too multicultural and under the motto “fewer foreigners – fewer theaters” call for the reduction of theaters in Germany? Especially in AfD strongly influenced regions?

In my opinion, the corona crisis has one significant advantage: Right-wing parties like AfD are losing influence as they present no solutions in this challenging situation. Their slogans are now even more rejected by the large part of the population in Germany. The same rejection applies to their more than questionable stance about the role of the theater. Their populistic proclamations about national identity in arts and culture are hardly accepted in times like these. People want to go back to the theater, opera, concert, museum, and to get to know and to experience the world.

In his article ” A Backwards Corona Forecast: Or how we will be surprised when the crisis is over.” futurologist Matthias Horx writes: ” At the moment I am often asked when Corona “will be over “and when everything will return to normal. My answer is: never. There are historical moments when the future changes direction. We call them bifurcations. Or deep crises. These times are now.

Can this statement be applied to the future development of the cultural landscape or theaters in Germany/Europe? What should performing artists be prepared for in terms of auditions and further career development in the coming years? Does it make sense to travel to Germany/Europe for the auditions?

Nobody knows or can say what will happen and how the theater world in Germany will look like or how the situation will develop after the Corona crisis. I am convinced that the State will try to maintain such institutions like the City and State theaters. This broad landscape of public culture offerings is a unique selling point for Germany. You won’t just put that at risk, especially since it would also be a very negative signal for society and communities. And internationally? The Australian director and director of the Comique Opera (Komische Oper) in Berlin, Barrie Kosky, has just said in an interview (link in German): “The German opera landscape is the Amazon rainforest for the world’s opera system. Without the German system, the world opera system will collapse.” I can only hope that those responsible for cultural policy in Germany are also aware of this.

When talking about auditions and should they be held in Germany in the coming fall, singers from other countries should definitely participate in them. It might happen that some specific engagement will take a little longer. There is also a chance that performing fees will become subject to low-price dumping. Nevertheless, many opera houses are already thinking about the years after 2021. Hopefully, the Corona crisis will be over by then.

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