Corona and the Opera: 10 questions for Kay Metzger

Interview with Kay Metzger

Intendant at the Theater Ulm, Germany

27. Juli 2020

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Stage director and Intendant Kay Metzger was born in Kiel in 1960. He grew up in Bonn and Mannheim and studied theater science in Munich. There he began his career as an assistant to acclaimed German stage director August Everding and was involved, among others, as co-director for Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” in Meiningen (1994). From 1984 to 1988, Metzger was a stage director assistant at the Bielefeld Theater and the Aalto Theater in Essen. From 1989 to 1993, he worked as a freelance stage and later became a senior director for the music theater in Halberstadt and Coburg. From 1999 to 2004, he was intendant of the Nordharzer Städbundtheater (Nordharzer city’s theatre federation) and from 2004 to 2018 of the Landestheater (State Theater) Detmold. There he was celebrated for his “Ring” project, which was planned to run over several seasons, with additional “Parsifal” and “Tristan and Isolde” productions. In 2009 Metzger was nominated for the FAUST theater award for the “Best Drama Director” category for his production of Grabbe’s “Hermannsschlacht.” One of the remarkable achievements Metzger’s there was the George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin” in cooperation with the Royal Opera in Stockholm. Likewise, in Detmold, Metzger initiated the international Giselher-Klebe Composition Competition to promote contemporary music theater and the Christian-Dietrich-Grabbe Authors’ Competition for contemporary drama writers. The compositions and works of prize winners were then premiered at the Landestheater Detmold. From 2011 to 2018, Kay Metzger was also Chairman of the Landesbühnengruppe (state’s stage group) and the German Stage Association. In 2016 he was elected as Intendant of the Theater in Ulm for a term from 2018 to 2023.

Interview with Kay Metzger is a part of the interview series with intendants and opera theatre directors of various cultural performing institutions in Germany, resp. Europe. Here we experience a Feedback from the director of so-called Drei-Sparten-Haus (three performing divisions including music theatre, drama, and ballet) and a C-House (all Germany ranking based on the number of musicians in the orchestra, here about 56 and in the Choir with about 20 singers). Theatre in Ulm is subsidized by the city council and has about 800 seats. C- Houses Theatres in Germany traditionally act as a springboard for the young and talented musicians, singers, actors, directors, and conductors. Ulm counts a.m. conductors like Harbert von Karajan, Phillip Jordan, and singers like Angela Denoke to its renowned former employees. Therefore, first-hand information about the current situation in dialing with post-effects of Covid-19 on planning the season and the artistic and legal consequences the theatre will face in the coming season. 

Dealing with the corona crisis

How did you personally experience the situation with the Corona crisis? How was it perceived by your theater staff?

This crisis affects me, doubtless like many other people: you are stunned by this invisible threat that clearly has shown us our limits. Today, we live in a society where everything seems possible, in which there are solutions for everything. I personally have no specific fear of potential infection, but individual employees in our theater have significant worries that must be taken seriously. On the one hand, there is a real risk of getting infected. On the other hand, there is a fear of the future and the massive loss of income. The question to ask is: how do we get out of this crisis?

What were/are the biggest challenges you had to deal with as the intendant during this time?

The first challenge was to guarantee the safety of the employees. Fortunately, as a city theater, we were able to orient ourselves toward the crisis management of the city of Ulm, which was and still is very good. The company kept partially running – workshops, administration, dramaturgy. Otherwise, we had to think about strategies like about according to the safety disposition of the rehearsals, individual musical rehearsals for the vocal soloists, and limited ballet training for the dance company. Then we always kept developing plans to be able to restart the performance at the appropriate time, always keeping in touch with the artistic staff.

Theater Ulm: Presenting the season 2020/2021. Foto SWP

In your opinion, which are the consequences of the corona crisis we are to expect? Where do you see the greatest danger, in artistic and legal terms?

The consequences are not yet foreseeable. The economy must recover quickly so that the responsible from the city council can raise funds for theaters’ operations. But I’m very worried about the theater scene abroad. As for years to come, the pandemic consequences for the already fragile cultural scene in many European countries can be devastating. At the Met in New York, for example, the Choir and orchestra were put on the streets until the end of the year, and all artist contracts were terminated. Many are afraid that this traditional House, where Gustav Mahler conducted, and Enrico Caruso sang, is about to end. In our country, culture is a sovereign task, so after Corona, many locations, even though slowly, will recover, though there will undoubtedly be irreparable damages here and there. These damages are immense for many freelance artists. My great concern is that many talented people will no longer want to take this risk and will quit their artistic calling in the future. That would be bitter.

The situation with guest singers

Are there going to hold auditions for the guest roles for the next season? Where do you get your guest singers from? Do you mainly work with agencies?

Yes, there will be holding some auditions, and of course, we are also in touch with many singers to whom we want to offer compensation for canceled performances. The Ulm Theater works with agencies but also accepts initiative applications into account. And of course, after all my professional years, I, together with GMD, know many artists that we like to work with again.

If there are guests, how are their contracts being treated? Will there be a “corona” clause or fee cut?

The past weeks have shown that the pandemic is not over yet. And that there are/there undoubtedly setbacks to come. No expert can make reliable forecasts. Therefore, we cannot help but include a clause in the contracts, which is also what the city council members expect from us.

What should the performing artists, permanent and freelance, be prepared for in terms of the future auditions/career development? What do you think they should be focused upon the most?

Honestly, there are no recipes on how to act the best. Certainly, the quality will always prevail. That may sound simple, but it is true. Should the pandemic decreases significantly in the next months, the market will sort itself out again, especially in German-speaking countries. Maintaining contacts with the opera houses that you have successfully worked with will be very important. Before that, patience and long-term endurance are essential.

Foto Alexander Kaya


In your opinion, what lesson have we learned from this crisis? What do you think will remain untouched after to Corona, and what will be lost?

We have learned that society can stick together when it is required and necessary. It was a very positive experience of understanding and being responsible, and most of the people we’re dealing with the crisis. Nevertheless, uncertainty fears about the future remain. We have such a vibrant cultural landscape in Germany, but unfortunately, many small formats and initiatives, especially in rural areas, a lot of them, will be left behind

In your opinion, how (if ever) the theater and cultural landscape in Germany (if ever) change in the coming years?

You know, there have always been crises and setbacks in the past, to which artists have reacted wisely and carefully, because of their excellent survival instincts. After this massive cut by COVID 19, which affected all areas of society, it will be particularly important to approach people and make them aesthetic offers that will give them hope and inspire confidence.

How (if ever) will (should) the role of the intendant change in the coming years?

A theater is an extraordinarily complex and sensitive business in which so many interests collide. As a director, you must be able to listen and moderate, to allow freedom and creativity without plunging the House into chaos. I see myself as a team player. After the crisis, it will be particularly important to have directors who create trust – in the House and publicly.

Is there anything, any thought that you would like to pass on to our readers?

Theater originated in early cultures. It has survived wars, dictatorships, and epidemics, so, it will also survive this pandemic.

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