Corona and culture. Contemporary on-site eyewitness’s report

10 questions for Daniel Herzog. Opera and Casting Director from State Theatre in Augsburg, Germany

By Oxana Arkaeva

For German text version go to IOCO website here

Watch the full video in German on YouTube here

Photo Ulrich Wagner

Daniel Herzog was born in Kassel in 1968. He comes from a theater family and has been active in musical theater for over 25 years, including theaters in Kassel, Dortmund, Darmstadt, Kiel, Trier, and Kaiserslautern – initially as an assistant of stage director and since 1999 as a stage director. From 2000/2001 to 2004, he was responsible for performance management at the State Theater in Darmstadt and were at the same time, presented his own productions. During the season 2004/2005, Herzog became a chief dispatcher and head of artistic operations office of the Theater in Kiel, where he had an opportunity to successfully combine his diverse experiences in both artistic and organizational sectors. From the 2007/2008 season to 2012, he was artistic director and chief dispatcher at the Theater in Trier and the Trier Antique Festival. During the season 2012/2013, Daniel Herzog worked as artistic director, chief dispatcher, and deputy of the intendant at the Pfalztheater Kaiserslautern. From the 2017/18 season, Daniel Herzog acts as an opera director at the State Theater in Augsburg, Germany, under the new management of André Bücker.

How did you get to be in the theater?

It was predetermined that my path would lead me there. My mother was an opera singer and my father, an orchestra musician. I was kind of conceived in the theater in my hometown Kassel. When my father played in Bayreuth almost every summer, I had no problem to spend 4 or 5 hours in the performance. And then the question came: where do I want to go? On or behind the stage? And, at some point, it became clear that I wanted to be backstage. I started my path for almost 30 years, first as an assistant director and stage director at an opera house. Soon I turned to the organizational side as artistic director and now, for four years in my first role as an opera director at the State Theater in Augsburg.

How did the management of the State Theater react to the outbreak of the pandemic?

In Augsburg, from the beginning of the new directorship, we have been accommodated in an interim venue as the main building will be renovated only by 2026. That means that from the start, we were confronted with limited spatial situations. When the pandemic caught on at the end of February, and the performing restrictions came in, we were two and a half weeks before the premiere of our production “Margarethe” by Gounod and were initially unprepared because we also didn’t have any reliable information. We then interrupted the rehearsals and performances and tried to find out more to inform our artists and the entire company.

Did the theatre go into complete lockdown?

Over the period from March to April and May, we never really had a real lockdown. We didn’t have rehearsals, but employees continued to work in the home office. After receiving the first information, we tried immediately to contact our audience and prepared various digital formats. For example, a great campaign that lasted almost until June. A wish-list where people could contact us and ask for a song, a poem, a dance, or something musical. For example, in my division, the singers prepared some singing numbers using the playback at home, and we then sent them to those who ordered. However, it soon became clear to us that the pandemic won’t be over by summer. In Augsburg, we have an open-air stage where the musical “Kiss me Kate” was planned. We then organized this stage, and at the end of May, resumed the rehearsals for the last production of “Orpheus and Eurydice” under the strict rules of social distance. 

How was the theater management able to guarantee the safety of its employees?

One advantage of the interim situation is that we have our own safety engineer in-house, who then worked with the company doctor to prepare a risk assessment concept for each division. Simultaneously, all departments’ heads were also required to prepare a risk assessment for themselves and their employees. For example, specifically in the musical division on the aerosol topic. What does that mean? Which rooms can be used? Where are there hidden dangers? We discussed it a lot and decided together with our ensemble members and parts of the choir to resume the rehearsals. It was also clear to us that until the end of June, we better move to the open-air stage. At that time, in Germany, we have entered the phase where, after two and a half months, the sport was allowed, and the restaurants were reopening. Nevertheless, after months, the arts and culture still were not considered systemically relevant (of course, I understand what is meant by this term. It is first about the medical care service) and were somehow entirely downplayed by the responsible and politicians. Thus, it was quite clear to us that if football can be played, the restaurants can be opened, then it should be possible for us, with a hygiene concept, to allow instead of 2000, perhaps 300, 400, or even 500 people in the audience. 

Did your concept work?

Yes. We developed a concept for a musical gala, which in the end turned out to be a great show and was played 22 times from June 28th to July 31st, accommodating 550 people. However, two weeks before the premiere, indoor was limited to 150 and outdoors to 100. To balance out the playbill our we then set up, from June on, a stage on the interim theater premises in Martini Park, where colleagues from the theater, ballet, and the singers who were not cast in the musical gala performed for the audience. Then a week before the gala’s premiere, up to 200 people were allowed, but just three days before the premiere, only 550. Still, that was great. We had a 19-member orchestra, and at that time, we were the only theatre in German-speaking countries, i.e., Switzerland and Austria, who could put on a 90-minute show. I believe this was an important sign for the preservation of art and culture. In this matter, the State Theater played a pioneering role. Seeing that it worked so well for us under well thought through safety and hygiene measures, many other performing venues have benefited from it in August and September. Concerning the difficult situation with freelance artists, at our house, from the beginning of the pandemic, we have done everything possible to employ our dependent, self-employed artists (the musical gala). Except for a singer from Sweden, all could fulfill their contracts. We also tried to support those who had no rehearsals/performances for over three months or were out of rehearsal rhythm by engaging a choreographer to train them.

Singing with the mask. Is this possible?

Check out this Video with sound exsamples

Becco da Canto-A singing mask

In the music theater, I admit, the main question was, how and does it work at all? Based on the singers’ feedback, we recognized that you could not sing with a mask over your mouth. It gets wet, drained, and unsanitary. And then I discovered the plastic visors you could put on, and we decided to try them out. However, it quickly became apparent that this acted as an acoustic blockage. We tried to cut an opening and cover it with a safety fleece, fixed with double adhesive tape from the outside. This protected the singers from the outside and made it possible to speak and also to sing. Initially, we managed to use them during May and June. But it soon became clear to us that this does not present a permanent solution, and it took the whole summer to develop a so-called singing mask. For this, I ended up with a hat maker, a colleague I knew from before. Ultimately, in the summer, we actually succeeded in developing a singer’s mask made of 3-ply cotton that allows space in front of the mouth, is attached to the nose with silicone strips, and lies loosely around the jaw in a way singer can sing without any problem. After the summer, we gave the masks to our singers to try out, and it went well. I know that other larger theaters, where the choir as a larger entity still cannot rehearse, have ordered these masks to use for the employees safely.

What happened to the current season?

Naturally, we were concerned with the current season. Because holidays in Bavaria start late, the theater management has quite soon realized that the pandemic would not be over in autumn either. Thus, we decided to adopt the season’s program. For example, in drama theatre, it was possible to play with distance rules and masks. In the music theater, however, we had to make two adjustments. We decided to open with the last premiere, the “Orfeo” production, which was already planned a year and a half ago as a digital hybrid show with virtual reality. Thus, when the performance ban came, we were already in possession of 500 VR-glasses. They enabled the audience to experience performance for 90 minutes and travel with the Orfeo to the underworld. Thanks to VR- glasses, we were additionally able to deliver our other digital offers, a ballet evening or a show, like a home-delivery pizza for just € 9, which allowed us to continue the live dialogue with our audience.

Has the pandemic had an impact on the casting policy in music theater?

The pandemic has had little effect on the casting policy. I am convinced that if I have the singers in the ensemble, I plan the pieces for the voices I have at the house.

What is the current state?

Two premieres that we wanted to bring out in the summer, like “The Penal Colony”, and intended to be the opening premiere, were postponed to the next season, as they have big choirs and orchestra. We have moved a December premiere to the end of January and put the subscriptions on hold. This was a wise decision by the theatre management as it allowed us to be more flexible with the running performance schedule. But not only because of it. We were/are very much concerned with the safety of the audience and our employees’ safety. Hence, we got off to a very good start with the first premiere, have performed drama play, and at the end of October, unfortunately without an audience, the ballet “The winter journey.

Can you give us a forecast for the coming months?

You know, though the numbers of infections haven’t risen in the last 2-3 weeks, they also haven’t gone down either. First, we have to get under this 50s level to even think about reopening theaters. And this level has also to remain stable for a while. Now, over the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen how slowly that number is going down. To be honest, I’m not sure whether we’ll be playing at the beginning of February. The fact is, like many other theaters, we have rehearsed a lot, as to work was allowed. When the time will come, and we are allowed to reopen, we would have to decide whether it is still economically reasonable for us to bring out the production we have planned or just let the “Orfeo” seen only by a few, to perform. We have already planned a long-term strategy. We have to make an essential decision, whether we want to play in front of 50 people, or whether we will be closed again. I don’t think anyone can answer this question at the moment. In terms of the audience, I’m less worried. People will come back, as they will be very much hungry for live music and performance.

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