Corona and the Theatre. I-Witness report. There is the light at the end of cultural corona tunnel!

Oxana Arkaeva talks with Tatjana a.o. on the live interview on ArkNet YouTube about German Regietheater, the future of the profession of the stage director, the impact of the corona on the theatres, and the prognosis of soon reopening of the theatres in Germany that came true.

  • The interview was done in German. English translation retains the authentic language of Ms. Gürbaca and may therefore have certain deviations from correct English grammar.

The daughter of a Turkish father and an Italian mother, Gürbaca studied directing at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin and attended master classes with the legendary Ruth Berghaus and Peter Konwitschny.In 2000 she successfully participated in the international directing competition “Ring Award” in Graz and then staged “Turandot” at the Graz Opera, which became her breakthrough. Currently, Tatjana works at major opera houses in the entire German-speaking European area. From 2011 to 2014 she was the opera director at the Mainz State Theater.

Welcome, dear Tatjana! Wonderful to have you here with us today. 

  1. Would you introduce yourself to our audience? How did you get into the theatre? What led you to directing?

I grew up in a household, where a lot of music had always been played. And both of my parents had great passions for the theater. My father preferred Bertolt Brecht and drama theater. My mother is an opera addict, and she always took me to the opera. From an as early age as three years old.  I also had a kindergarten friend Hinrich Horstkottewho funny enough also became a director. Already then, we acted out an opera, practiced ballet and curtain calls. As a child, I was passionately and seriously involved with Ballet training by Tatjana Ksovsky and was up to become a dancer. But in my teens came a big crisis, where it became clear that I was too tall and that my body will not coop. But the passion for music and theatre remained. After school, I began to study the history of arts, as well as literature and theater science at the Free University in Berlin. But I quickly realized that I was missing a true, real thing. That it’s not what I want yet. And then I learned about a stage directing course, relatively unknown at that time. It was offered only at three locations in Munich, Berlin, and Hamburg, with two students p.a. at maximum admitted. I applied to the university in Berlin because I found this location the most interesting because in terms of its orientation it was positioned between Felsenstein and Brecht, which I found exciting. It worked right away for me, and I started to study. After my graduation, I was very fortunate to get a job as an assistant at the Theatre in Graz (Opera Graz – Author) (Austria) led by former Intendant Gerhard Brunner. For one thing, Graz always had really great directors from whom I could learn a lot. That was like an extension of my studies. On the other hand, Gerhard Brunner was great at promoting young people. There was Ring Award, Richard Wagner competition, in which I also took part and came in second. But the important thing was that Gerhard Brunner has given me the chance to have my first own production at the house. And not just something on a small studio stage, but “Turandot” with all the frills: choir, extra choir and children’s choir, extras, ballet, and soloists. That went well and I quickly ventured into freelance work. It worked out well. Sometimes I think like a miracle. 

  • Where did the pandemic, the lockdown hit you? What was the first immediate challenge you have encountered?

The pandemic hit me while I was in London working at ENO with my team of Klaus Grünberg and Barbara Drosihn, working on a “Rusalka”. And crazy the way it is, it was one of the nicest rehearsal times we’ve ever had with these wonderful English singers. With Corinne Winters who sang Rusalka. And it was so much fun to work there. I could have hugged every single member of the cast and the crew. It did hurt a lot when two weeks before the premiere during the first day on stage to be hit by the complete lockdown. And then it was very strange from one day to the next not only to suddenly remain without work but also to be back in Berlin from London. At that time, we still thought that everything would take 3 or 4 weeks and that it would be possible to show “Rusalka” with our Co-production partner in Luxemburg. No one could ever have imagined at that time that it will take longer than a year. This, I believe was the greatest challenge: To be pulled out of the fulfilled life and work, this happy situation and work with such great colleagues on such a great piece and be placed in “nothing” not knowing when and how you will be able to work again? 

  • What is your personal experience with pandemic and lockdown? As a private person, as an artist and director?

I think I was very lucky, to the extent that we all were paid out from London, and the co-production partner Luxembourg even paid a third. So that the financial situation was settled for time being. Which is not the case with many colleagues. But still, on the one hand, it is like a nightmare. As if the future was suddenly gone. On the other hand, I have to say, that in the last few years I have been working a lot. And this break, though involuntary at first, surely did me good afterward. Suddenly I was able to take care of things that for years were left aside.  The first thing I did was to dig out my Chopin studies and practice them a little every day, like Yoga on the piano. Like a small meditation.

I began making short films about Victor the Vampire, which are shown on the website of the Deutsche Bühne. I also do all other sorts of things. I write a lot and began to draw and paint. My directing work continues as well. I am busy with a whole bunch of opera scores. I am listening every day to all kinds of operas and do work uninterruptedly. Much of what I am preparing has been canceled, but one doesn´t want to give up the hope that one day one or the other productions will take place. I also have the feeling that the end of the ice period is insight. Some houses are planning building-rehearsals again. Thus, suddenly all the work comes back to you all at once. 

  • In your opinion, how did the pandemic affect the theater system in Germany?

Well, I believe the damage cannot be foreseen yet. The theater as an institution was hit very hard and of curse freelancers. I believe that the real confrontation, the real fight will begin after the pandemic. As the financial situation for the theaters has become very difficult, that I will not be surprised when many mostly smaller theaters will find themselves on the brink of existence. I think we will have to combine all our forces, to fight for their survival. Already now I am experiencing the long-term cancellation of some productions because an XY-house suddenly cannot afford a sound system or anything at all. And some big theatres are among those.

  • Do you think that pandemic might also present a positive experience for the artists?

Well, right now it is difficult to talk about positive effects, as for me not the positive, but rather negative aspects prevail. Rather the damage, that will cut through the theater landscape like the aisles. But on the one hand, if we want to talk about something positive, one could talk about Pandemic as force that has driven us forward the digitization of the theater. That we are/were forced to reflect about new forms of performing. Personally, I can say that my desire and my passion for theater have grown even more. I hope that one of the consequences will be to see culturally starved people storm up the theatres after Corona will be over. And maybe there is another positive consequence of the pandemic, as I have the feeling that the theater professionals are moving closer together. Since in terms of losing and gaining we all have something in common.

  • How would you, in your own words, describe your style of directing?

I think it’s always the hardest thing to describe yourself. I can only say that in the course of preparation for me, the music almost has priority over the text. I think the art of directing moves between the meaning of the words (libretto) and what the text, and music say. This difference, the friction that takes place there, is the basis for directing. But also, the actual work with my teams, stage, and costume designers is incredibly important. Above all with stage designer Klaus Grünberg, with whom I have been working for many years. But also, Henrik Ahr, Silke Villeret, Barbara Drosihn, Stefan Heine. I find that the theater is about teamwork. Also for me it is quite clear that not the pretty pictures are at the forefront of a performance, but the singers with their voices and performing power. I’m interested in the stories, the relationships that take place between people. That is why establishing the characters is so important to me.

  • Could you say a little more about this? About your role in this process? 

For me, the stories that we tell in the theater and opera are not completely settled. There is still something “wrong” with these stories, which is still relevant, which is still burns and that’s why we tell them. I think the director’s job is to build the bridge and to convey to the audience how close these characters to us really are? What do they have to do with us? And that does not mean a flat transfer into today but getting to the core of a piece. To remove the shell in order to get to the core. That’s why I find the Corona time twice as difficult. I think that with all the streams we can’t replace the theater at all since I believe that there is a social force in the live experience. And I firmly believe that theater enables the audience to watch people on stage, who are free and are allowed to do anything. As the art has an anarchic force, it ultimately frees us as viewers a little bit too.

  • How would you define or describe Regietheater to someone who is not yet familiar with it? What is the glaring difference between Regietheater and the traditional way of staging an opera?

This is a very good and a very complex question. First, it must be said that the term Regietheater is a tautology. Every piece that is implemented or shown on stage includes directing. No matter how I do it, traditionally or not. The moment I transform something that is written on a page from the piano score, it is already an interpretation. I believe it is the mistake to think that the traditional performances tell us the truth about a piece. I believe they just reflect a certain performance tradition. Something we’re used to seeing. But if you look at them in detail, they actually tell something different than what has been shown to us or what we used to see on stage for many years. Other times bring out other types of narrative. Perhaps it is less about a content and more about an aesthetics. Many directors are given this label – modern Regietheater. But the truth is that the director’s languages are so incredibly different that I sometimes ask myself how can you put them all in one drawer? I think any director should make sure that the performances are well produced and thought through. 

  • What impact will the pandemic have on the profession of opera stage director?

I’m afraid that the most direct impact is that young artists who are just starting with their careers would not be able to get into the market that easily. And this is a huge disadvantage of Corona because we all need “fresh blood”, fresh ideas, thoughts, and new forms. It is a shame, as this is a great generation that is coming up. Well educated, experienced, curious. Who have a great passionate approach and willingness to give everything for the cause. It is very difficult if you are not in a leading position yourself. I would wish for the theaters, intendants and opera directors to put a special focus on it. That everything possible can be done to pave the way for this young generation. We also should start to be aware again of what a great, rich theater landscape there is in Germany. Not only for the audience or for us who want jobs but also in terms of training of the younger generations. 

  • Could you, if you like, venture some kind of prognosis?

Well, as I said, I believe that difficult times are still ahead. I can only hope that the pandemic taught us all to look out for one another and show solidarity. And that we theater professionals realize that we can only survive when we hold together. I think solidarity is the keyword.  The theater has a mission and presents a political force and can move societies. It is a place where social discourse has to take place. That is why we shouldn’t save each other by talking hotly about saving it. I am very grateful that there is something like the German Stage Association, that repeatedly initiates and promotes critical discussions. I believe that we, as artists, should all be committed to this cause as well. And finally, what I might want to say to the artists is: don’t despair! Despite the pandemic continue to give your all power and joy and be as creative as possible to keep up the theater going on. The theater will survive, more than Corona. And I’m looking forward to the times when we can all be together again on our big playground and dream about better worlds. And that soon we all will be able to meet in person, live. The theater is live and lives from being live. No digitalization in the world is capable to replace this power.

Dear Tatjana, thank you very much. 

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