Ulrike Hessler, the first woman to be appointed intendant of the historic, four-century old Saxon State Opera in Dresden, popularly known as the Semper Opera, died July 30 in Munich, after a 19-month battle with cancer. She was 57.
I first met Hessler eight years ago, when she was the director of the press office of the Bavarian State Opera for its then-intendant, Peter Jonas, and about to become intendant there herself. She worked her way up after being hired in 1984 by General Director Wolfgang Sawallisch as a press assistant. An extremely tall, friendly woman with an irrepressible sense of excitement and good humor, Hessler was thrilled by everything about opera, and loved sharing her enthusiasms.
On that first visit to Munich’s historic National Theater, I was stunned to see what they were doing with Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” (the opera which, incidentally, inspired Theodor Herzl’s Zionism). It was a nightmarishly confrontational production by David Alden, the last act of which was set in the ruins of a concentration camp instead of in the valley of Wartburg as Wagner originally intended. In the very theater where Wagner himself had introduced so many of his operas, and the city which was the “cradle” of the Nazi movement, here was a production which deliberately and successfully reversed the way in which the Nazi machine propagandized with Wagner’s work.