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Mixing Opera and Zionism Hessler Installed Where Neo-Nazis Roam

‘When Saxony’s minister of arts presented me to the press in Dresden and the first question was, ‘How do you feel as a woman?’ I was so tempted to say, ‘After 50 years, I’m used to being a woman!’” Ulrike Hessler said, laughing as she recounted the public announcement that she had been chosen intendant of the Dresden Opera. She was the first woman to head that venerable institution, whose illustrious history recedes into the legendary past of the very origins of opera in the 17th century.

Though she herself is not Jewish, Hessler has long been a major supporter of Israel and of numerous efforts to resuscitate Jewish life and culture in Germany, and to honor the glorious historical cultural contributions to Germany by Jews in the past. So it is no small thing to have her powerfully pro-Semitic voice thrust into such prominence in Dresden, the capital of the state of Saxony, which currently suffers the highest incidence of neo-Nazi violence in Germany.

The Dresden Opera was founded by major Baroque composer Heinrich Schütz, who was the star pupil of Claudio Monteverdi, composer of the first successful opera in history at the dawn of the Baroque era. Dresden’s opera chorus was established by composer Carl Maria von Weber, one of the trailblazers of Romantic opera, at the dawn of the 19th century. Richard Wagner premiered three of his operas at the Dresden; Richard Strauss, nine of his. The opera’s orchestra, the Dresden Staatskapelle was selected as one of the top 10 orchestras in the world in its own right in a recent poll by Gramophone magazine.

Known formally as the Saxon State Opera (giving its proper political status as the principal, formerly royal, cultural center of Saxony), it is more commonly called the Semper Opera, after Gottfried Semper, the renowned architect of the beloved building who built it in 1841 and again in 1869 after the original had burned down. Firebombed with the rest of the city at the end of World War II, in 1985 it was lovingly re-created yet again, largely on the original design.

Hessler attained this highly prestigious position — for centuries dominated by men — by slowly working her way up from the bottom. Speaking in her current position as director of communications and marketing at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera, Hessler recalled how she started:

“When I was a student, I was asked to do a talk show, a magazine about the opera. And so I got to know Wolfgang Sawallisch. We do not have such figures anymore. He was truly resident here throughout the season, not jetting abroad to conduct elsewhere. No one does such things anymore. He oversaw not just the performances he conducted, but focused on everything that went on in the house, being both music director as well as intendant. One day, he asked me if I’d like to work as an assistant in the press office — because they had an opening. He said, ‘You can have the job, but on one condition: You have to start tomorrow!’ So I started ‘tomorrow’ at 9, and I’m still here, 25 years later!”

Sawallisch had gotten to know Hessler when she was a student at the university in Munich, because she had developed an extreme passion for opera. “With a whole group of other students, we were traveling together all over Europe to opera houses — wherever we could get cheap standing room. And we always attended the Munich Opera Festival here. I had never planned to work for the opera. It just happened,” she mused.

Another thing that “just happened” to Hessler was her passion to do what she could to rectify German history toward the Jews. She knows the history well. Her university dissertation was on the “Literature of Exile” — on the writers who had to flee in the Nazi period. “I am a Protestant, and in Catholic Bavaria, I know what it is to be in the minority,” she explained. With a fellow student in Munich who happened to be Jewish, she began to organize the raising of local funds to help support Tel Aviv University. In recognition of her efforts, she was appointed to the board of governors of Tel Aviv University in 1990, a post that has brought her to Israel annually ever since.

Beyond just raising funds, she has been a force in organizing various activities and exhibitions that bring past, current and future German-Jewish relations into frank public discussion. “It should all be exposed, as it was, honestly. That is the best way of dealing with history. Just like in Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute,’ the only answer is, ‘Truth. Speak truthfully.’” Hessler was one of the people who helped support the creation of Munich’s new Jewish Center, not far from Munich’s opera house.

Using her position, contacts and marketing skills, she threw herself wholeheartedly into the contentious politics behind the vision of Charlotte Knobloch, who at the time was one of the leaders of Munich’s Jewish community and is now president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews and vice president of the European and World Jewish congresses. Knobloch insisted that Munich needed to replace the magnificent synagogue Hitler personally ordered torn down in June 1938, and whose destruction led to Kristallnacht.

Knobloch’s vision was that Jews in Germany should not be hidden, but open and honored in the community. All three buildings of Munich’s new Jewish Center open onto a large, public square — Jakobsplatz. Hessler has helped in every way, including operatic presentations in collaboration with the Jewish Center’s new resident Jakobsplatz Orchestra.

Hessler is clear about the enormous challenge she faces in Dresden in trying to change the far-right’s mindset. Saxony was part of East Germany until reunification in 1990.

Here in Munich, we’ve been taught, and everyone knows what really happened in the Nazi period. There, however, they were so many years under the Communist system.… It’s unbelievable how little they know about what happened. They were not educated at school, and there was no open discussion about the Nazis and the Holocaust, so they weren’t totally informed, as my generation in the West was.

Long before her arrival, however, Dresden had already undertaken some efforts at reconciliation with its past, most prominently the building of a modern synagogue on the same site as the one destroyed on Kristallnacht. The destroyed synagogue was another architectural masterpiece from 1840, built, like the opera house, by Semper.

Hessler plans to pursue in Dresden some of the same successful initiatives she had pushed in Munich: She is already planning for the opera house to mount “Verstummte Stimmen” (which means “silenced voices”), an exhibition about prominent (mostly Jewish) exiled or silenced opera artists, with biographies and performances of these artists’ works. She is also exploring analogous programming, similar to the “Recovered Voices” programs organized here by an American (also non-Jewish) conductor who is currently music director of the Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon.

In a surprise development, the Dresden Staatskapelle will need to select a new conductor just as Hessler takes over in the 2010–2011 season. Speculation suggests Conlon as a distinct possibility, but the usually direct, no-hedging Hessler talks instead about a democratic process: “The orchestra has its own, long history and methods of deciding. Who is to be director is subject to the collective wishes of the musicians. So we will have many consultations.”

Raphael Mostel is a composer based in New York City who writes often on the arts. He teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He will be moderating a symposium on “Noise! Design, Health and the Urban Soundscape” at Columbia University, on September 21.

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