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The discreet, urbane geek who lured Thielemann to Dresden

Sir Peter Jonas, ex-general director of English National Opera and the Bavarian State Opera, has written this special Slipped Disc tribute to his close colleague Ulrike Hessler, head of the Semper Oper, Dresden, who died yesterday.

 

Ulrike Hessler, in memoriam

Ulrike Hessler was one of the most prominent women leaders in opera as Intendant of the Sächsische Staatsoper, Dresden. Known by the name of its glorious theatre’s designer, the “Semper Oper” is one of the noblest institutions in Germany. German opera Intendants arise from disparate backgrounds: as stage directors, conductors, impresarios with dramaturgical backgrounds, stagehands or, simply, as accidental theatrical by-products. Ulrike Hessler, however, was an exception. While completing her doctorate on Bernard von Brentano in Munich she became obsessed by opera through countless evenings spent up in the “Gods” of Munich’s National Theatre so that she could, much later, boast to the rest of us that she really knew and understood what went on in the weird minds of opera fans and geeks.

After receiving her doctorate it was natural for Ulrike Hessler to join the press office of the Staatsoper in Munich and her career is as remarkable for its consistency as for its loyalty. She became Assistant to the Head of Press in 1984; in 1988 she was made Head of Press and Public Relations under Wolfgang Sawallisch as Intendant and, during my period as Intendant starting in 1993, she continued in that role but also became a valued member of the Directorate. In 1998 I appointed her to be, in addition, part of the team responsible for strategic development of programming for the whole institution. From my retirement in 2006 until my successor arrived full time in 2008, she took on the role of joint interim General Director and then left in 2010 after accepting the invitation to become Intendant in Dresden. In all Ulrike Hessler spent 28 years at two of the greatest European opera houses amassing a wealth of experience shared with a delicate touch and allied to her talent of being able, successfully, to treat all concerned, stars or stagehands, identically. She displayed a superb sense of diplomacy, tact and discretion allied to an authoritative presence aided by her imposing height and stature so that one could always spot her however crowded the foyer or stage might be.

Ulrike Hessler really loved opera and admired everyone who chose to work in the field but her broad cultural horizon fertilized her wider interest in the arts and questions of cultural provision. She was active in the voluntary sector and strongly committed to her work as a Governor of Tel Aviv University, an institution of which she was immensely proud. Her pro bono work led her to become interested in arts politics and, in 1997, with the Staatsoper’s blessing she announced her candidacy to become “Kulturreferent” of the City of Munich responsible for all the city’s cultural institutions for which the city rather than the state is responsible. Famously she did not succeed in this by just one vote but this foray into local politics was of enormous help to the efficacy of her role as the public face of the Staatsoper.

The choice of Ulrike Hessler as Intendant in Dresden in 2010, a surprise to some, was ideal casting and she quickly achieved a rise in profile for the company and her recruitment of Christian Thielemann as Music Director of the famed Staatskapelle was handled with lightening speed, discretion and skill. She assembled a team of the highest quality and was helped by the fact that her husband Michael Meurer is the scion of a Dresden family and served latterly as medical director of the dermatology department of the Dresden University Hospital.

 (Foto: (c) Holm Röhner/bild.de, all rights reserved)

Ulirke Hessler was urbane, humorous, multi-lingual and a gracious hostess. Above all she was never unkind about colleagues a quality admired by all. I, as a new (and English to boot) Intendant of Germany’s largest cultural institution, would never have survived my start in 1993 without her and while fiercely loyal to the institution she always managed to make the press and critics feel that she was their advocate and friend too. I used to joke with her that she had the rare quality of being not always faithful but always completely loyal. She really knew and understood the difference and was a loyal friend.

Ulrike Hessler died on 30th July 2012 after a 19 month long fight against cancer, 14 of those months in secret while still leading one of the great opera companies of the world. She was 57 years old.

 

 

Sir Peter Jonas

Zürich

31st July 2012

 

 

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  1. August 2, 2012, 2:00pm
    Builder of Operatic Bridges in Germany
    By Raphael Mostel

    Matthias CreutzigerUlrike 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 throat 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.

    Confronting Munich’s audiences with this calculated assault on, and inversion of, Nazi ideology was not a fluke or an isolated instance. Although the impetus for the production came from the English and half-Jewish Jonas, this same belief in the importance of substance and engagement — and above all, truth-telling — was at the core of Hessler’s being. She heartily approved of displaying a previously hidden plaque honoring Nazi donors, even though the names on it were of prominent Munich families that would likely be offended by the revelation.

    Hessler was also passionate about doing what she could to rectify German treatment of Jews, a history she knew well from her university dissertation 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’d told me in an interview for the Forward in 2009. Along with a fellow student in Munich, she organized local fundraising to help support Tel Aviv University, for which she was appointed to university’s board of governors in 1990. The post brought her to Israel annually until her illness intervened this year.

    Hessler was also instrumental in promoting the “Verstummte Stimmen”, (“SIlenced Voices”) exhibition, which historian Hannes Heer and colleagues have installed in several opera houses, and which details the effects of Nazis on each local population. She sponsored the exhibition both in Munich and in Dresden. (The current location of the exhibition is Bayreuth, where Wagner’s great-granddaughter is now proposing it be permanently installed.

    In Munich, Hessler was instrumental in helping the building of the new Jewish Center close to the opera house. When the center opened, she insisted the Bavarian State Opera’s high society opening ceremonies and reception be held in its new hall. She also had musicians from the opera perform in a new Jewish orchestra, that has become resident in the Center. When she received the appointment in Dresden, she told me, she felt that one of her most important tasks was to combat the ignorance of the past distressingly prevalent in the former East Germany, and to use her position to do whatever she could to fight against anti-semitism and neo-Nazism.

    In her short two years at the helm in Dresden’s Semper Opera Hessler managed to startle the entire music world by snagging, in a lightning-like coup, superstar conductor Christian Thielemann to be director of its Staatskapelle Dresden, the world-renowned orchestra of the Semper Opera. Thielemann’s tenure begins next month, and will be one of the most important of Hessler’s legacies, along with her arranging an annual residency of Thielemann and the Semper Opera at the Salzburg Easter Festival, replacing the Berlin Philharmonic’s 45-year tenure there.

    Another major legacy is the annual Dresden Peace Prize Hessler helped to establish together with the Friends of Dresden Deutschland. The prize is awarded around the February anniversary of the World War II firebombing to serve as a counterweight to annual neo-Nazi demonstrations. Mikhail Gorbachov received the first Dresden Peace Prize in 2010 and Daniel Barenboim was the recipient in 2011. This year’s prize was awarded to American war photographer James Nachtwey in a ceremony followed by a reception and exhibition in the newly-opened Military History Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind, which, sadly, Hessler was already too ill to attend.

    Although many of her achievements will continue to bear fruit, Hessler’s innovative efforts at bridge-building will be sorely missed.

    Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/160396/builder-of-operatic-bridges-in-germany/#ixzz22QzUzees

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