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.
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
31st July 2012