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Richard Ouzounian: When I heard you were appointed, one of the things that delighted me was that
you grew up in a European sensibility but yet you did most of your adult work in North
America. So I was feeling you could mix the two well, and I wanna start with your childhood.
Growing up in Germany, we hear stories about how incredibly subsidized the German arts
are and it's wonderful for everyone to go, is it? Were you like wallowing in arts as
Jorn Weisbrodt: I actually was and I'm really grateful to my parents for having given me
this opportunity. And I was growing up in Hamburg and they had this amazing pass that
you could buy, and basically if you were an owner of this pass and you had to be younger
than 18, you could go to any theatre opera, you could buy tickets for 10 Deutsch marks
which is about five Euros today. So yes, I did have that privilege. But I mean, subsidies
have gone down, things are not as glamorous anymore as they used to be, so there's a lot
of struggle with that and therefore, Germany's more struggling with the private funding model
or trying to sort of attract those kind of donations which is, they're having sort of
a little bit of a hard time with it, I think.
RO: 'Cause it's not a tradition of it, right?
RO: Yeah. Philanthropy has always been part of the North American gestalt but it doesn't
really exist in Europe. Rich people just go to the organizations.
RO: Can you recall perhaps the very first work of art you attended or saw that you kind
of went "This is something special to me"?
JW: I very much remember the first time I cried in a concert which actually took...
Or I cried in front of a visual artwork which actually took me quite some time because I
think, with the arts it takes you some time to learn the language, to actually really
give yourself over to the artwork, to open yourself up, and let your emotions speak to
yourself. I mean, that's why, very often, my mother who wasn't going to the theatre
so much, when we would go together, whatever she... She would ask me, like what should
I think of this or what did you think or was it good or bad? And I never really understood
this questions so much from her because I always thought like, "Well, what does your
feeling tell you? What did you feel? Did it mean something to you or did it not mean something
JW: I think very often, we have to break down our barriers that are given to us also with
our education and let go of all these things and open up and just be there in the moment,
and then experience something. And I remember the first time I cried in a concert was at
the Musicale in Hamburg and it was Tchaikovsky's second piano concert which is one of those
great beginner pieces, I guess, that really overwhelm you. And the first time in a museum
was in a show about Nazi Germany actually and the art, post Nazi Germany art, and it
was a Marc Chagall painting.
RO: Okay. It's interesting 'cause a lot of times we think of tears as a response to something
that touched us in a sentimental way or in a sad way. But it sounds like in this case,
was it just kind of turning on the tap inside you?
JW: Yeah. I think it's... You can't really describe why it happens, it just all of a
sudden overcomes you and it just shows I think really that you're touched in a very profound
and deep kind of way. And I think if you reach that experience in an audience, I think that's
when you've really succeeded in presenting art. And that's I think what we all hope for
to get to that very personal kind of moment, which doesn't have anything to do with being
sad or with being... But it's just an expression of your emotion and of your connection to
something that is greater than yourself.
RO: Okay. What were you like as a kid? You obviously weren't running around saying, "I
think I'm gonna plan a festival a year."
JW: No, actually as a kid, I always wanted to become a nuclear physicist or an astrophysicist,
that was what my big passion was, and I read all these books and was studying Math and
all that kind of stuff. And I always for me, I took my cultural education, I started learning
piano when I was about six or seven and I was in a boy's choir when I was between the
ages of eight and 14. And then I actually did start studying science and then I realized,
"Wait a minute. This is actually not really what I should be doing in my life." And then
it happened that my neighbour, and I had gotten very much into opera, and went almost like
three, four times a week and met all these people and singers and people who studied
opera directing and I thought, "That's actually an interesting idea."
JW: Because it combines so many different... As an opera director, I mean you know that,
as a theatre director, you have to combine so many different skills and you can bring
in all these elements and theatre's really a place for all the arts come together from
the visual arts and architecture and music, and acting and... So I thought, maybe this
is something that I could do and then, it turned out that my neighbour was actually
the head of the opera directing department at the music school in Berlin where I was
studying. So I knocked on the door and then said, "I would love to apply." And he said,
"Well it's good that you come now, because our deadline for the application is next week,
so you better get prepared." And I did, and then I studied, then I started in the fall.
RO: You said a sentence that you just glided by and I think probably, a lot of us gasped
at evidently which is "Well I go to the opera three or four times a week." And unless you're
talking San Francisco, Chicago or New York, there are no places in North America where
you can go to the opera three or four times a week. I mean we have very good opera companies,
but they don't perform that often. Were you dealing with companies that had like 15, 20
operas en route?
JW: No, it's still the repertoire system in Germany, which still exists in most of the
Houses, and they have actually about 40 operas and repertoires per year. So every night,
you can go and you can see something else. You don't have to fly in-between.
RO: The kind of work you were seeing when you were young, was it at all ever conventional
or was it very much in the thrall of we are re-interpreting everything?
JW: No, not necessarily. It was really a wide mixture of different styles and if you go
that often, you can only pick the more experimental, or the more progressive kind of pieces.
RO: Operas that made an impression on you, that made you think you wanted to stage leap?
JW: It suddenly resulted in it. I know it's a pretty bland answer, but I saw that production
actually in Hamburg about 15 or 16 times, and I always bought the cheapest tickets,
sort of in the 4th or 5th balcony and then with each intermission, we moved further forward
because a lot of people actually left because it's such a long opera. Then usually by the
last act, we were sitting in the first row by the orchestra.
JW: I actually want to was a very... I felt kind of terrible. It was a concert of, I think
it was [inaudible] or Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, the great pianist. And I also again, bought
the cheapest ticket. The ushers in Germany, there's no union, so they are not trained
as much as they are in the US. Maybe here, I think it's a little bit better here too,
but if you go... If you try to sit in a different seat in the United States at the Met or whatever,
you basically end up in jail 'cause they really check your ticket. In Germany, nobody really
cared and if you just sort of look like you belong where you are... And I sat down in
the seat that was empty in the first-half and it was a much better seat, and this woman
came up to me after the performance and said, "You were sitting in my seat, you ruined my
concert experience." I felt very terrible.
RO: For about five minutes.
JW: Yeah, I am. This is why... This is your good deed.
RO: So how old were you when you started studying directing?
JW: I was about 20 years old.
JW: In Germany, you have to do... We have 13 years of primary school and high school.
So we have a year longer, I guess, than most countries. And then afterwards, you have to
do... There's a draft in Germany, so you either go to the military or you do social service.
And I sort of... And then you have to explain why you don't wanna go to the military, and
I did social service. So it takes two years out of your life, which is a beautiful thing
though, because I really enjoyed that time as a time to give back to society and to actually
work with... I worked in an operating theatre in actually the hospital where I was born.
And one of the doctors, one of the gynaecologists, he came to me, he said, "I was actually the
doctor that gave birth to you." So that was kind of a nice thing, from a different perspective,
it was quite an enriching experience.
RO: Also do you think it's great that... A lot of times we rush people, especially now
that we've lost Grade 13 in Ontario, kids at 17 and 18 are going into first-year university
or first-year, if they're artists, into theatre school or music school.
RO: And being forced to make decisions, they really aren't mature, old enough to make yet.
JW: Yeah, you're actually right. You meet so many people that go to college and you
ask them like, "What do you wanna do?" And they said, "Well I don't really have a clue."
And I think it's good to get out of that education system for some time and find what you really
wanna do, and then sort of do it full force, absolutely.
RO: Now, I'm curious, how do they teach you to direct opera? I know how they do it with
theatre, but it's not always the same.
JW: Well, they obviously didn't because I didn't become an opera director.
JW: I don't know. Actually, my biggest education part was that I actually was not at the school.
When I really wanted to work with some of the greatest directors of our times, so I
applied for internships with different directors. So my earliest experience was this female
director from East Germany, her name was Ruth Berghaus. You don't know her...
RO: I've heard her name, yeah.
JW: Oh you do? Wow, okay. She was really amazing. She was a dancer, she was a student of this
German expressionist dance tradition and Mary Wigman and Gret Palucca and then she was actually
a disciple of Bertolt Brecht at the Berlin Ensemble and then was the director of the
Berlin Ensemble, and then she sort of went into opera. And she did some amazing productions,
so she was sort of my first contact with someone really wonderful and great and substantial,
and then I did an internship with Peter Stein, who's a famous German director as well, who
is pretty much not interested in me or younger people, or whatever comes after him. He's
still very much interested in himself. And then I met Robert Wilson...
RO: That's it. You kind of just, you took the ball, it was funny when I was going through
your CV, what's fascinating is that very, very early on in your career you worked with
Robert Wilson, and the capacity we'll talk about in a second, and then it comes back.
JW: Yeah. Yeah.
RO: If you think there's that great line in The Zoo Story, Edward Albee says, "Sometimes
you have to go a very long distance out of your way in order to come back a short distance
RO: And this sounds like that's may what have happened to you...
12:27 S2: Yeah. No, absolutely.
JW: And I think it's really important for young people to have that encounter with someone
that they really admire and that I think very often... And especially so in the school where
I was at, you had this very sort of mediocre level of professors, they sort of wouldn't
make it themselves in the real world or in the art world, in the theatre opera world,
and that's why they teach at school. And there was not that idea yet that is more ingrained
in these schools today that you actually bring in people from the outside. And to me it's
sort of to start that, to ignite that fire in an artist, in whoever it is, you need that
sort of encounter with an outstanding artist that really opens up your horizon and I was
very lucky that I had... And I was bored in that school and sort of decided I wanna just
try to get away from it as much as I can and actually work with these kind of people.
RO: With Wilson, had you seen any of his work or had you just read about it?
JW: Well, I grew up in Hamburg and he you did this production there called "The Black
Rider" which was widely successful, it's sort of this musical that's based on a German romantic
story that he... William Burroughs wrote the text and Tom Waits wrote the music and he
directed it and it was a huge success and was always sold out and I couldn't get tickets.
Even I couldn't get tickets with my wonderful "student come to see the theatre" pass. So,
I didn't see that and... And then I did see the a production of "Alice" that he did also
with Tom Waits, and I didn't really like it and I went out... I left in the intermission
and I did see "Parsifal" which he directed at the Opera House in Hamburg and I remember
I fell asleep, and that was sort of basically the grounds on which I met him. I never told
JW: Until much, much, much later. And actually I've since seen "Parsifal" and think it's
an amazing production but I wrote him a letter and said, "You know, I'd love to work with
you." And I met him in Berlin and I don't think he was very impressed at all. And so,
they forgot about me immediately and then I was working for Peter Stein which was not
the greatest experience of my life. But the choreographer who was working on that production
was actually also working with Wilson and he said, "Well, why don't you come back for
Pelléas et Mélisande which we're going to do in the summer and you can learn and intern
and stuff like that." So, I did.
JW: And then Wilson is someone who also has... Who has an incredibly busy life, he juggles
like 10 different projects at the same time. And so, has a lot of administrative work to
do as well and goes back to his office after the work and then write faxes, that was still
the time faxes were written. And I'm pretty sure that he must be in Guinness Book of Records
for having written the most faxes in his life because he really endlessly wrote faxes and
handed me a stack of faxes basically all the time, about 100 faxes to be sent to different
people. And I went and after 15 minutes or whatever I came back and he was always very
impressed. And I think I could just type the numbers in very fast because I could play
the piano very well.
JW: So, basically I think that really impressed him and then he...
JW: Invited me to come to the Watermill Centre, which is this interdisciplinary art centre
that he founded where he every year has a large international workshop program where
he starts his new productions and works with his collaborators and young emerging artists
from around the world to develop his work. And since then, I've been in touch with him.
RO: Again, I had the pleasure to just meeting him in Ann Arbor a couple of months ago, I
went to see the "Einstein on the Beach" that is gonna be here this summer and I recommend
it very highly too. I got to see literally the first public performance of it. And to
spend a day running around the building with Philip Glass and Robert Wilson was pretty
amazing. But as I was saying to Jorn, he wasn't what I expected, I thought he was gonna be
a little nutty professor-ish.
RO: 'Cause you heard about this man who does these nine hour productions where people barely
move and they are based on mathematics and stuff. And then someone came in who I thought
could have been a cleric. He was very neat, the hair trimmed back, he was all in black.
JW: Yeah, I know he was... He'd write little notes on my... I don't... I mean I do trim
my beard, I don't shave obviously. He would write like little post-its on my... And stick
them on my desk. I was also his personal assistant then for a year and travelling around with
him all over the place and he was always about getting dressed neatly and Brooks Brothers
is sort of heaven for him. And I'm not a Brooks Brothers kind of person and he always wanted
to give me vouchers so I can buy some new shoes and shirts and stuff like that.
JW: And I was like, "No. I don't want that." And he would write little notes and say, "Jorn,
you really have to shave." But I did resist to an extent. Sometimes I did comb my hair
more often when he was around. But he grew up in Waco, Texas where there's basically
no art around and his father was sort of like the town supervisor. He was a very, very strict
person. Both of his parents were emotionally quite cold and he actually never, apparently
he never touched his mother even when she died, she would not hug him or anything like
that or touch him. And his father was... They didn't want him to become an artist at all.
His father thought it was not only sick but abnormal to do art.
JW: And then Wilson went to New York and became an artist. He'd never studied theatre but
he studied architecture at Pratt and started developing his really... Strongly re-defining
work. And "Einstein on the Beach" was the production that his father came to see at
the Metropolitan Opera and apparently he was quite proud of him and he said, "You know
son, you must be making a lot of money." A lot of people were there and it was this huge
success and whatever and he said, "You know sir, actually not. I'm actually quite in debt
after this because it's a very long piece and the Metropolitan Opera has strict unions."
JW: They didn't actually invite the production but they let him rent the theatre. So, on
a Sunday evening the production is about five hours long and went into overtime and he had
to pay triple wages to the stage hands or whatever, so he was about 300, $400,000 in
debt. And that was actually the first moment that his father was really proud of him because
he said to him, "Son, I didn't think you had the brains to be that much in debt."
RO: An odd kind of paternal pride.
JW: Yes, yes.
RO: When you left Wilson in those early years, would he have wanted you to keep staying on
or did you decide to go or what happened?
JW: Well, I came to the Watermill Centre for the first time and then after that summer,
after six weeks of working with him and he had asked me to become his personal assistant.
So, he has an office in New York where his manager and agent sits and where he has the
archives and other functions, and then he always has a personal assistant that basically
organizes his entire life and travels with him around the world, wherever he is, and
that person is, it's sort of a little bit like modern slavery but with a great potential
outcome at the end.
JW: And so, the usual term for these people was a year because you really... I don't know
how he does it because he's been doing it for 30, 40 years but basically at the end
of the year you're really a flat tire. And so he understands that. I think he understands
when people have to go on. And he gets very attached, he's really like a father and I
think he is sort of like a father figure to me or has become over the years. But he does
understand that at some point there is the time when you have to grow up and I guess
me sitting here at this job is my growing up, too.
RO: So, at this point in your life, you've had the experience of working with Wilson,
you've had your music training, you've done a bit of opera training. Did you stop and
say, "What do I wanna be when I grow up?"
JW: No. I did know that I want to be in the arts and I want to be in the theatre and I
finished my studies and I directed an opera as my final thesis.
RO: Which opera?
JW: I did also Pelléas et Mélisande which had been my favourite opera and still is one
of my favourite operas. And he was actually one of my... He was on the jury. So, he came
in and everyone else, all my other mediocre professors that had left all the time had
been incredibly impressed but he was there and gave me my final mark for my school. And
then I did feel already, when I was working with him, I already felt that I did want to
become more of an arts administrator and be on the other side. I probably could have been
a very good mediocre director working in medium sized towns or whatever and going from Essen
to Recklinghausen and to all these cities in Germany that have opera houses but I wasn't
really satisfied with that.
JW: And working with him on this international scale and working at the Salzberg Festival,
the Guggenheim Museum, the Bolshoi in Moscow really started my hunger for working with
the great artists but actually enabling them to work. So, more being an enabler and being
in the second row. And then I thought I really needed... I did enjoy my education very much
and I learned a lot there but I felt I needed to get a little bit also more of the business
sense and really a hard core training. And then I actually went to McKinsey and Company
which is a business consultancy, sort of like Boston Consulting or whatever and worked with
them for some time.
RO: What was that like?
JW: It was getting up early every morning, getting definitely... I'd do my Brooks Brothers
but sort of Brooks Brothers.
RO: Shaved everyday?
JW: Yes, I did actually, I did. And it was kind of great actually because there were
much more creative people there than I thought there would be and they really appreciated
me. And they're relentless. I was just starting and it was this huge project for a business
case building for financial centres for Allianz, which is a huge German and I think even international
insurance company. And they just sent me alone to Frankfurt for a meeting with the client
to show them... Go through these slides for this part of the project. And I was like,
"Are you sure?" And they said, "Yeah, of course." So, that was great and then I got a call from
the state opera house in Berlin and it was actually... I was actually referred to the
artistic director by a friend of mine who knew me through Wilson who was also an assistant
of Wilson's and he'd worked for Gerard Mortiere that time in Salzburg, and they offered me
the job of the artistic production director there which I then, sort of, immediately took.
RO: What were your responsibilities in that line?
JW: I was in charge... I was working with the artistic director on the overall programming.
A lot of administrative things obviously and we also... I was in-charge of overseeing the
fund raising department, which was little, still, because it's Germany. And we also had
a second... We opened up a secondary performance space, which was this huge industrial warehouse
that we had right next to the opera where I did a lot of programming or where I did
the programming and brought in a lot of different artists from different fields, and visual
artists and let them use all the different departments, the workshops, the orchestra,
the singers, the soloists of the opera house and create large scale performances.
RO: So, that kind of performance art piece happening in the shadow of [inaudible].
JW: Yeah, yeah. One project was very, very charming. We did this production of "Parsifal"
and Daniel Barenboim, who's one of the great Wagner conductors of our times, did a new
production with this film director, this German film director. He is more of a film producer.
He's sort of, the German Harvey Weinstein. He produced "The Perfume" and "The Name of
The Rose", and he was an incredibly nice guy. He passed away, unfortunately, a few years
ago. And I just didn't think he was the right director for that piece and I had left for
Mexico for a week. And before we left, I had the artistic director give me the promise
that he is not going to hire him for "Parsifal". He said, "Okay, I promise you I'm not going
to do this." I come back from Mexico, who is the director for "Parsifal"? That guy.
JW: So I thought we had to do something special to give that a counterbalance. So we did a
sound recording. So we did a live broadcast of "Parsifal" into this other performance
space and had this performance artist, this German performance artist do a five hour "Parsifal"
performance, performing all the characters and creating this huge environment. It was
all filmed and projected and everything. It was really beautiful. And for the opening
night, Wolfgang Wagner, who's Wagner's great great grandson, and his wife -- both of them
are also dead now -- were with Barenboim and his... And Wolfgang Wagner's niece, Nike,
who's, sort of, the progressive one, she was in my performance. And she gave an interview
afterwards to the newspaper and said, "This is how you have to do Wagner and everything,"
so it was kinda nice.
RO: As you're describing this, it sounds like a wonderful idea that you were getting the
audio quality of the great vocalist but re-interpret visually...
JW: I sort of like the idea of recycling part of an artwork and then actually remolding
it and using it in a different kind of context. It's actually something that... I had a really
wonderful lunch with Johannes Debus, the music director of the Canadian Opera Company, the
other day, and we talked about maybe doing something with that kind of idea as well.
You know, it saves a lot of money. You don't have to get another orchestra to play that
whole damn score again.
RO: Or you could have two distinctive audiences at the same time.
JW: Yeah, yeah, oh, yeah.