Robert Meyer – “I lack the interest of politics in art”

Robert Meyer bids farewell to the Volksoper at the end of the season, and with a record: No one else has been in charge of the house longer than the German actor, who before his 15 years as a ruler at the opera house was one of the Burgtheater’s audience favorites. On Saturday, Benjamin Britten’s “Death in Venice” will be the last opera premiere of the Meyer era. In an interview with the “Wiener Zeitung”, the 68-year-old takes stock.

“Vienna Newspaper”: Your last season ends on June 30th with a farewell concert for you. Will the evening review all the roles that you, the playful director, have embodied here? Then it will be quite a long event.

Robert Meyer: No, that would be a bit bland. As far as I know so far, the colleagues will present excerpts from the last 15 years – with musicals, operas, operettas, also ballet. It shouldn’t be tearful, but cheerful: going out with relish.

You already took on a role in your opening premiere “Orpheus in the Underworld” and this year you also took part in “La Cage aux Folles”. How many games was it in total?

I do not know exactly. But even before I started my tenure, I impersonated roles from musical theater, such as Doolittle from “My Fair Lady” and the frog from “Fledermaus”.

When you were appointed director in 2006, you still had little experience with music theatre. Did you have a queasy feeling at first?

“Uneasy” would be the wrong expression. It was just a huge step for me. Can I do that? I asked myself, and after much encouragement I finally pulled myself together. I thought to myself: If I’m not lucky, I’ll have failed after the first five-year term. If it works, it takes longer.

Did you start in 2007 with a certain goal?

It’s no secret that the Volksoper was not doing well at the time. The directors changed frequently and the mood was gloomy. I wanted to reunite the ensemble as a family so that I could do theater with relish. A repertoire house only develops its full strength when everyone pulls together. I think I succeeded.

Your predecessor, Rudolf Berger, was in office for only four years. He wished you “a bit more luck with politics” than he had. That has evidently come true; there are no quarrels between you and politics.

Rudolf Berger not only had conflicts with politics; he was rudely attacked in Vienna. The State Secretary at the time, Franz Morak, then nominated me as director. Morak and I knew each other from our time together as actors and ensemble spokesman at the Burgtheater. I think he expected me to bring a breath of fresh air into the house. But I didn’t have much to do with him after my appointment because he only served until 2007.

A declared goal of your tenure was a capacity utilization of at least 80 percent. That was mostly successful, but of course the corona pandemic torpedoed it. In the previous season, the value was only 67 percent.

Yes, the past season was mainly characterized by a long lockdown that lasted until May 19, 2021. It was a difficult time – also because the audience had to come with a mask afterwards, there was an obligation to test and we were only allowed to fill the hall halfway. To be honest, I didn’t pay that much attention to the occupancy figures at the time. I was just happy that we were allowed to play at all and that we were able to squeeze in four more premieres before the end of the season.

Has public interest normalized in the meantime?

We’re all still struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic – and by “we” I don’t just mean the Volksoper. Of course, there are also evenings here that are completely sold out, such as the current series of games from “La Cage aux Folles”.

Speaking of musicals. Would you agree with the statement that the Volksoper has increasingly focused on entertaining music theater under your direction?

We also played some works that aren’t exactly cheerful. But yes: Of course I’m a fan of entertainment theatre. I don’t go to a performance to be lectured. I was sometimes accused of playing too many, too many musicals over the past 15 years. But the musical is the younger sister of the operetta, and there are many plays – not least by Stephen Sondheim, who we have often included – that are of incredible quality.

How will the Volksoper fare financially when you hand over the house to your successor Lotte de Beer?

I can report to you from the last supervisory board meeting of the Bundestheater: the house is doing very well and has quite a few reserves.

In our previous interviews you have always been very reserved about the owner of your house, i.e. the federal government. To say goodbye, one more attempt: How do you assess domestic cultural policy?

To be honest, I have considered cultural policy in this country to be an underexposed topic for years. For 17 months we had a culture minister named Gernot Blümel. He was said to have been to the State Opera once – as its head of household. May I remind you that Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler is also Minister of Culture; I have never heard anything from him about this. As far as I know, Secretary of State for Culture Andrea Mayer has never been to the Volksoper in the past two and a half years.

However, Andrea Mayer has received a lot of praise for having secured the local art scene since taking office at the beginning of the Covid crisis.

Yes, but I think cultural policy cannot just mean distributing funds. I generally lack the interest of politics in art.

You applied in vain for another term at the Volksoper, it would have been your fourth. Did you get over the disappointment?

Yes, on the same day I found out about it, in the summer of 2020. I then had a relaxing vacation in the country.

I hear you’ll be keeping busy even after you’re gone as a director.

Yes, I am fully booked next season. I will play three roles in the repertoire performances of the Volksoper, I will also be a guest at the Theater in der Josefstadt from the next season and will be on stage in three different productions at the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz in Munich.

So life without stage performances remains unimaginable?

I’m an old theater horse. As long as I’m physically fit and can remember lyrics, I’ll be on stage.

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