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German Theater Fighting for Survival

The ailing German economy has begun to choke the country's numerous heavily-subsidized theaters. As many struggle to stay afloat, Federal President Rau has assigned a commission to probe the need for reforms.


It's not just death on the stage that's threatening German theater

Germany is the envy of several countries when it comes to promoting art and culture. Whether its theater, opera or classical orchestras, no country in the world spends more public money subsidizing the arts than Germany.

Each year more than 20 million visitors flock to the over 150 public theaters and opera houses in Germany. If you include classical music concerts, the numbers rise to an impressive 35 million visitors in some 120,000 theater performances and concerts annually.

But the diversity comes at a high price, with public coffers shelling out € 2 billion ($2.1 billion) yearly to keep culture going. That makes for 0.2 percent of the total yearly costs of the federal government, the states and local authorities.

Sorry story behind the sheen

In keeping with its glowing arts reputation and thriving cultural scene, Germany still attracts foreign artistic talent from all over the world.

Most big American opera singers started their careers on German stages and ballet dancers from Australia and England regularly perform with German ensembles.

But beneath the gloss of German high-brow culture, a bleak picture presents itself. With the German economy in the doldrums and a wave of devastating economic news making the rounds, German theaters are beginning to feel the pinch too.

Many theaters face precarious financial outlooks this winter.

Recent months have seen heated debates in Berlin over the possibility of being forced to close down one of the German capital’s three opera houses. It’s a lament that’s familiar in many German cities with authorities grappling with leaner budgets and torn over which cultural institutions to axe.

President Rau set up commission

Against this background German Federal President Johannes Rau set up a commission in 2001 under the motto "future of opera and theatre in Germany" to probe the need for reforming the way German cultural institutions are subsidized.

The commission has now published its findings. The need for change permeates the commission’s recommendations - from altering the status and budgets of cultural promotion to a devising a timely agreement with theaters and a legal framework for the functioning of the stages.

Theater world disappointed with recommendations

The commission’s conclusions, however, have been met with disappointment and criticism from the theater world.

"I expected much more," Jürgen Schlitthelm, head of the ground-breaking Berlin theater Schaubühne, told DW-WORLD. "With us, it’s the same as everywhere else: an increasing number of round table conferences. The talk is always of consensus. But once again concrete measures were not suggested."

Theaters inflexible on wage contracts

Schlitthelm says that it’s absurd that theaters are not allowed to have their own budgets and that German theaters are only responsible for artistic wage contracts, not for contracts for non-artistic personnel.

The states negotiate the wage contracts of personnel such as stage workers and other help who work at public theaters. Schlitthelm says that as a result the wage contracts of non-artistic staff are blanket contracts with the labor unions, while workers at a theater or opera house are submitted to the same rules as, say, workers from the state garbage collection services.

"Ten years ago the German Theater Association demanded that the theaters should be allowed to negotiate their own relevant wage contracts. But the move is blocked by the unions."

The situation appears even more absurd when one considers that the theaters have to afford their employees yearly pay hikes that are decided at the federal level by the conference of interior ministers for public sector workers. This extra burden on the theaters is not covered by public subisidies, with the result that there is less money for art.

Change needs to be made at the roots

Heinz-Dieter Sense, head of the prestigious Deutsche Oper in Berlin said that the problem runs much deeper.

"The present laws and German labour law is limiting. As long as we don’t change these basic things at the social and political level, nothing will happen."

Sense didn’t want to hazard a guess as to how many more theaters will fall victim to the present financial crisis. "The situation in the theaters is also a mirror of our society. We can only reform this country if we completely rethink all our contracts and regulations."