“Brutal Cultural Politics”: Dagmar Schellenberger Kicked Out Of Mörbisch Festival

Kevin Clarke
Operetta Research Center
19 October, 2016

In a way you could see it coming: the Seefestpiele Mörbisch tried breaking away from the stuffy (but much beloved) operetta image Harald Serafin cultivated there as director and media darling for decades; they hired Dagmar Schellenberger to try something new. Which she did, especially when she brought Abraham’s jazz operetta Viktoria und ihr Husar to Mörbisch, based on the reconstructed original 1930 score. Most of Austria’s critics were not amused by this, nor by the “Broadway style” staging, insinuating that such an operetta approach was not the “authentic” way to do it, meaning not the 1970s TV operetta sound and look they are generally offered. So today, at a press conference in Eisenstadt, Kulturlandesrat Helmut Bieler from the socialist party SPÖ announced that the board has appointed a new artistic director for Mörbisch: Gerald Pichowetz.

Dagmar Schellenberger promoting the Mörbisch Festival. (Photo: Private)

Dagmar Schellenberger promoting the Mörbisch Festival. (Photo: Private)

Mr. Pichowetz is supposed to take over in 2018, after Mörbisch shows Der Vogelhändler in 2017, as selected and cast by Miss Schellenberger. Which you can already see as a roll-back after Abraham, but also as part of Schellenberger’s plan to alternate older and newer operettas: she followed Eine Nacht in Venedig with Viktoria, followed by Zeller. It remains to be seen what Pichowetz’s vision for large scale operetta at the biggest operetta festival in the world will be.

He is currently the director of the Gloriatheater in Vienna, and he’s rather well-known in Austria as an actor, especially from his appearance in the 1990s ORF series “Kaisermühlen-Blues.”

He has performed (as a actor) in operettas at the Volksoper Wien and at the opera house in Graz. [It was previously reported that he directed operettas at these venues, but that is not the case.] He was selected by the board of directors in Mörbisch in “a secret procedure,” from “multiple candidates” as the newspaper Kurier reports.

Dagmar Schellenberger during rehearsals at the Mörbisch Festival. (Photo: Private)

Dagmar Schellenberger during rehearsals at the Mörbisch Festival. (Photo: Private)

Hans-Dieter Roser, who worked in the Austrian operetta business for many years – including the Volksoper – commented to us: “A woman, and a German on top of that, seems to be impossible as a boss in Burgenland, even today, no matter how successful she is.” (“Eine Frau und noch dazu eine Deutsche als Chefin sind im Burgenland trotz Erfolgen offensichtlich noch nicht möglich.“) Instead of the refreshing Miss Schellenberger from former East-Germany – with her charming accent and even more charming stage presence (seen in Victoria) – Mörbisch will get “Serafin light” after 2018 with Mr. Pichowetz, as one newspaper put it. It seems the Austrians cannot get enough of that particular style of operetta, even though Serafin left Mörbisch, among many reasons, because the attendance numbers for his approach had dropped drastically over the years. Whether Pichowetz can turn that trend around by returning to a Serafin like vision of the genre remains to be seen. He did claim, in a first statement, that “operetta is not a dying art form” and that “Mörbisch is not a festival that relies on intimacy, instead it must offer opulence.” According to Pichowetz, people come to Mörbisch for the stars on stage, not for the show titles. He also thinks it “possible” to go beyond operetta in the programming. Which is something Dagmar Schellenberger also did with Fiddler on the Roof and Serafin with My Fair Lady.

Let’s wait and see what happens next. Gert Korentschnig says in Der Standard that this sort of “cultural politics” by the “red-blue representatives of the Burgenland region” is “rather brutal,” turning “everything upside down.”

“Pichowetz’s Facebook post about burglars of his house probably being ‘100 percent foreigners’ might have already been forgotten by some,” writes Korentschnig, hinting at the new director’s xenophobic political outlook, which might have appealed to the conservative board when they appointed him. It’s obviously a very different outlook to Miss Schellenberger’s “open” and “diversity friendly” view of the world.

One thing is certain: the important and most interesting impulses for operetta come from elsewhere, Berlin’s Komische Oper and Tipi Zelt am Kanzleramt, possibly even from the Ohio Light Opera and the Budapest Operetta Theater. We can only hope that Miss Schellenberger will soon reappear as head of another theater, because she proved in Mörbisch that she is a very media savvy director, good at selling and promoting her artistic program.

There are 7 comments

  1. Michael

    I am very sorry to hear that Dagmar Schellenberger is leaving Mörbisch in such a way. Such a way meaning: without any public discussion of what a festival like Mörbisch could and should look like. There are many things one can critisize about her artistic choices (show titles, stage directors, choreographers, singers etc.), and it would have been worth analyzing the last three years in details, in order to find a path for the future. But to just install a man who is popular in Austria via a 1990s TV show and has “done” some operetta at the Volksoper and in Graz as the “solution” – without any public debate whatsoever – is more than just a little questionable. What are his answers and visions for operetta after 2018? More musicals and more local stars? Maybe they should just hire André Rieu, play Strauss operettas in colorful “historic” costumes, have waltzing all around and make everyone happy in the tourist industry of Burgenland? (Plus sell many CDs.)

  2. Anna

    Your evalution is a bit irritating, since next to your well-agreed merits for the research about operetta your are confusing some facts within the whole context, which is also not well described.
    You are right, a secret selection procedure of a new Artistic Director is not to accept in a democratic country, a status that Austria quite light-heartedly is giving up these days. But this is not your point.
    You are right, it was a good idea to set „Viktoria und ihr Husar“ in Mörbisch, just meeting the Zeitgeist, which is pulsating in the events in Berlin, in Komische Oper Berlin, and since a while carried to the German speaking stages. The researchers’ re-discoveries are great, indeed, even though mostly the pieces are not staged and cast well. But this is also not your point.

    Allow me to correct and add some facts: Harald Serafin build the Seefestspiele Mörbisch from ground up. He brought it from nothing to record sales. During times, when live-streams have been science fiction, he brought the premieres live to the national Austrian TV. He could win great to huge voices, that after he had discovered them, made it in the best theatres in the world, where then they became famous, Met, Berlin State Opera, Scala, Paris. There were times, when he had the best designers for that purpose, outstanding and specialized conductors, musical leaders, who know how to perform this genre, and he consciously dealt with choreography by choosing the very best choreographer he could get, knowing the stage, the conditions of a huge spectacle and respecting every parameter as a very serious task. They all were world class, sorry for calling upon this huge term. They knew how to stage operetta.

    It was the other way around than you describe: Mörbisch with Serafin had an audience, quality, enough money and good titles. Schellenberger didn’t make it to keep this at the reached level. If her dismissal is coming from an Austrian attitude towards a German lady leader (as Hans-Dieter Roser says) or more from an interdependancy of several parametres – this might be the interesting point in an all-over analysis.

    A bit limitating is your partial argumentation skipping some – well, tremendous! – facts.
    Since I really appreciate your work, i thought it necessary to comment on your post.
    For now – „Le Roi est mort! Vive le Roi!“

  3. Operetta Research Center

    KLEINE ZEITUNG: “Das im Mai gestartete Auswahlverfahren sei von einem externen Berater durchgeführt worden, erklärte Bieler. Die Entscheidung über die neue Intendanz traf eine fünfköpfige Jury unter dem Vorsitz von Peter Zulehner, früher Personalvorstand bei Magna International. Die Kandidaten wurden nach sieben Kriterien abgeklopft – von künstlerischer Kompetenz im Bereich Operette über bisherige Erfolge bis hin zur Fähigkeit, wieder mehr Besucher in die Operettenhochburg zu locken – erläuterte Zulehner. Die neue Intendanz sei ‘eindeutig’ bei allen fünf Kommissionsmitgliedern als Sieger aus dem Hearing hervorgegangen.”

  4. HD Roser

    Pichowetz hat natürlich nie eine Operette inszeniert. Er hat an der Volksoper in 3 Operettenroduktionen als Gast mitgewirkt – als Cupido in Orpheus, als Würmle im Vogelhändler und als Eunuch in Land des Lächelns. Auch in Graz hat er nicht inszeniert, sonder nur als Schauspieler gastiert. Offensichtlich wurde dieser Unsinn von den Inszenierungen bei der Präsentation verpasst.

  5. Operetta Research Center

    Dear Anna, thank you for your insightful comment. You are right, Mr. Serafin did bring Mörbisch to an impressive standard and to international fame during his many years there. And the style he and his artistic choices represent were – in turn – 100% representative of the times. But these times are over, they were partially already over while Mr. Serafin was still in charge. The question is: what could commercially successful operetta look like in the future? Does anyone really want commercially successful operetta on such a grand scale anymore? There could and should be a lot of discussion about this in Austria. But this secret selection process and this choice of a new director does not signal anything new or particularly promissing. In my opinion. Nothing that deserves the title “Vive le Roi”! Maybe I am wrong. We’ll have to wait and see.

  6. Anna

    Yes, that’s true!! We will have to see. The sad thing is, that we cannot recognize, that some specialist evaluated any consequence to draw from Serafin and Schellenberger. Why exactly Serafin was good, and why Schellenberger did not really succeed?
    Where was Serafin a winner? Quality in all domains! You think, this does not fit our present times? The lack of quality is the main reason, why we still have to discuss about the value of this allegedly „minor“ genre, where second class parametres are sufficiently. It was the elegance of the Rolf Langenfass sets, the energy and poetry of the Austrian operetta’s pope Rudolf Bibl, or the timeless, sensual, often cheeky imagination and grandeur of Giorgio Madia’s choreography. Impossible to declare their work as the past – there are not many of those. Definitely their craftsmenship and love for the genre needs to be carried into future projects, and some of them are still around.
    I think the main question is not about commercial success and the production dimensions, but only about the quality of the stagings themselves, however they are created for Mörbisch, Paris, Volksoper, Leipzig or Tipi, …. The treasures suggested by first class researchers need to meet up with the first class staging professionals. Of course, it would have been quite „reasonable“ to take up from Serafin’s practises for a venue like Mörbisch to move on this special tradition into changing times. But yes, you are so perfectly right – especially in Austria a discussion about the all topic is more than overdue.

  7. John

    I was both astonished and distressed to learn that Dagmar Schellenberger was to be replaced so soon after taking up the reins at Morbisch. I saw nothing wrong with Harald Serafin’s approach but I did wonder whether he might have been quite pleased after 20 years to hand over to someone of the stature of Frau Schellenberger. I have to confess that I am English and have no knowledge of the politics behind all this. I also know the Seefestspielen only through the dvds, since it is not possible for me to come to Morbisch, much as I should like to do so. I always enjoy Harald Serafin’s productions but I thought that with “Eine Nacht in Venedig” and “Viktoria und ihr Husar” Dagmar Schellenberger had taken the Morbish Seefestspiel to even greater heights of excellence and enjoyment. It will certainly be very interesting to see whether Herr Pichowetz can produce anything as good.

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