“A whole generation down the drain!”
Olaf Freese is head of lighting at the Berlin State Opera and Reinhard Traub is his counterpart at Staatstheater Stuttgart. Colleagues, rivals – and good friends – for 30 years now, they also work freelance and are internationally active. Traub’s guest appearance in Berlin, creating the light for the new production of The Magic Flute at the State Opera, provided a rare opportunity to talk to the two light designers together, not only about negative aspects of their profession, such as inadequate training and short rehearsal periods, but also about the bright side of light designing.
February 2019: Reinhard Traub has come to Berlin for the final rehearsals of the State Opera’s new production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, where he meets up with his long-time associate Olaf Freese, busy rehearsing Babylon by Jörg Widmann.
BTR: Mr Freese, Mr Traub, you contacted us with a request to talk about the inadequate state of light design training in Germany.
Olaf Freese (OF): There are two aspects we are concerned about here. For one, light designers don’t get the artistic training they should, and second, lighting technicians still need to fulfil what I see to be antiquated requirements to get work.
Firstly, the automatization of lighting systems has enormously changed the job of lighting specialist. But the qualification you need to become a light technician is still the same as it was 30 years ago. If you want to work in theatre, you need a professional qualification in a theatre-related subject. Event technology is an obvious choice, of course, but we still need electricians and metalworkers as well, not to mention precision engineers, computer programmers, network technicians and other specialists.
Reinhard Traub (RT): Yes, you often need to make complicated constructions to get what you want. Luckily, several members of staff in my theatre have taken extra training, paid out of their own pockets, to be able to realize projects like that successfully.
I take it from that it’s hard to find staff.
RT: Yes, and it’s especially bad in Stuttgart where we have Mercedes and Porsche, who not only pay better but might also throw in 5000 euros Christmas bonus. We’re in danger of not getting any specialists any more.
OF: Where stage technology is the focus, it is of course much harder to create a permanent post for a video technician than to fill a vacancy for a stage hand.
How are you involved in the artistic process in general?
RT: As we are not really accepted in our profession, it changes from time to time. It depends on the director. Some directors want a truly autonomous light designer, others want to collaborate, and then there are others who are only looking for someone to draw up the technical concept while they do the light themselves.
RT: Nobody can do everything alone anymore, we don’t either. I used to be able to programme all the control consoles myself, but now it has become far too complicated.
OF: Yes, and now everything is so closely timed that it’s almost impossible to smooth out any jams in the directing, stage set, or costumes because there isn’t enough buffer time. Light and video are especially important then as they are the fastest media.
RT: If we want specialist training, we should stress what light design is all about – then it becomes clear why short rehearsal periods are a problem. Take Medea just recently and Poppea at the end of last year – two productions at the State Opera that made a big impression on me. In both these operas, the light is vital as the stage sets are static and hardly three-dimensional.
OF: Yes, light is gaining importance, not only for aesthetic but also for practical reasons. Workshops used to build huge stage sets that could be adapted and re-used later. We often can’t or don’t want to do that anymore. And preferences in aesthetics and abstraction have changed, too. Nobody builds four rooms to portray four rooms anymore. Our sets often consist of just one wall or one other element. That of course places far more creative onus on the light designer.
Do you exchange ideas with your colleagues in other theatres or work with any associations?
RT: It’s the nature of our profession that we’re all rivals and of course everyone is the best. But I try not to make too much of the rivalry, especially among our generation, as there are only handful of us.
OF: I became a light designer through Reinhard Traub. And I acquired the specialist knowledge by a process of learning by doing. That kind of opportunity doesn’t arise anymore!
RT: There’s hardly anything I haven’t done at the theatre: I’ve worked as a property man and all sorts. Practical experience is very important and should be a requirement to train.
https://www.der-theaterverlag.de/OF: The heads of lighting in Berlin meet up regularly. The competition between us is artistic rather than existential, which works well for us! I’m always glad when a guest designer comes and shows me something new and contributes to my theatre. What makes me angry is colleagues who do boring light or treat my staff badly!