Hamburg responds to world uproar over sacking of pregnant soprano

Hamburg responds to world uproar over sacking of pregnant soprano


norman lebrecht

April 22, 2018

The Staatstoper has issued a Twitter explanation for sacking the French star Julie Fuchs:

The Hamburg State Opera regrets that we are not allowed to fill the soprano Julie Fuchs in the role of Pamina in the Hamburg production of the „Magic Flute“. After a thorough examination, it is not possible to change the staging so that there is no danger for the expectant mother and at the same time the core of the production of Jette Steckel remains. There are a variety of physically demanding scenes in this production, including several flight scenes, which are prohibited in principle for pregnant women. The legal situation for the protection of the expectant mother is clear and we will never take a health risk, even if only a risky scenic action could take place on the stage,”

(signed) Tillmann Wiegand, Director of Artistic Management at Hamburg State Opera*.

Just a matter of health and safety? Here are some online reactions:

Speranza Scappucci, conductor: Absurd and unacceptable.

Julia Bullock, soprano: Unless the production would be dangerous for her unborn baby, because of stage direction (like floating around in a harness for hours during ariel work) I cannot IMAGINE why or on what grounds a company has for withdrawing a pregnant woman from an opera. Again, without all the facts I won’t say defaming things, but the decision to perform or not should be one of the soon to be mother!

Michal Bet-Halachmi, clarinet: Isn’t there a law against this?

Brent Calis, photographer: What year is this?

Basia Jaworski, critic: If it’s so dangerous, sack the director, not the singer.

Denis Comtet, conductor: It is unacceptable and scandalous, but it is quite characteristic of contemporary western society on the mother and the unborn child…

Marina Comparato, mezzo-soprano: Una nostra collega (e che collega!) discriminata in quanto incinta di 4 mesi! Vergogna!…

* Original German text:

Wir bedauern sehr, dass sie die Sopranistin Julie Fuchs in der Partie der Pamina in der Hamburger Inszenierung der „Zauberflöte“ nicht besetzen darf. Es ist nach eingehender Prüfung nicht möglich, die Inszenierung so zu ändern, dass keinerlei Gefahr für die werdende Mutter besteht und gleichzeitig der Kern der Inszenierung von Jette Steckel bestehen bleibt. Es gibt in dieser Inszenierung eine Vielzahl von körperlich sehr fordernden Szenen, darunter mehrere Flugszenen, die für schwangere Frauen prinzipiell verboten sind. „Die Rechtslage zum Schutz der werdenden Mutter ist eindeutig und wir gehen in keinem Fall ein gesundheitsgefährdendes Risiko ein, wenn auch nur im Ansatz riskante szenische Aktionen auf der Bühne stattfinden könnten.“, Tillmann Wiegand, Betriebsdirektor


  • Max says:

    Well, obviously there is danger in the production for her unborn baby, so what on earth are we discussing here? If she is supposed to jump around and it’s a main point of the staging, there’s a danger to her and the baby’s health (she could fall/land on her belly?!). Are they supposed to smoothen the production now, so a pregnant woman can be part of it?? This would have nothing to do with art anymore…but it seems to be more important to please political correctness nowadays, then to realise an artistic vision.

    • sick of the nonsense says:

      I disagree Max. We’re in a world where the stage director rules, often without regard for the music or the composer’s intention. Expecting singers to perform whilst flying about, or walking a plank, or leaping into and out of a hot tub – all of which I’ve seen in various productions – does no service to the music, it seems to be all about the ego of the director who wishes to gain headlines by being ‘outrageous’. Calling these stunts ‘artistic vision’ would be laughable, if it weren’t so sad. I rue the day when conductors caved in to stage directors, many who come to opera with little or no understanding or appreciation for the art of singing, and who apparently don’t care about the music or its message.

      • Max says:

        While you might surely be right concerning quite some productions of today, you are presuming something about a production, you don’t and can’t know. So quite frankly you would do better to give it the benefit of the doubt, while it could very well be that the physical action for example is taking place e.g. during the “Prüfungstempel” scene and not necessarily during “Ach, ich fühl’s”.

      • Yes Addison says:

        I wonder what era of stage productions would meet with your approval. Joan Sutherland was sleepwalking across a high bridge as Amina at the Met in 1963. The Zeffirelli Bohème, nearly 40 years old now, has some of the bohemians scampering around on an angled roof in the final act. The Gibichung palace had its spectacular collapse at the conclusion of the Otto Schenk Götterdämmerung (its beams actually did injure Hildegard Behrens). Should a conductor have vetoed all of those staging decisions too?

        Theatrical performances of any kind have inherent risks. There isn’t ever going to be a return to singers planting themselves in a spot in front of painted flats. Concert performances are probably your best bet.

  • Thomasina says:

    It seems that this is no longer a question of singer’s motivation…

  • Anon says:

    This is a non-story.
    Stop the faux outrage.
    The law is clear: the pregnant singer can not do this role for the sake of protecting the fetus. End of story.
    Now that wouldn’t stop those in the PC brigade who compulsory get outraged all the time.

      • Colin says:

        + another 1.

        • Frankster says:

          And all of you maintain that it is someone besides the mother who makes that decision… Got it.

          • Cantelli says:

            First: I live in Hamburg – have seen these production – so I truly respect the decision of Hamburg Opera. It might have been „dangerous“ acting moments…. To judge an Opera Management in this case it‘s an Act to take care of Fetus!
            And think of the US-handling in sue of damages….!!!
            At all a responsibly fair decision!

          • Jon M. Bauman says:

            Of course it should be up to the mother. What oppressive notions do these commentators believe in? Perhaps they would like to bring back censors too. How ridiculously demeaning to women.

          • Anon says:

            It’s the law. The law makes that decision. The L – A – W. Got it?
            Like the law does not allow a lot of stuff that is dangerous for people. Got it?
            The L-A-W?
            Google it. The L-A-W.
            If something happens to the mother and/or fetus during that production, then the LAW also will hold the theater liable, and rightfully so. Got it?

          • Frankster says:

            Hello “Anon” Why don’t YOU try to Google the law (if you can manage.) It’s called Beschäftigungsverbot and has specific situations and any employee prohibitions must be certified by a doctor. So many here have views of pregnant women from generations ago and are showing their age.

          • Anon says:

            That’s incorrect “Frankster”.
            It’s called ‘Mutterschutzgesetz’ (translates roughly as Law for the protection of Motherhood) and it has several paragraphs which clearly regulate this particular case, so the pregnant singer can not be allowed to work in that environment.

            The theater actually MUST not allow her, or otherwise they would break the law.
            Well, they could change the staging fundamentally, so that the pregnant singer does not have to do any risky semi-stunts (flying on wires over the stage etc.) but is that reasonable?

    • Pedro says:

      And what do you think about fire the artist 4 days before the start of rehersal? Faux outrage too? I hope you don’t have any employers working for you.
      The artist are humans like you dear Anon.

      • Anon says:

        Well, in order to have an opinion about that, we would need to know when the theater was informed, that the singer is actually pregnant. I would suppose, the theater reacted as soon as possible, right away after they were informed by the singer that she is pregnant.
        As long as we don’t know otherwise, we can assume the theater has done the right thing.

        • David says:

          According to the singer, she informed the theatre one month before the rehearsals were to begin and was told they would accommodate her by adjusting the performance. If that truly was the case the management acted a bit naively.
          I agree with you that the whole situation gets blown out of proportion – especially since the German Mutterschutzgesetz is quite valuable – but I also think the theatre should not have so lightly made promises it might not be able to keep. That was foolish.
          Provided the singer’s statements are correct of course.

          • Barry Guerrero says:

            If what she says is true, then the theater didn’t act “naively”, but rather in ‘bad faith’. That may have no bearing on the legality of the case, but I’m just sayin’ . . .

          • David says:

            But you are assuming that the opera house intented to break word from the start. That is not necessarily the case: There are many scenarios where – in the end – it was out of their hands (the stage director might have disagreed, reconstructing the stage could have been impracticable / too expensive, etc.) I find there are too many uncertainties to make any judgement of intentions.

      • Gerhard says:

        This might likely have been the time when management was notified of the pregnancy. In our orchestra a woman is not supposed to play for the complete time of her pregnancy, but quite a few so far didn’t regard this necessary. Therefore in several cases some friends and colleagues already knew about it, but they hadn’t talked to the manager. During this time these women could go on playing, of course, based on their own decision. But as soon as they inform the employer of the pregnancy or it gets too obvious to be ignored, management is legally bound to act and relieve them from playing immediately. So it seems quite likely that this is a non-story here, as someone else has already pointed out.

  • Sue says:

    Winning the war against men, one outrage after another!! That’s the real health issue for this unborn child.

  • Cyril Blair says:

    Idiotic. 4-months pregnant women participate and compete in all types of athletic events, without harming their fetuses. An opera staging could hardly be more strenuous than running a marathon or playing at Wimbledon.

    This is offensive. Wake up sheeple, it’s 2018.

    • Anon says:

      Nonsense. Employee protection laws in Germany clearly forbid physical risks as they are part of that staging. Also there are more performances scheduled later into her pregnancy.
      Get real, take off your ideological blinders.

      • Frankster says:

        You keep saying that. But the actually law does not say that.

        • Gerhard says:

          And what exactly does “the actually law” say according to you?

          • Frankster says:

            It’s even in English:
            “Maternity Leave and Job Protection (Mutterschutz) in Germany
            Source: Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women & Adolescents, Maternity Protection Guide 09.2005”

            Are we suddenly back two centuries? How in God’s name are you in an orchestra than bans pregnant women? Is this an orchestra in Saudi Arabia? German law, and most advance nations, ban discrimination based on pregnancy. The exceptions are very few (handling radio-active material, etc.). There is only one word for that: misogyny and you wear it like a badge.

          • Gerhard says:

            Obviously you have very little idea what you are talking about. The employment of an orchestra player is protected, of course, but this does not mean that her employer can let her go on playing during her pregnancy once he has learned about it. This is a requirement for the protection of the fetus because playing in an orchestra qualifies as work in a noisy workplace. Either the employer can simply grant her payed leave for the time, or he can ask her to do tasks which don’t endanger the fetus, and for which she is qualified. Some pregnant colleagues were asked to help out for a few hours per week in the music archive, for instance. Of course it happens not rarely that women see this as overprotection. Then they will simply not let the employer know about the pregnancy and carry on at their own decision until they feel that it is time, or at the latest when the Mutterschutz sets in.

            Certainly the situation for freelancers is more complicated and less advantageous, because they do not enjoy the same protection as employees. This is no different in case of illness. Anyhow, nobody is ever being “sacked” for being pregnant, but in certain occupations and workplaces it is illegal to let women go on working during pregnancy if the employer knows about it.

            As to your ad hominem attack I will not point out what kind of badge you are obviously wearing. Have a nice evening!

  • Elegance says:

    I’m not sure what the right answer is.

    I have witnessed a production in rehearsal where a pregnant woman (in a very traditional production, just doing the usual sort of things you might expect in a Mozart opera) fell, landed on her backside, and had to spend a few days in hospital, with fear for the baby. She withdrew from the remainder of the rehearsals and performances.

    Accidents do happen. I don’t know what the law is specifically in Germany, but it sounds like the management took the view that the physical demands of the production were enough that there could be risk and the theatre held negligent in the event of an accident.

    I don’t know this Magic Flute production – but I do know that fight scenes can indeed be dangerous. If for example a character is thrown to the ground, it has to be carefully rehearsed to avoid injury, and even then plenty of injuries happen when people rehearse or perform things like fight scenes.

    When an artist agrees to perform a role in a production, if there are particularly unusual or onerous physical demands such as being required to fly, or to climb something, or a particularly vigorous fight, or particular dancing, then it is usual for this to mentioned to the artist, even in their contract, so that they agree they are happy to do it.

    I find the people here asking that the production be changed a little bit ridiculous. A production is a production, whether it’s “traditional” (should a pregnant woman jump off a balcony in Tosca?) or not. Would you say to the leading lady of a musical like 42nd Street that it’s ok if she leaves out all the tap dancing, because she’s pregnant? Of course not. If the Magic Flute production requires a vigorous fight, why should the director have to instead stage a half-assed fight?

    On the flip side, we are still fairly early in pregnancy (although maybe it won’t be by the end of the performing season?) It feels that there COULD be empowerment where it is the woman’s decision to perform or not. BUT, if the company is still held liable in the event of an accident, they would be crazy to agree to this, and many commenters here seem to think there are strict laws here that must be adhered to.

    Generally, as society gets more litigious, and companies are forced to “cover their asses” more, this sort of thing will happen more. Frankly, many performers are the first to complain loudly about safety issues, sometimes legitimately, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness. Safety on stage is a group responsibility in which everyone has a part to play.

    I’m on the fence as to whether or not the company has overreacted, but I do understand exactly why the decision was taken. And I’d be curious if she had performed and injured herself, which of the same commenters would be complaining about management forcing a pregnant lady to perform a physically demanding production…. complaining about management is a universal past time, not just in opera companies…..

    • Frankster says:

      The word was “flight” – not “fight”

    • Anon says:

      Your considerations are all nice and eloquent, but irrelevant.
      The law is unambiguous in this case. The company has not overreacted but done the only thing possible under the given circumstances and within the legal realities in Germany.
      I can understand the singer’s frustration, but legally protecting mothers and their babies is ultimately an achievement, not a curse. One day the singer will understand that too.

      • Frankster says:

        Here is the law concerning employment while pregnant in Germany. Even “Anon” can read it in English….
        “Maternity Leave and Job Protection (Mutterschutz) in Germany
        Source: Federal Ministry for Family, Seniors, Women & Adolescents, Maternity Protection Guide 09.2005”
        Quote: Women are well protected from loss of employment due to dismissal – from the beginning of pregnancy until 4 months following childbirth (Schutzfrist) through a Kündigungsverbot, Dismissal Ban. Only in extremely rare exceptions are employers permitted to dismiss a pregnant employee during this time. Unquote

        • Anon says:

          You are confusing two different issues.
          a) the protection of mother and fetus from certain risks
          b) the protection of her employment during pregnancy.

          If the theater has a legal obligation to still pay her fee is another issue, for freelancers like her it depends on the contract.
          But she is not going to perform either way.