Stijn Schoonderwoerd
Text: Rosalie Overing | Photo: Liza Kollau

‘We want to continue enchanting our audiences’

Stijn Schoonderwoerd talks about his first year as general director and looks ahead to the next season.

Having to close the theatre to the public, then being allowed to reopen and then having to close once again; going from full houses to reduced capacity, and then having to bring forward all evening performances to the afternoon. To say Stijn Schoonderwoerd’s first season as general director of Dutch National Opera & Ballet was an eventful one is a huge understatement. However, this hasn’t prevented him from looking ahead to the coming season with renewed energy and a positive outlook. Nevertheless, in times like these, it’s good to look back and reflect in order to have a realistic vision for the future.

Schoonderwoerd says: “It hasn’t been an easy year for us. The corona pandemic has had a huge impact on us – not just on the singers, dancers and artistic staff, but also all on everyone working behind the scenes: from technicians to marketeers, from dressmakers in the costume department to box office staff who had to cancel over 20,000 tickets.” The COVID-19 situation also asked a lot of audiences, in terms of their loyalty and flexibility. “The ever-changing COVID-19 rules meant we had to adapt our programme time and time again, forcing us to take some tough decisions. After all, what do you do when your sold-out evening performance becomes a matinee and you are only allowed receive up to 400 theatre-goers? Do you cancel the performance completely or do you still perform for 400 people? We always went for the latter option, because it was important to us to continue performing for the public. Unfortunately, this meant having to disappoint a great many people. What’s more, we ran into a major technical issue when trying to arrange refunds, meaning many people had to wait far too long for their money. This obviously doesn’t reflect well on us and is not something we are proud of.”

‘The pandemic has stressed the value of a live theatre performance’

But this challenging period has also opened up new opportunities and encouraged reflection and ingenuity. “Times such as these push you to think creatively – within the parameters of what’s not possible – about what is possible. For example, we suddenly had to deal with the fact that we wouldn’t be able to fly in opera singers and artistic teams from around the world anymore. Initially, of course, this proved to be very impractical, but it forced us to seek out alternatives, which frequently turned out to be more environmentally friendly. In this way, we have gained important insights that will allow us to contribute to a more sustainable future for our theatre. We also explored new opportunities in terms of online performances. This met with many positive reactions from audiences in the Netherlands as well as abroad, but many viewers also told us online performances couldn’t recreate the feeling of a live performance. The pandemic has therefore stressed the value of a live theatre performance: the pure and authentic way in which creatives, performers and audiences feed of each other can only occur in person, in a theatre. It is this that makes it so essential that we continue to put on live performances in our auditorium. We want to continue enchanting audiences and introduce new members of the public to opera and ballet.”

Schoonderwoerd believes the key here is to create an inclusive environment in which everyone thrives. “One of our main aims for the coming season is to ensure our programme nurtures new talent and different cultural traditions. This isn’t just important from a social point of view, it’s also enriching artistically, driving change and progress in the arts. The new small auditorium will play a pivotal role in this regard. “The council has given us one of their former conference rooms, which we will use as a multifunctional platform for a new group of creatives, giving them a space to explore and experiment, so that they can expand and deepen the definition of these various art forms. I’m really curious as to what new perspectives and exciting performances will come out of this new venture”. But this new auditorium is not the only face-lift Dutch National Opera & Ballet will be receiving. In the coming season, the area around the box office will also undergo a revamp. “I’m sure our regular theatre-goers will notice the difference – in a positive way”.

Schoonderwoerd’s biggest wish for the coming season is to be able to present a complete season as Dutch National Opera & Ballet used to do before the pandemic. “I think what all of us really need is for the full season to go ahead as planned and to see our auditoriums full once again.”