Monika Rittershaus

Monika Rittershaus is one of the most coveted photographers on the theatre scene. She has photographed stage performances for many established opera houses and symphonic ensembles. Theatre photography is her great passion: “If people knew what pleasure I take in doing this, nobody would pay me,” she said in 2010.

Born in 1963, Rittershaus was raised in the western German city of Wuppertal, near Cologne, where, aged 19, she started studying philosophy, art history and German studies.

She eventually moved to the University for Applied Sciences and Arts in Dortmund to study Photography. There, she met Gisela Scheidler who then took her to Vienna as her assistant for shootings of Peter Zadek’s work.

Since 1989, she has been working freelance as a theatre photographer for major opera houses around the world.

In her interview with Scenography Today, she speaks about her work, her relationship with theatre and her future plans.

 

Ms Rittershaus, how was your first professional contact with theatre?

Whilst studying I had the chance to assist my professor Gisela Scheidler with a production by Peter Zadek at the Wiener Burgtheater. During this time I learnt so much about theatrical processes and how to blend in unobtrusively but without disappearing. It gave me the chance to observe wonderful actors, a great stage director as well as a very good and discreet theatre photographer. During this time I also met Achim Freyer, with whom I share a close cooperation up until today and who became a kind of mentor for me.

 

Photo M. Rittershaus | C. Guth, Götterdämmerung (R. Wagner) | Sets and Costumes: C. Schmidt | Staatsoper Hamburg 2010
Photo M. Rittershaus | C. Guth, Götterdämmerung (R. Wagner) | Sets and Costumes: C. Schmidt | Staatsoper Hamburg 2010

 

What is the aspect of your work you like the most?

I work very close to the people on stage and I get a lot of insights about the concepts for the different productions. I feel lucky to be able to collaborate so intensively with ‘my’ teams and I think it is a huge privilege to see so much and to see it in such an in-depth way. Sometimes I have the feeling that a scene is played especially for me because through the camera lens I can experience it even more intensely than any other audience member.

 

Photo M. Rittershaus | B. Kosky, Macbeth (G. Verdi) | Sets and lights: K. Grünberg Costumes: K. Bruns | Opernhaus Zürich 2016
Photo M. Rittershaus | B. Kosky, Macbeth (G. Verdi) | Sets and lights: K. Grünberg Costumes: K. Bruns | Opernhaus Zürich 2016

 

What is the aspect of your work you like the most?

I work very close to the people on stage and I get a lot of insights about the concepts for the different productions. I feel lucky to be able to collaborate so intensively with ‘my’ teams and I think it is a huge privilege to see so much and to see it in such an in-depth way. Sometimes I have the feeling that a scene is played especially for me because through the camera lens I can experience it even more intensely than any other audience member.

You called your job the art of “translating a story into a bidimensional picture”. A story narrated in music, we add. How do you do that so brilliantly?

To me, theatre photography is more than an attempt to represent an objective reality. With the utmost respect for the poetry of each piece, for each set’s particular atmosphere, and most of all for the spirit of each staging, I try to translate the secret of a production into the two dimensions of an image. All this requires to master one’s craftsmanship, to love the theatre and music, to read a lot, and to watch carefully – with respect, a sense of responsibility, precision and gentleness. Only then can one – sometimes – succeed in making the breath of theatre palpable.

 

Photo M. Rittershaus | C. Loy, Peter Grimes (B. Britten) | Sets: J. Leiacker Costumes: J. Weihrauch | Theater an der Wien 2015
Photo M. Rittershaus | C. Loy, Peter Grimes (B. Britten) | Sets: J. Leiacker Costumes: J. Weihrauch | Theater an der Wien 2015

 

When you photograph an opera scene, what is your relationship with the scenography?

In my images, I am concerned with capturing the poetry of the play — opera, piece of art — the atmosphere of the set design and especially the character of the people acting within the space. It is the set that significantly influences the narrative and acting style.

You have almost 30 years of active career. Through the eyes of a theatre photographer, how has scenography changed over these years?

Set designs change with the technical possibilities of the theatres alone. Further, they reflect on changes in society, culture as well as developments in the visual arts. I also recognise more and more references to films.

 

 

Can you name one set design you were literally amazed by?

The set design for Barrie Kosky’s production of Gluck’s ‘Armide’ is especially fascinating to me. It moves from an extremely artificial installation to kitsch in the best sense. It opens imaginative spaces in the viewer’s mind and is a feast for a photographer.

Your pictures not only serve theatres’ purposes, they have also a strong cultural value because they document contemporary history of theatre, which is otherwise an ephemeral form of art. How do you feel about that?

As I am capturing — banning — a fleeting art form like theatre into a still image – and thus giving it a different time frame –  I feel especially responsible to be true to the individual character of each production. I can do this trough the use of different photographic means such as the choice of my viewpoint and view frame, focus, unsharpness, blur, freeze, fragment – to see the already known newly and to abstract it in a poetic way.

If you could go back in time to a specific period in the history of opera and take photos, where would you go?

I am very happy with today’s era and would not want to swap.

 

In 2016, you exhibited Wagnerbilder, a retrospective on 48 stagings of Wagner operas you photographed at theatres worldwide. How did you come to the idea and what do you preserve in your heart about that experience?

Dr. Sven Friedrich, the director of the Richard Wagner museum in Bayreuth, invited me to curate an exhibition with my work in the new building of the museum. We thought about the concept together and decided that I would present all of the Wagner productions I photographed to showcase the large scale of different interpretations of Richard Wagner’s oeuvre. In 24 years I photographed 48 new productions of Wagner operas.

The photos are presented in three sections – each room focusing on them under a different aspect. In the first room, we show the images in their processed form in booklets, books, as CD covers and in magazines – thus within the context and uses they we initially taken for.  But also as an interaction of single photographic motifs that, as a collage, initiate a dialogue that transcends themselves.

The second room creates a kind of reanimation of what happened on stage as the images are in constant movement and experience a new rhythm. In the third space, we show images that come most closely to what I hope and look for in a theatre image: pictures that make the unique breath of a production visible.

 

Your resume features a successful exhibition as well as several interesting publications. What are your projects for the future? Any upcoming event? Any idea you are pursuing?

The collaboration with my favourite leading teams and opera houses will continue. And I am curious and looking forward to things that might add. With the Berliner Philharmoniker, that hold an important significance for me, many new projects are in planning. Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin will further be important partners. Elena Bashkirova’s chamber music festival in Jerusalem is very important to me – I will return to work there continuously. The Bayreuth exhibition has been requested for further travel to China. I am looking forward to that very much.

You also collaborate with the Education Program of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Would you like to tell us a bit more about it?

I think it is extremely important that young people are introduced to classical music. You learn to listen and to respect one another through making music together. That can’t be appreciated and supported enough. Apart from that, it gives me great pleasure to not only work in the prestigious theatres, opera houses and concert halls with famous artists but also with children and adolescents in schools, sports hall and youth centres and to engage with their questions.

Our last question: should a student tell you they want to become a well-known theatre photographer, what would your advice be?

I would say the question should be how to become a good theatre photographer. One has to love the theatre and the music, be an expert in one’s craft, read a lot and observe very precisely and respectfully.