When Katherine Heid was training to be a dancer, her dream was to grace the great theatres of Europe. Now – after several detours – she has at least found a job in the wings, as a director at the European Network for Opera and Dance Education (RESEO).
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From an office in La Monnaie, Brussels’ opera house, Heid deals with the development and promotion of opera and dance education programmes for people of all ages. It is no easy task: RESEO – established in 1996 and the oldest organisation linking opera houses in Europe – has more than 80 members in more than 20 countries.
Before RESEO, Heid’s working life took her across Europe in a variety of settings. Half-British and half-German, she studied psychology and international politics at the universities of Regensburg and Freiburg in Germany, without coming to a definite conclusion about her career.
Her first job was in the Franco-German Youth Office in Paris. After a stint in human resources, she moved to working on events, “which were always culture-based, including seminars at the Cannes Film Festival and the Berlinale, with groups of young people from France and Germany. We would see how they perceive films differently depending on their culture.” At this stage, she was also a professional dancer and was able to fit her work around auditions.
After six years, she moved on to the German youth ministry, working on international relations, and then to the Council of Europe, in its youth directorate. “There had been a campaign called All Different – All Equal. I worked on the follow-up to that campaign, which involved a great deal of inter-religious dialogue. I worked a lot in eastern Europe, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, on minority and refugee issues.”
Then, two-and-a-half years ago, she took the chance to step back into culture with RESEO, a small unit with just two members of staff (both directors, there is no hierarchy). “We are a true network in the sense of exchanging know-how, discussing challenges and best Commission practice,” Heid says.
After an initial helping hand from La Monnaie, RESEO began to get project grants from the European Commission and then, four years ago, the organisation was awarded structural funding from the EU’s Culture Programme.
There is a strong European angle to RESEO’s work. “All the projects that we choose have a European dimension, in terms of European years on things such as active ageing, or inter-generational work. We participate in the Access to Culture platform,” Heid says. “We’ve got a good relationship with the Commission: they come to our conferences, we ask their opinion. In a way we are ideal for them: we are two people, we take up only a bit of money and do loads of things.”
One is providing members with advice on how to set up education programmes. “The members often come to us and they want to set up an education department and they need help, because they don’t know how to do it. They know that by joining the network they will be linked to other opera houses and not feel so alone.”
Another way in which the organisation links its members is through conferences. Its autumn conference, which took place in Utrecht in November, focused on how opera houses can use digital media to reach out into the community. The next conference will be in Stuttgart on 1-3 March on intercultural dialogue and social integration via the arts.
But in these times of austerity, many of the members are feeling the pinch. “When financing and budgets are cut back, you often notice that education is valued, but not that much. An opera house is judged by the performances, what the director does, the running of an opera house. The education aspect is often not seen as that important.”
Heid says that what helps in such tough times is the close relationship that RESEO tries to develop with its members: “We do want new members to bring in new ideas and diversity. But if you grow too much you lose the family atmosphere, you lose the trust the members have among each other to say ‘listen, I tried to do this particular project and it really didn’t work out. What did I do wrong?’ And this honesty could be lost.”