Bärbel Mittmann-Busch, the director of Licensing and Contracts is the grande dame of grand rights and licence requests for stage works at Ricordi, Berlin. Her first day of work at Ricordi-Verlag, which in those days still belonged to Casa Ricordi, Milan, and was based in Munich, was 1 November 1989. Much has changed since then, not only because of the change in ownership – first to BMG, then to Universal Music – and the move to Berlin in 2013, but also many fundamental things having to do with working conditions and technical possibilities. There used to be an ICE courier that would deliver urgent changes to the performance venue in the form of pasted-over bits of paper in the score. Nowadays everything is just a mouse-click “away” and, should it be necessary, last-minute changes in a work can be transmitted to the musician or conductor on the evening of the performance. What hasn’t changed with Bärbel over the decades, however, is her love for live performances, whether in the concert hall or the opera house, and her respect for the composers and their artistic work coupled with her empathy for theatres, often scraping by at subsistence level, and for their special needs and concerns.
A broadcasting employee once said to you: “You’re always so nice on the phone, and then, when it comes to contracts, you’re a really tough negotiator.” Could you describe in brief the kinds of agreements you negotiate, what they deal with, and what about them is especially important for you?
There are in place framework agreements and guidelines for nearly all areas of licensing between publishers and partners from opera houses and broadcasters, but they allow for leeway in negotiation, and there are special situations which we naturally try to accommodate. We want to make performances possible, not hinder them, and we want to be fair to everyone, our composers as well as individual theatres.
What does copyright protection mean to you?
First and foremost, appreciation for the creative works of our composers. Protecting intellectual property is as much a part of that as treating the created works respectfully. Ultimately, we’re also contributing to securing the livelihood of our composers through revenue from collecting societies, from hire fees and royalties with which we are able, in turn, to ensure the financing of new works of contemporary music.
What happens with requests from opera houses and/or directors who want to do something with a protected work that goes against the grain, to interlace it with another work or adapt it in a manner that alters its original character?
First of all, I’m happy when such requests reach me at all, and we don’t discover after the fact that unapproved alterations have been made to a work still under protection. It isn’t always clear to artists that any kind of intervention in original works requires permission and is covered by so-called moral rights, which connect a work with its creator. As much as I may be fascinated by some of these ideas, copyright law compels me to obtain the permission of the authors or their legal successors: for example, in cases where the intention is "alterations or arrangements which materially affect the artistic content of the contractually agreed works".
Are there no uniform regulations?
Every case requires individual approval. I need to have detailed information about the intended alterations, about the production, about the artists/director/choreographer, about the venue etc., which I then – depending on who holds responsibility – forward to our affiliate publishers. After the original publisher has consulted the composer or legal successor, I receive the decision – positive or negative – which I then may or must convey.
It sounds as though one has to allow for quite a lot of time.
Months often pass before I receive an answer, because it is sometimes necessary to reach an agreement with several heirs scattered over the entire world. Adding to the difficulties is that different countries also have different copyright laws and terms of differing lengths, which can further prolong the approval process. And because protected works are increasingly disseminated on the internet without protection, I must often reach an agreement on geo-blocking. Needless to say, at the end of the day I would rather be the bearer of good news than bad! One of these long, drawn-out request processes that, unfortunately, ended negatively led a Munich composer to acknowledge my dogged if futile commitment to the project by writing an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek "chamber opera in the office" about this supposedly standard bureaucratic procedure, with me as the main character. It was called: "And when we’re finally ready, we can start".
You’re responsible for performance agreements covering “grand rights”, the rights to perform a musical composition in the context of a staged work, as well as broadcasting rights for television and radio, contracts with authors and licence requests, for example when composers set a text that is still under copyright or want to quote from or adapt other compositions. How closely connected are you with the genesis of individual works?
Many opera subjects have inspired me to read the literary source. For instance, Reinhard Febel’s Besuchszeit
(Visiting Hours) even awakened my interest in science fiction. In a few cases, securing the rights for a musical setting was very complicated. It has happened, unfortunately, that a setting was refused by literary publishers or authors or their heirs, and our composer had to begin a new search for subject matter. Of course there are also success stories: very recently I was delighted that, after long negotiations, we succeeded in obtaining the rights to set "Second-Hand Time", the book by Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, and that Sergej Newski’s work based on it could have its world premiere at the Stuttgart Opera!
Starting in April you’ll be scaling back and will be relieved from handling licence and author agreements by a new colleague, Verena Berger. From today’s vantage point, would you still decide to join the publisher, and even to undertake a move to Berlin, which has inevitably entailed a major private disruption?
Looking back, I could not have imagined a more stimulating field of endeavour. The move to Berlin was, on the one hand, most exciting, but, on the other, represented a simply intractable hardship because my parents were in need of care. I was nevertheless able to get well settled in Berlin relatively quickly, and can say in the meantime that I would never again want to be without Berlin’s cultural abundance.
Interview conducted by Daniela Brendel, photo by Jascha Zube