Silbersee has set itself a goal. By 2027 at the latest, we will become a climate-positive production house that averts all negative effects on the environment and raw materials. To get there, we must transition both in production and in operations. Our sustainable ambitions also include an eye for inclusion, diversity and circularity. With this, we want to be an art institution that strives to have a positive impact not only on society but also on the earth on which we are guests. To guarantee that sustainable future, we and the team wrote a Manifesto with eight fundamental principles that should help support us in the coming years. In addition, we will be examining the productions we make in the coming period in various areas and we will follow various stakeholders during their quest to make processes more sustainable. On this page you can follow our journey towards 2027 in words and images.
A conversation with Sophie Pfaff
In December 2021 we said goodbye to our colleague Sophie Pfaff, who moved back to Germany with her family. Following her departure, we asked her about the work she has recently performed as a Quartermaster Circularity & Inclusion.
Who is Sophie Pfaff?
Originally from Germany, I am a cultural studies graduate. I joined Silbersee five years ago. I had submitted my dissertation and then saw the job opening. I did not know the company; I had worked mostly in the dance world until then. But the videos of Silbersee that I saw online intrigued me. I immediately felt a connection, even during the interviews.
So how did you become Quartermaster of Circularity & Inclusion
When we were writing the new policy plan in 2019, we reformulated our social ambitions. We wanted to be more socially responsible. This was primarily about the inclusiveness of our performances and treating each other with respect. But no less important to us was respect for the planet. We started looking at where we stood in terms of sustainability. How do our productions get made? How many emissions are we actually responsible for? To what extent do the materials we use end up in the waste container or in a cycle of raw materials? And what are the knobs we can turn?
A new staff member was included in the budget for this issue, but when we didn't get the full amount, we started to restructure the organization and fill the tasks differently. In addition, the 2020 lockdown created a lot of room for reflection. I remember many fascinating conversations with colleagues about social issues and the role of art in them. Romain [Bischoff] felt those themes were also urgent for me, and so then it became part of my job. He also gave me the opportunity to work on the "Rethink Crew".
How did you approach it?
Participating in the "Rethink Crew" really inspired me. We started thinking with six people from the sector about radically new ways of producing: zero footprint and truly inclusive. It was great to be able to let loose and think freely about the performing arts of the future. Many subjects were discussed: the climate crisis, the anthropocene, the balance between humans and the environment, the fascination with nature. We also noticed that a lot of people are working on these themes. I took that energy to my new job at Silbersee. I wanted to ignite everyone with it.
What did you achieve?
Raising awareness in the team was the first step. Where does each team member stand as an individual in this area. It started with Romain, who, as a farmer's son, made an inclusive movement right from the start of Silbersee and believed that opera could touch everyone, without prior knowledge. It was nice to discover what we were already doing as an organization.
Decor in a suitcase
We also approached it a little bit like the instant composing of our productions: a lot of it just happens on the floor. We started trying things out. At Silent Night in 2020, we determined in a conversation with the technicians that the items that create the biggest emissions are the scenery and transportation. We decided not to travel around the country by truck this time but to design a set that could fit in a suitcase and be transported by train. It became something with inflatable, luminous balloons. They made an impression on stage, but fit in a suitcase, well, it ended up being two heavy suitcases. For the executive technician, it was no fun making long days and then also having to travel home late at night by train. That's when we set up the most efficient transportation schedule possible with one car. That was the phase of just doing it.
But also the research continued; after all, I am a scientist. The first question then is: Where are we now? I noticed that in the United Kingdom they are much further advanced in the development of tools that allow cultural institutions to measure their ecological footprint. But these tools are specifically aimed at the English context, where companies are much more tied to houses. So it didn't quite fit the Dutch situation. And we are too small to develop such a tool ourselves. Then I ended up at Bureau 8080. Together with them we did a baseline assessment. We took the performance Hans en Griet (7+) as a starting point and scanned it on all parts, from production and rehearsal to touring and education. There were two questions in each case: what is the environmental impact of this activity in terms of CO2 emissions and raw materials? And how much influence do we have in making it more sustainable?
Based on the results of this assessment, we had a series of inspiring conversations and working sessions with the team, which also involved the board. An important outcome of the sessions was the formulation of a clear ambition:
"Silbersee's ambition is to implement circularity in its entire operations in six years (2021 - 2027). Silbersee wants to be a climate-positive production house, which has no net negative impact on the environment and raw material resources, and a positive impact on society."
Together with Bureau 8080, we are currently developing a customized sustainability program. That will be delivered in December. Then we will have a toolbox with which we can get started.
Another important new initiative, in the area of inclusion, is the project It All Starts With Your Voice, but that is more in the hands of Imke Muriël van Herk, my colleague from Marketing & Communications. The point is that as an institution that starts from the voice, in all its forms and facets, we also want to consider the voices of others. We don't want to just send, we want to listen. Next year we will launch a tool where people can leave their voice, in the form of an audio recording, a text, a drawing....
Another colleague, Jimmy-Pierre de Graaf is researching sustainable international collaboration and touring. We are doing this together with the companies of Ulrike Quade and Nicole Beutler, as well as with master's students from Utrecht University.
But the ultimate elaboration of our sustainability ambitions will, of course, be seen in our artistic work. We are working on a manifesto that will form the base of all new projects, and to which all creators will commit themselves. Because ultimately, of course, we want to make art; that is what drives us. Of course, doing nothing at all ensures the least emissions, but that is not an option. Art can help the world imagine a new future, that is where our greatest impact lies.
What did you come across?
The great pressure to produce that comes from our subsidy system sometimes makes it difficult to create the space for this kind of development. There is too much focus on output and audience reach. The same goes for the obligation to spread your activities geographically. Of course, that touring the Netherlands is not necessarily good for the footprint. This is a subject we want to work on together with the Council for Culture, the funds and the programmers. We need to work together more and share knowledge. On our own we won't succeed.
What exactly is climate-positive producing?
The terminology is sometimes complex: zero footprint, climate neutral, climate positive....
Climate neutral production is a first goal, a start. We have discovered that we can compensate our emissions from Hans and Griet for 200 to 300 euros. Then you can say on paper that you are working climate neutral. But that's not what we want; we want to go beyond that. That means we have to reduce our own emissions significantly anyway, before compensation comes into the picture at all.
Internationally, people are increasingly talking about net zero. This means that in order to restore the global balance, we must also actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. In the Netherlands there are many peat grassland areas where by raising the water level you can substantially store emissions of harmful gases. That is a project close by that is set up locally, in a short chain. We want to participate in that.
The idea of giving something back to the earth comes up regularly at Silbersee. That's why we chose the term climate positive. We want to contribute to restoring the balance between humans and the planet.
What will your successor have to do next?
Now really comes the phase of implementation. We have done a lot of thinking and have formulated the ambitions. Now we have to put the words into action. That starts with artistic planning. That is where the sustainability manager will have to follow along and identify where the challenges and opportunities lie. This is already a structural part of our working method. Everyone is involved: the producers, the business manager, colleagues from marketing, sales, etc.
And we have to see what collaborations we can enter into; my successor will also be involved in co-productions from the concept phase. Then he or she will monitor the process during the production phase, and afterwards, of course, there will be an evaluation.
Further research will also be necessary. We must remain open to new ideas and developments in this field. The nice thing is that the team is super motivated. Everyone wants to cooperate. We are not afraid of the artistic consequences.
What will you miss?
I regret leaving at this time; I would have preferred to stay a while longer. But I didn't have the timing in my own hands. I can also imagine that after I leave it will take a different direction, that other accents will be placed. I'm not afraid of that. Maybe someone will come who is more activist than I am. There is definitely room to design the position yourself. Important choices have to be made. I do hope to stay connected from Germany. I hope we can still work together in another way.
Text: Jan Van den Bossche
A conversation with director and artistic director Romain Bischoff
About Silberese's ambitious sustainability goals and the creation of the Manifesto.
Silbersee once began as VocaalLab, the club of the difficult notes no one else could sing. Why this obsession with sustainability?
It has to do with my personal story. I have witnessed up close the developments of the past 50 years. The farm where I grew up was still a "Van Goghian" affair. Nature could take its course there. You could cut the grass for hay with a scythe at most twice a year, and weeds were weeded by hand, hoping they wouldn't come back.
But when I was about ten or eleven years old, the miracle of renewal happened. My father, as president of the local farmers' union, was quick to know about everything. There came fertilizer and remedies for weeds. The tractor made its appearance, soon followed by more machines. Suddenly you could mow four times a year, and that number increased over the years. I get it, of course; there were more and more people to be fed. But that intensified depletion of the earth has a price. We cannot continue to bend the earth to our will without consequences.
We are systematically plundering it. We are guests on earth and must relate to it and to each other in the same way. If you are visiting somewhere - because that is how I see it, it is no more and no less - you also leave that place tidy for the next guests, that is, the children of today.
The move from farm to contemporary opera is a big one; how does your background translate into your work?
I got away from the farm. I turned out to have a talent for music, I could put my heart into that, especially contemporary music. But I also noticed that those difficult notes, can be very far away from everyday reality. I don't like it when art becomes too abstract, only accessible to connoisseurs. In that sense, I am increasingly drawn back to my roots, to the simplicity and harmony of the land, the marching band I played in, the village choir I sang in. And especially nature. There is surely something higher that we will never understand, but once we are here on earth, it is important that we behave as guests. We need each other, both the children and the octogenarians. Singing together and making theater is surely not the only way to keep the world sustainable, but I am convinced that an organization like Silbersee can be significant.
Doesn't that focus on sustainability distract from the artistic goals? Will Silbersee take on a different character?
The artistic color of our work might just change in the coming years, I'm not afraid of that. Maybe we will grow into a club where activism is more prominent, a club more known for its nature-inclusive attitude. I don't know how it will develop. I want it to grow organically, like a tree. We're just working on the roots now. I have no idea what the creators in the Waterwende studio will come up with later. I am counting on their imagination and on radical changes in direction. From now on, sustainability will resonate in everything we do.
Did the pandemic have another impact on your process?
We were very much working on this even before the pandemic, for example in our triology of "primal operas," but it did gain momentum because of corona. Corona hit like a sledgehammer that left us all dumbfounded. For me and for the Silbersee team, a time of reflection set in. That eventually led to the radical steps noted in the Manifesto.
Corona will have longer-term implications for the industry anyway. I foresee that eventually everyone will start working with that climate-positive mindset. Our partners for the coming years are embracing our ambitions. Together with Stella, our Sustainability Manager, with the Manifesto in hand, I try to bring them as far as possible into our thinking. Possibly from 2027 we will only go to green theaters.
That performances have to travel as much as possible no longer seems self-evident to me at all. Just like so many other numerical quotas we have to keep meeting. I hope we can look at the impact of art in a different way.
In that sense we are becoming a different club, but that radicality was there from the beginning. So we will keep it.
What is the role of the Manifesto in all of this?
It was primarily a guide for ourselves. A bit like the Ten Commandments in church. We could go on chatting about it, but at some point you need something to hold on to. With these shoes we will walk we said, maybe get new heels along the way. The Manifesto is not cast in concrete, but that focus is important. In der Beschränkung zeigt sich der Meister. With this Manifesto we have something with which we can say to everyone: this is what we stand for! By the way, it took us a long time to get there. You don't come up with this in one afternoon. For example, we spent a long time discussing 'climate neutral'. That means that you can compensate for the emissions you produce; a bit like in the Catholic Church you can buy off your sins by confessing. A lot of big institutions do that. You go on a world tour by plane and then you plant some trees. That is not the path we want to take. Ultimately, we even want to go 'climate positive' and actively contribute to reducing CO2.
The second point of the Manifesto, circularity, might be easier to achieve in that sense?
There have been many discussions about that as well. It's not just about the circular production of sets and costumes. We also want to think about the long-term value of the immaterial products we create. What can we pass on? Can another institution or a young maker make use of the material without having to suffer financially? How do we make sure we don't produce "waste" at that point. We can also recycle music, in new productions, as we did for example with a piece by Giuliano Bracci, we reused that in a film. Circularity for me is also maintaining sustainable relationships, with artists, but also with venues and programmers, with audiences at the different venues. We don't really want to arrive somewhere at 4 p.m. anymore, play at 8 p.m. and disappear again at 11 p.m. in the evening. And then maybe return a year later.
Is that why the Manifesto also states that projects have an undeniable relationship with the environment in which they are performed?
Yes indeed! I think it broadens our view of art. A few years ago when we were making Aardappelvreters on the farm, a procession of cows came to watch. They started mooing heavily. Then I thought that cow song should become part of the composition; I can get quite caught up in something like that. Talk about inclusion! But I love to let the coincidence of the environment enter into the artistic product and I explore that myself. We did the same with farmer Klaas's tractor and slurry tank. His way of accelerating became part of the score. We really rehearsed it that way then, too. Music is broader than a double bass and a flute. All sound can be of value in a composition.
The Manifesto also says: every project is a Gesamtkunstwerk and authorship is shared.
This is the most difficult point. This is also where ego comes in. We all suffer from that. That ideas are common is hard for some to accept. But I maintain that a production is more than the sum of its parts. From the cooperation of everyone involved, from the composer to the person who makes the sandwiches, something indescribable is created. That suits Silbersee. At the start of each new project, I invite everyone to enter the (Silber) sea in the hope that a new, silver work of art will emerge from it.
Does the vocal, the voice remain the foundation at Silbersee?
Indeed, we were born in 2002 out of that vocal excellence and contemporary opera. We continue to nurture that expertise. But anyone who heard the broadcast A Good Morning with [Romain Bischoff] knows that I love many kinds of music. That's noticeable in our work, and also on the circuits where you meet us. That can be on a farm, but also in a theater, a factory, a forest or on the dance floor.
Everything that has to do with voice, you come across us: opera, rap, spoken word, actors. The voice of a cow is also expressive and starting this year we will also work with seniors, their lived voices will also have a place with us.
We also collect voices from the community. As Silbersee, we don't want to lock ourselves in our cocoon. The voices of the baker and the pizza courier should also be given a stage, and I would very much like to involve underprivileged or disabled people in our productions. Not to be able to put that check mark in front of the subsidizer afterwards, but because I think we should have an eye for everyone. That too is sustainability. Inclusion is not a separate goal, it is part of a sustainable view of the world.
Art for everyone?
Of course, we're never going to reach everyone, but we basically want everyone to be able to follow our projects, without any prior knowledge. That has to do with the first moment I was captivated by music. At my home on the farm, music was never played. We didn't even have a radio until I found an old dusty record player in the attic, where I wasn't supposed to go. One of those that you had to crank by hand. I put a record on it and heard someone singing opera for the first time in my life. It hit me hard. That's what I always try to achieve in our performances, that we touch people through the heart, instead of them first having to study a whole book to understand it.
Are you actually optimistic when it comes to the world, especially climate change? Are we going to make it?
I am absolutely optimistic. I see it in miniature in our organization. Not once have I felt that anyone thought I was talking nonsense. Everyone is completely on board. I also see a turnaround outside of Silbersee and in the broader society. Just look at Urgenda's climate case and Milieudefensie's victory over Shell. The prosecution is launching an investigation into Tata Steel! Things are moving fast now and that gives me hope. It just might happen faster than we now suspect. That positive attitude is also my only motivation to continue. That's just the way I am. We are guests on this globe, surrounded by people, animals, plants, trees, stars. Let's have empathy for each other, stop being freeloaders and everything will be all right.
Text: Jan Van den Bossche
A conversation with Manager of Sustainability Stella van Himbergen
Stella van Himbergen worked for more than 15 years for a wide range of companies in the field of sustainability, fair trade and circularity. Since February, she has joined Silbersee's team as the new Manager of Sustainability. Time for an introduction!
What is your background?
I studied fashion design at the HKU. Innovation was central there, and keeping an eye on what was going on in society. But the subject of sustainability was not yet in focus there in the 1990s.
After some wanderings into fashion and later the publishing world, I ended up at Dutch Design in Development (DDiD) in 2005. I started there as a program manager; later I became the owner. We helped local companies develop products for the European market.
That may sound a bit colonialist, but it was mostly about mutual exchange of knowledge. I got a lot to do with the social side there. They were often fair trade certified organizations working with small-scale producer groups with special crafts. Own initiative, commercial approach and market orientation were promoted. Not aid but trade, in other words.
From there I started to develop the training course 'Fair & Green Design' in 2011. That was still quite new at the time. What does that mean, a fair and sustainable product in that jungle of labels? I started helping trade organizations, retailers and designers make their product assortment fair and green.
And then it finally became sustainability?
From my own company, I continued at CIRCO. That is a program of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management to train companies in different sectors in setting up a circular business model. We organized training in circular business according to the CIRCO design methodology. As a trainer and consultant, I have guided numerous companies in making their processes circular. It is great to see when you have been able to move entrepreneurs toward circular thinking.
Yet you made the transition to the cultural sector and ended up at Silbersee?
I knew my assignment at CIRCO would end after five years. Then I saw the vacancy at Silbersee. I found it interesting that a production house for opera and musical theater also had sustainability high on its agenda. I was also attracted by the text: 'unorthodox, adventurous, kaleidoscopic'. That appealed to my artistic roots. The cultural sector had a tough time during Covid and needed to reconsider or build on innovations that had been deployed and to work on restoring audience reach. All in all, it seemed very refreshing to work in a new industry.
What did you encounter?
I found an artistic director, Romain Bischoff, with many interesting ideas. During the interview it became clear to me that sustainability is not seen as a separate island within the organization. They wanted to work completely sustainably themselves and are convinced that the cultural sector can make an important contribution also by inspiring others. Romain was very adamant; it was immediately clear that sustainability could also bring a lot of creativity for him. It makes a huge difference in getting started with sustainability if there is no thinking in limitations from above. The organization was coming out of the difficult corona period. There was quite a bit of tumult and bustle, but also a new inspiration.
Was the corporate culture a big adjustment?
I think it's too early to say anything about that. One former colleague did tell me that the creative sector was not very well organized. Another said again: you will encounter a lot of people with big egos in the industry.
We work with a relatively new team of people with a lot of experience who are very socially engaged. I do feel room to steer in that.
In previous assignments I have learned that sustainability also means redesigning the organization. At Silbersee it's going to affect all processes: the performances, operations, finances, communications, etc.
How do you see your own role?
I want to be involved in new productions from the beginning, so that sustainability is included in discussions with all partners. After all, it is my job to link the artistic plans of the company to our social ambitions regarding people, animals and the planet.
If a producer asks me out of the blue "what do you think of the catering at Oerol, shall we cut out meat?" then I can't say much. I first think what is the definition of sustainable food. So there is none, because it is difficult to define the sustainability of food. Should we start telling suppliers how they can source their ingredients more responsibly and sustainably? I don't need to put my stamp on everything right away. I want to prioritize and see what has the most impact and what is achievable when.
It was very nice that my predecessor had already done a lot of work to see what sustainability means on different topics. Also, the baseline measurement she had Bureau 8080 do, using a large production Hans and Gretel was very helpful. That gives me a basis to build on.
What are you going to do? What's on your to-do list right now?
We want to be a climate-positive production house by 2027. We have developed a Manifesto with our founding principles. That's great, but it doesn't stop there. We also need to provide insight into practical approaches. I want to develop a sustainability plan, with an initial focus on making the theater projects more sustainable.
That means formulating goals and approaches for each subject, for example for scenery and costumes . We could work with sustainable suppliers. But the question could also be: is decor really necessary? And do we want to retain ownership of decor or not? I have had many conversations with set designers. I want to test our goals with the team and then sharpen them; after all, we do it together.
Financial direction and support will also be needed. We are aiming for a financially neutral sustainability policy, balancing costs and benefits. That will be quite a challenge.
Does sustainability cost money?
As an example: in our productions, the greatest impact in terms of CO2 emissions is in the transportation of goods and people. The conclusion could be that we buy or lease an electric truck. Therefore, we are looking at establishing a climate fund. We will also have to generate revenue in a creative way to achieve our ambitions. We believe that people want to contribute to our sustainability plans. We are thinking of individuals and entrepreneurs, for example, leaders in sustainability.
With the income we will then be able to compensate, for example, the unavoidable emissions that we still produce. Then we don't use money for this which is actually meant for culture. We can also invest the money in Waterwende, our R&D studio in the field of climate-positive theater.
What does sustainability mean to you personally?
I am much concerned with sustainable food, even though there is no single definition of it. I try to use food from short chains. I also use public transportation and bicycle as much as possible. At home I have solar panels on my roof, but not everything is sealed. My interior has been the same for twenty years and I place little to no value on stuff. I buy few clothes and anyway only clothes that last at least ten years. I pay attention to quality and to sustainable labels, but even these are not yet blissful. Innovation in recycling is just not there yet and there is also a lot to be gained in design.
Furthermore, I am close to nature. I like to be in touch with everything that grows around me; combined with the light that comes from above, it is healing. Still, like many, I am often behind my laptop due to my work. I sometimes regret that. When I joined Silbersee, people started saying to me by themselves "what I do now is not really sustainable is it? But I'm not a police officer. Yet sustainability is also about behavior. If I come into the office on Monday and a window is still open and the printer is on, something is going wrong.
Are we going to make it? Are you optimistic?
That's a tough question. Of course, the system is long overdue for an overhaul.
The last IPPC climate report was not exactly positive. Everything is at stake and further delay is no longer an option. Organizations, companies, governments and citizens can collectively do a lot, and ultimately legislation can exert a lot of influence. To meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, the global economy must also become circular. I recently read that a circular economy would provide about 20 percent less greenhouse gases and thus could structurally contribute to the Paris Agreement commitments.
But I am also realistic and see that there are a lot of challenges to adapt to climate change. Still, it would be too crazy for words to just let things run their course. Ultimately, I am positive in the longer run. Whether I will still be here on this earth I do not know. Either way, I think it would be fantastic if we with Silbersee could inspire others with our ambitions and goals. I am looking forward to that. That we as a cultural sector will join all those other sectors that also want to become more sustainable.
Text: Jan Van den Bossche