An Interview with Daniela Huber
For 42 years, Daniela Huber has been a violinist in the Bavarian State Orchestra. She also plays chamber music, composes, arranges, appears in cabaret performances as part of a string quartet, and founded a jazz band in which she plays mainly piano.
Outside the concert hall, too, Huber rarely remains silent. In 2014, a group of neo-Nazis demonstrated outside the Bavarian State Opera, playing recordings of Beethoven and Wagner; Huber’s strategically amplified jazz trio drowned them out. “If people deny the Holocaust, I cannot remain silent,” she says. “That also goes for conspiracy theories, which can be the beginning of such terrible things.” I respond that conversations with people who believe in conspiracy theories frequently take up so much energy that I prefer to withdraw from them politely. “You can also withdraw impolitely!” Huber answers, laughing.
Her speech is slow and considered, but also warm-hearted, often mischievous, with an unmistakable Munich accent: “I studied in Munich. I always meant to leave for a while, but then I got the job so quickly that it never happened.”
Huber has plenty of anecdotes after her 42 years in the orchestra. How she made a glaring mistake once in a concert with Zubin Mehta and he reacted by giving her a bear hug during the final applause (and his flowers). How she walked all over East Berlin during a concert tour to find a couple of bottles of Wernesgrüner beer for a colleague, finally giving up and buying them at a steep markup from the hotel bar (“When you’re from Bavaria, you don’t skimp on beer”). How the men in the online music theory forums where she’s an active member get defensive when she makes comments under a woman’s name. Writing as a man is different, she tells me. “And in my situation, I know both sides,” she adds, as she tries to tame her long dark hair. She knows both sides because she was assigned male at birth.
Recently, Huber took a few hours off her vacation in Berlin to have coffee with me.
VAN: Which instrument did you start out with, violin or piano?
Daniela Huber: I started out on the accordion, then I took piano lessons. I only started playing the violin when I was 12, but then was quickly accepted as a junior student at the Richard Strauss Conservatory. At the time, I couldn’t make up my mind between piano and violin, so I tried to devote equal attention to both. At 17, I came to prefer the violin.
Because the piano is too lonely for my taste. It’s scary: you attend a piano recital with a world-famous pianist, and it’s fantastic. And then you have the intermission, and the audience is full of experts who all know better. It seems very obsessive to me. You have to make extra-sure to play from the right edition and not to make any mistakes. And then the result is still supposed to sound like music. There are a few pianists who can pull that off. But there are too many who fail.
So you studied just the violin at conservatory?
Yes, I stopped studying the piano for a while, but I still took private lessons, without the ambition of doing it professionally.
But today, you also perform as a pianist—mainly as an accompanist.
I always did a lot of accompanying. But then I never stopped playing the piano either, perhaps for a day or two here and there, or when I was on vacation.
Does that make you unusual within the orchestra? Or are there many musicians who play a second instrument at such a high level?
A lot of people play a second instrument, or play chamber music, things like that. But there are only a few who are inclined to improvise.
You founded a jazz band which also includes members of your orchestra.
The problem is that you can’t play jazz on the side when your background is classical. I always say it’s like the same language, but spoken in a totally different dialect. If you just grab some sheet music or imitate something you’ve heard in a recording—that doesn’t work. You have to really practice and study it intensely. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense; it sounds artificial. And you have to have an affinity for it. Though I would never describe myself as a professional jazz musician.
Did you study composition?
No, I’ve always just done it, starting from when I was 12 or 13. Composing and arranging for the instrumental combinations we had in the family. It was a terrible hodgepodge—recorder, saxophone, piano, trumpet, accordion, cello—just whatever happened to be around. That’s very limiting, but it’s also good training. Of course I was very interested in the theoretical aspects and tried to learn them. And with lots of practice, there comes a point where you no longer need a piano in order to imagine the music.
I think it’s incredibly important to play chamber music as a student. People who are totally fixated on practicing orchestral excerpts…I’m not sure that’s the point. You lose a certain level of flexibility. Auditions haven’t changed since the ‘70s. We also played at a high technical level then, although we studied differently. To me, the days always felt too short, because there was so much I wanted to do at the same time.
You have been a member of the State Orchestra for 42 years now. For 25 you’ve been playing as Daniela. Was there much awareness of trans identity in Germany in the 1990s?
Today it’s easy: you go on the internet and find all the information you want. At the time, even the huge municipal library in Munich didn’t really offer literature on the topic. For a long time, I didn’t understand what was going on with me. What I knew was that I was not what I represented to the outside world. I can remember feeling that way since kindergarten. At some point, when I was 11 or 12, I found an article in a magazine about a trans person and knew: Something like that is going on with me, too. But there was no one I could talk to about it.
At the time, homosexuality was discussed in a frightening way, with the implication that it was something into which young people were seduced—totally nuts! At 16 or 17, I tried to work through all the literature I could lay my hands on, because I thought it was a mistake, something that had to be fought. A homosexual relationship was not an alternative for me then, because I did not feel like I was a man. I fought it inwardly, met a woman, got married, started a family. I thought I could repress it, like Catholic priests repress their sexuality. Today we know that that doesn’t work very well. And it didn’t work well for me either. At some point, you develop depression, you get sick. I simply no longer knew what to do; I had lost the will to live.
At the time, I had been collecting literature on the subject, hidden at the very back of my desk. My wife found it, and that was my outing. That was the beginning of a process I was unable and unwilling to stop.
Germany permitted transitioning back then, but there were so many conditions attached that it was cruel. It began with the “daily life test.” Before any kind of treatment was permitted, you had to live in your real gender for a year. You had to dress as a woman—beard and all!—and act the way a psychiatrist imagined a woman to be, not how you actually were.
I did not do that. I said, “I am 40 years old and I will decide for myself.” I have witnessed several times that people who start too early, who immediately say, “Starting tomorrow, I will live as a woman,” fail.
Because it's too much for other people?
It is too much for the others, and it is too much for yourself, too. You start thinking: “How do I move, how am I sitting?” I don’t want to do that! I want to move how I move. Without thinking about it. Just as I’m sitting here now.
And how did that work in the orchestra?
For me, the transition was fluid. In rehearsals, for example, you don’t have to wear a suit or tails, you can dress as you like. The main thing is that you show up in concert dress for the performance. And that was a point where I said, “I am not going to do that to satisfy the ‘daily life test’—sit in the spotlight on stage in a dress and with a five o’clock shadow, with 2,000 people watching me. Not in a hundred years!” I only wanted to do that when I was sure that I could pass.
After a lengthy waiting period, I received hormone therapy and had my beard removed. At the time, the orchestra was looking for a hall outside the opera house for a recording, and we found one in a cultural center which also had a shopping mall and restaurants. I was leaving the mens’ room and another guy was heading in. He stopped and double-checked if he had the right door. “Ah, it’s working!” I thought [laughs]. You start to pluck your eyebrows, to change your clothes a bit. And your colleagues notice, but they don’t yet suspect anything in particular.
I built my case from the bottom up. First I went to the orchestra doctor, who tried to get a sense of how the artistic director, Sir Peter Jonas, felt about these issues. The response was very positive. Sir Peter Jonas told me that he had a similar case in his family and that he’d support me. I asked to come out to my violin section first, then to write a letter to all the orchestra members, and then to make it official throughout the opera house. And that’s how it was done.
How did the orchestra react to your coming out?
Positively! Those who disagreed didn’t dare to say so.
And the administration?
They simply stuck to the law. Which was not great at the time. It was difficult to change to your correct gender on official documents. You had to prove you were permanently infertile, and that you weren’t married. That was the case until the 1990s. It was medieval!
How did daily life in the orchestra change after your coming out?
After my coming out, my plan was to appear fully dressed for the concert and unpack my violin in the instrument storage room. But that’s not how it happened. My female colleagues had discussed it and said, “You can change here with us. No problem.” They were really nice about it [smiles broadly]. Most of the musicians now have only ever known me like this. Nobody talks about it anymore.
What are your feelings about retirement after 42 years in the orchestra?
It’s going to be a little hard. All my life, I have made music. I’ve always liked playing the violin and now, at 63, I notice that I’m getting slower. It’s getting worse—even if I practice a lot. I know that colleagues often try to postpone the moment when they have to stop. But that doesn’t help. At some point, it’s over. Then you have to make room for the young people coming up. On the other hand, I am gaining space for my own ideas.
Do you have those ideas already? Or do you need the free space first in order for the ideas to come to you?
In my case, they always arise from the situation. But then I’ll be able to do all the things I like doing. I don’t have to pay off a mortgage, there are no children to take care of. Though I have four grandchildren now, which is great.
Are you planning a big retirement party?
Sure! There’s always a reason to party [laughs]. But there’s no need to wait until then [laughs louder]. Well, not at the moment, but when it’s possible again …
Will you invite your orchestra colleagues?
Yes, of course. Naturally, we have had tense moments too. It would not be healthy if everyone always agreed. And sometimes arguments can lead to positive change. But it is important that things end with a big celebration—like in Asterix and Obelix. ¶