The feXm jury met on 13 September. The venue was the Kunststiftung NRW in Düsseldorf. New to the round was not only the Staatstheater Darmstadt, but also the expert team of Susanne Blumenthal, Rainer Nonnenmann and Moritz Lobeck. Thirty-six applications had to be assessed in advance (the year before there were twenty-nine). Five finalists were chosen after a long day. As always, a few more would have liked to be shortlisted. They are now invited to an in-depth discussion with the jury on 26 September at the NRW KULTURsekretariat.
Among the NOperas! projects to date, “Kitesh” is the most elaborate. As in Halle, all departments in Bremen, which has two NOperas! productions in its repertoire this season, were involved in intensive work. Wisely taking into account that “Kitesh” had been “lying” for a year and a half, Bremen added an additional ten days to the agreed rehearsal time. All the effort, as the premiere shows, has paid off.
Kitesh” still consists of three parts. One in the city space (the audience is divided into groups), one in the foyer (everyone goes their own way) and a third in the traditional situation of the peep-box stage. An armed Hun storm in the stalls and wild escapes in the tiers, however, don’t really let you settle down even there.
In the opera business, whole generations of singers can be channelled through a successful production. The main task of every assistant director is to show the respective new cast ways and actions that have been developed and rehearsed by others. It is therefore better for a director not to make his work too dependent on the external appearance, personality and individuality of his premiere cast. “Hauen und Stechen” have made a name for themselves with a concept that works exactly the other way round and frees the singer-actor from being a puppet. With the largely new cast in Bremen, a new play with changed figures, characters and emphases has emerged.
“Kitesh” in Halle was a spectacle of still roughly hewn building blocks, improvisational lust patched up what was still rather unfinished. Hardly anyone complained that they could hardly follow the plot – the spectacle outweighed that. In Bremen, finer lines were now drawn that made many an interpretative intervention in Rimsky’s opera more comprehensible and wrested a new and perplexing reading from its convoluted reassurance of the afterlife.
Rimsky’s Kitesh opera was premiered in 1916, the same year as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony. It has many enchantingly beautiful passages, but is hardly free of folkloristic kitsch in others. It is daring to simply orchestrate it downwards, when Rimsky’s much-vaunted strength seems to lie above all in the magic of the orchestral colours. In Halle, my opinion was confirmed that this could hardly go well. In Bremen, I heard it differently. Freed from all wafting and embedded in the contemporary sounds of Alexander Chernikov, Rimsky’s melodic inventiveness now comes to the fore. His music seems quotation-like or folklore, but hardly folkloristic any more.
The elaboration of the almost uninterrupted double action of stage action and simultaneous enlargement of scenic details through the observation of a live camera has also become more precise. When Kitesh sinks, the sinking trench and the film projected over it now interlock in such a way that ahs and oohs can be heard from the audience.
The rush for “Kitesh” was great and so Bremen sold additional tickets for the following performances, despite the crowds that had to be accepted for the first part.
A wind machine caused a red flag to wave while the main rehearsal was still in progress. It changed colour in the main dress rehearsal. What worked in Halle in 2020 suddenly doesn’t work anywhere in Europe. There are people who think that one should not play pieces by Russian composers at the moment. On the contrary, playing them now seems more important than before.
The grounds of the Blickfelder Festival are outdoors at the so-called Turbinenplatz directly behind the Zurich Schiffbau. Despite the festival, not many people are out and about here on this Sunday. A place in the shade seems more desirable to most than participating in an urban space project that leads up and down the Zurich hills in the scorching heat. “You’ll pass two fountains, take enough water with you anyway!” is the instruction. And off we go on an audio- and video-controlled scavenger hunt that infamously leads twice along the Limmat, where half of Zurich is cooling off in the river.
“Vier Viertel” is about the world of experience of children from four different districts of Zurich and at the same time serves as preparation for “Fundstadt”, i.e. the NOperas! project that will be performed in Gelsenkirchen and Bremen next summer.
For their audio-and-video walk, HIATUS have invented an audiovisual guidance system that will also be used later in “Fundstadt”. At first I’m annoyed by how complicated it is to put on the whole outfit: a combination of tablet, headphones, cape and hood. Then I quickly begin to realise how sophisticated it is. On this day, the hood protects me not from rain, but from heatstroke. When it comes to crossing streets, the tablet tells me to take off my headphones.
I meet four Zurich children on the way through the four Zurich districts. Hear their voices. Hear their music. I see them appear as ghostly figures on the tablet in the very scenery where I am stopping.
Four quarters, that means about an hour’s walk through different Zurich milieus. Does it seem to me, wrongly, that even the two toughest girls in Zurich’s Wunderland lead a more suspended life than perhaps some girls in Gelsenkirchen?
“Vier Viertel” is a nice and inspiring starting point for thinking about and further discussing “Fundstadt”, a project that, unlike the one in Zurich, is also to include live-action theatre. Gelsenkirchen and Bremen are to be short-circuited with each other. But how do you show Gelsenkirchen in Bremen and vice versa? And how can one at the same time stick to showing the children in “their” milieu? What takes the place of the lonely Zurich scavenger hunt adventure when whole groups of visitors are sent on their way together in “Fundstadt”?
We are still at the very beginning with “Fundstadt”.
NOperas! is launching a new call for projects. The fifth – and thus the second within a second three-year season.
Alongside Gelsenkichen and Bremen, Darmstadt is now on board as the third house. Darmstadt is an important venue in the German music theatre landscape that has repeatedly attracted attention with its daring and special projects.
NOperas! has taken a rather bumpy and winding road so far.
“Chaosmos”, the first project, premiered in Wuppertal. Rehearsals for the continuation, which started later in Halle, had to be cancelled because of the lockdown. Everything else shifted from the stage to the digital world and “Chaosmos” mutated into an interactive film project, which then found its place on the websites of the participating theatres.
Germany’s stages had opened again when “Kitesh” was then launched in Halle. Hygiene regulations complicated the rehearsals. There was a very successful premiere, but due to illness, the second performance was already dominated by short-notice cast changes. Others then fell ill and the third performance had to be cancelled.
Corona meanwhile turned the theatres into a marshalling yard where trains constantly change tracks instead of setting off at some point. Wuppertal and Bremen had to postpone further development of “Kitesh”. Then the Wupper burst its banks, flooding the Wuppertal orchestra pit, ruining the technical equipment and many expensive musical instruments. Wuppertal was literally up to its neck in water and cancelled “Kitesh”. With a delay of one and a half years, only a second stage of development is now pending in Bremen.
Meanwhile, other difficulties arose in Halle. The artistic director changed prematurely and Halle therefore dropped out of NOperas! As with “Kitesh”, only two houses were now involved in “Obsessions”.
With the last call for proposals, the second three-year season began in 2021. Gelsenkirchen took the place of Wuppertal. In times when most theatres tried to save themselves with repertoire hits like “Carmen” and “Magic Flute”, no quick replacement could be found for Halle’s departure. From the outset, therefore, this call for tenders was restricted to only two cities (Bremen in addition to Gelsenkirchen).
The current tender will run for six weeks. With Darmstadt, a third high-calibre theatre is now involved. Kirsten Uttendorf, Darmstadt’s opera director, managed the Akademie Musiktheater Heute (AMH) for a long time, a support programme of the Deutsche Bank Foundation for young musical theatre talent. Many took part in it who now belong to the créme of the independent music theatre scene.
So NOperas! has just made it back to its original model with great difficulty. Will we find ourselves in calmer waters? The signs for culture in Germany are stormy. It will probably take a lot more stamina.
Five weeks were spent working in Bremen. The result is a play that draws equally on the personality of each participant. A play in which everyone is a leading actor.
An ensemble with no division of tasks. Everyone sings, plays and speaks. The fact that one can recognise who is a singer, who is a professional actor and who belongs to the Oblivia collective only reinforces the impression of mutual rapprochement in the common crossing of boundaries.
Covid still struck after the dress rehearsal, Timo Fredriksson from Oblivia spends the premiere in quarantine. In a play that draws on the personality of everyone involved, no one is actually replaceable. Alice Flerl, Oblivia’s dramaturge, who in Bremen, unlike in other productions, should not actually be on stage herself, steps in, takes over the actions he has developed. There’s no other way if the premiere is not to fall through.
Yiran Zhao accompanied the rehearsals and took up suggestions from instrumental improvisations. The result is music that serves the scene at every moment, sometimes even taking a back seat to the action of the performers, but never abandoning the complexity of contemporary sound language and ultimately cannot do without a conductor. Therefore, the idea of including the instrumentalists in the scene could not be sustained. Only at the end of the piece do they themselves become actors.
Those who improvise need something to improvise about. For Oblivia, themes are above all a means to an end. The scenic material, which started out as a collective improvisation about obsessions, does not always reveal its origins later on, and can turn into the abstract, because in the end it is only form and scenic rhythm that count when it is put together. Some of the audience may have had false expectations as a result of the announcement texts. “I liked it, but I didn’t really understand anything,” said one person after the premiere. “Was there anything to understand?” replies his companion. Her gaze, devoted to the image and not looking for a story in the performance, was certainly the more appropriate one.
Long applause. Many in the Bremen audience broadened their understanding that evening of how many different paths musical theatre can take today.
In October, it will continue in Wuppertal. First, workshops for musicians and singers. The premiere will be at the beginning of December. The large-scale scenic structure found in Bremen will be retained in Wuppertal. Everything else – including the music – will take on a new form with new participants. Opera, drama and dance are under separate artistic direction in Wuppertal. Unlike in Bremen, it seemed impossible at first to work across the disciplines. Thanks to the efforts of the Wuppertal music theatre directors, members of the local theatre and dancers from the Pina Bausch ensemble are now also involved.
When Oblivia dedicate themselves to a new project, there is first an agreed theme, everything else is then developed from the first moment on in joint improvisation. The scenic work on “Obsessions” began during the past months. Two of the participants live in Berlin and Essen, the others in Helsinki. Although they improvised together, they were only connected via the internet due to travel restrictions. Improvisation with the local singers and musicians began in Bremen in a relaxed workshop atmosphere. For Oblivia, too, this meant uncharted territory. The challenge of developing a piece in which other people were involved for the first time in addition to the actors of the group itself led to a compromise with the previous way of working. Internally, the basic grid of an overarching structure for the piece had already been worked out, but in Bremen it was a question of approaching the open spaces for singers and musicians. Such work is not possible with all singers and certainly not with all orchestra musicians. The Bremen Theatre has made clever arrangements. Everyone showed themselves to be highly motivated to break new ground and to embark on the adventure of developing this piece as not only interpreters and performers, but also as co-creators.
The theatres participating in NOperas! have committed themselves to three-year cycles. The first of them comes to an end with this season. Together with the participating theatres, NOperas! is still laboriously manoeuvring its way through the corona-induced shunting of theatre schedules. Would it have made sense to breathe a little more air into the matter, not to announce a new project for one season, to postpone the second cycle by a year? As the only funding instrument in the German-speaking world that explicitly targets newer forms of music theatre, NOperas! is an important contact point for the work of the independent scene – to suspend it would have meant withdrawing support from this scene at a moment when many of its actors are still threatened in their existence as a result of the past theatrical lockdown.
It remains interesting: This year’s call for proposals was increasingly used by newcomers, while some of the more established players in the scene signalled that they themselves were still sitting on too many postponed projects to be able to devote themselves to new goals at the moment.
But this hardly made it easier for the NOperas! jury to select one and only one production from the many applications that deserved funding this year. In public, there is always the misunderstanding that feXm and NOperas! follow the idea of a competition, that the jury therefore connects its project selection with the statement that it is the “best” of all the submitted concepts. It is not without reason that representatives of the performing theatres are also involved in this committee alongside independent experts. Considerations based on their respective play concepts are also always taken into account in the selection of projects.
Six finalists were invited to Düsseldorf on 30 September to answer questions about their applications. At the end of the day, the jury was still not unanimous and so the decision was only made during an additional meeting on 11 October.
The first project of the new three-year season will be a (for the time being still unnamed) production by the Swiss-German group HIATUS. HIATUS are: composer Duri Collenberg, improvisational musician Lukas Rickli and theatre-maker Uta Plate – more about them soon on this website.
At the centre of their project, which fuses elements of an audio and video walk with the theatre action of singers and instrumentalists, is the experience, thinking and feeling of a selected group of children from different social backgrounds. What impressed the jury about the submitted concept was both the claim to meet the children involved at eye level and that of turning the musical and theatrical work with them into an ambitious theatre for adults. A dialectic play that takes adults back to an earlier existence of elementary conflicts, wishes and hopes. A reminder could emanate from it of our responsibility for this distressed planet, which we will soon have to hand over to the younger ones.
Within the framework of the production, a cooperation with the Zurich festival Blickfelder is planned. Initially, a version will be performed in Zurich that is limited to the digital level of audio and video feeds and will only be expanded with theatrical action in the course of further development in Gelsenkirchen and Bremen.
Berthold Schneider and his team at the Wuppertal Opera are going through difficult times. COVID has forced them to suspend operations since May and to postpone rehearsals and premieres again. Just now they had planned anew – then came the flood in July. Those who know Wuppertal know how close the opera is to the river: The floodwater penetrated into the lower part of the opera house, it flooded the orchestra pit and damaged many instruments. The damage is now estimated at around 10 million euros. The stage is not expected to be playable again until December at the earliest. It is little consolation that the Wuppertal Opera was chosen as one of the eleven winners of the Federal Theatre Prize for its artistic programme a few days before the flood – another is the Schlosstheater Moers, which presented François Sarhan’s multi-part feXm production “The Suitcase” in 2017 and 2018.
Unfortunately, the NOperas! project “Obsessions” has also been affected by the Wuppertal flood disaster. Even if it is possible to play again in December, it will take much longer to repair the damage to the submachinery. It will also be uncertain for a longer period of time whether the revolving stage, which is indispensable for this project, will be available again for the planned Wuppertal premiere of “Obessions” next March. If at all possible, the date should nevertheless be kept. The search has therefore begun for an alternative venue in the wider surroundings of the city.
NOperas! celebrated its first premiere in Wuppertal in January 2020 with the first performance of “Chaosmos”. At the time, people in the canteens talked with horror about a strange virus that had spread in China and were still convinced that they were at a safe distance. This soon turned out to be a mistake and soon after NOperas! started, the theatre was no longer the same. Corona, then, is about the same age as NOperas!, has remained an uninvited companion to this support programme ever since and continues to force it down improvised paths to this day.
The planned further development of “Chaosmos” on the theatre level did not happen, rehearsals in Halle had begun and had to be cancelled. As so often in the past, a film was made as a substitute, which Bremen and Wuppertal presented on their websites.
Under tense conditions, “Kitesh” then had its first performance in Halle in autumn 2020. But here, too, the virus got in the way. There was only one further performance, the third could not take place due to changes in hygiene regulations.
After extensive preliminary conceptual work on the Wuppertal version of “Kitesh”, the Wuppertal Opera then found itself forced to completely cancel – the lockdown had prevented the planned performances in January, “Kitesh” was initially postponed to May, but even then it could neither be rehearsed nor performed, and the house found itself unable to postpone it again. Bremen, on the other hand, has now saved “Kitesh” for the coming season, where it will be further developed and performed after (!) the premiere of the new NOperas! project “Obsessions” there.
Meanwhile, NOperas! and its partner theatres say goodbye to the season break with a small digital fireworks display that summarises once again what has been created in spite of everything within the framework of this programme:
As a substitute for the announced performances, Wuppertal Opera presents on its website a short film created as part of “Kitesh” – in its theatre productions, Hauen und Stechen work with filmic material in a variety of ways, and here it is now the other way round: a filmic work that extensively incorporates material from the theatre.
At the same time, after three and a half years of daring musical theatre explorations, the Halle-based management team around Florian Lutz is now taking its hat off by staging a festival entitled “Everything Ends” at the end. With live musical accompaniment by Marc Sinan, there will be a public viewing of the “Chaosmos” film on the forecourt of the Hallens Opera House. The event will be streamed simultaneously from a “virtual opera house” created for the festival. For both, see the calendar.
In addition to the short film, which will also be presented by Wuppertal Opera, a second film by the production team on the subject of Kitesh will be available as video on demand during the festival. It will soon be available on this website, “Chaosmos – The Film” can be found here, “Kitesh / Short Film” here.
Recently at the Zoom Symposium of the Austrian Music Theatre Days, NOperas! was presented as a competition. This can be seen as such, but it hardly corresponds to the self-image of this programme. The emphasis is hardly on putting some “best” music theatre project in the spotlight every year, let alone choosing a “winner”. Many applications would have deserved to be selected each time, but neither feXm’s funds nor the capacities of the participating theatres are sufficient for more than one production each.
This year, the jurors had to work faster and more intensively on evaluating the project proposals they received. This time, the current discourse on diversity and the distribution of power in theatre is reflected in a whole series of them. The first jury meeting took place yesterday via Zoom with a largely new line-up (→ see page Jury). Five projects made it to the finalists.