Independent theatre and music theatre ensembles in Germany usually work under precarious conditions. With the existing funding institutions, they shimmy from one project application to the next. Rarely is the funding then high enough to allow more than two or three performances in the end. The amount of work and the number of performances are hardly in a meaningful relationship and many a project would have more than deserved to reach a larger number of spectators.
The Netherlands and Belgium show that things can be done differently. Those who receive funding there receive it over several projects, so they are structurally secure and can plan for the longer term. Funded groups perform their plays not only a few times at the premiere venue, but tour with them across the many stages of the country, because unlike in Germany, these stages are not staffed with their own ensembles.
This has an impact on the aesthetic forms that music theatre takes there. After all, projects have to function not only in front of a smaller ingroup, which is usually the audience in Germany, but in front of a much larger group of an audience that is interested but by no means specialised in contemporary music. On the other hand, a much larger audience than in Germany is socialised with new forms of music theatre.
The cooperation of several theatres within the NOperas! programme tries to create synergies that compensate to some extent for the dilemma of local funding structures. However, productions do not move from one stage to another as completed projects, but at the same time find the opportunity for further development. Just how worthwhile this can be was already evident last summer with the further development of “Kitesh” in Bremen and now also with the second station of the “Obsessions” project in Wuppertal.
The decisive factor for the changed stage effect that “Obsessions” has now acquired in Wuppertal is the enlarged space in which the individual with his or her actions appears more isolated and therefore more emphasised. At the same time, the spatial distance to the audience is also greater in Wuppertal. This makes the stage action seem much more pictorial than in Bremen.
The new performers in Wuppertal each fill out the basic concept developed and adopted in Bremen in a new way. Whereas in Bremen it was easy to distinguish between actors, singers and members of the Oblivia ensemble in terms of the type and quality of their respective physical actions, the performers now form a much more cohesive ensemble that works on a homogeneous common basis.
Oblivia’s working method is similar in some ways to that of Pina Bausch, and even though this choreographed theatre is quite different, at the premiere Wuppertal seems to have remembered the old days. There was great and sustained applause.
Over five days in October, HIATUS worked with groups of children from Bremen and Gelsenkirchen to develop “sound-image ideas”. Designed as independent, self-contained events, these workshops now serve in a second step to select and recruit three children from each of the cities who will then also be at the centre of the performance of “Fundstadt”. According to the HIATUS method, finding and inventing sounds is closely linked to the visual and pictorial, specifically at the MiR to a “finding of faces”. Here HIATUS document their work process in Gelsenkirchen:
“We enter the field with the following question: In what form can we make the possibilities of music available as a space for working and experimenting?
And with this, the first co-composition methods with children become concrete. In the workshop, the children’s research begins with three focal points:
At the end of the workshop week, the performances of our “Wesenslieder” will take place at different locations around the MiR, bringing these three aspects together in the form of a sound performance. This is what the “Pareidolie Game” leads to, a process laid out over two days. In the first step, the children go out and find “faces” of beings in buildings, trees, traffic signs, etc. in public space. At these places they make sound recordings that capture the ambient sounds and some site-specific conspicuous sounds. In addition, each child plays the “creature location” like an instrument (e.g. scratching in the gravel, knocking on the garage door, etc.). With all these recordings, we build a sampler instrument for each being: each time a key is pressed on a small piano keyboard, a different sound is heard.
Our common starting point of finding “faces of beings” in public space and then giving them expression through sounds led the children to the possibility of experimenting with a sampler and combining their own recordings as building blocks to create “instant compositions”.
On the last day, the children perform with the sampler on their “beings”. We experience different performances:
“Obsessions” is now entering its second round at the Wuppertal Opera. Last week there was a rehearsal, today work began with the soloists, and the premiere is on 3 December.
There was actually nothing to “build” at the rehearsal – the play is performed on an empty stage. According to the original concept, Wuppertal’s revolving stage was to be an essential element of the performance, but after the flooding of the opera house last year it will not be operational for some time. As in Bremen, the instrumentalists are integrated into the stage action: In Bremen’s small house they had to sit at the left side, here, on the large stage, other possibilities arise, several have now been tested visually and acoustically.
Matthieu Svetchine from the Bremen ensemble has come to the Wupper. Apart from him and the actors from Oblivia, these are new actors. The multi-part form that the project took on in Bremen, both musically and theatrically, now serves in Wuppertal as a basic grid to be filled anew with the Wuppertal performers’ own input. So for the newcomers, too, it is now a matter of deriving individual theatrical actions from the improvisational preoccupation with the theme of “obsessions”.
It cannot be just a “rehearsal” because of the completely different dimensions of the stage space. Wuppertal’s stage is now not only much wider, but also much deeper, which, unlike in Bremen, suggests thinking in terms of foreground and background. The number of instrumentalists has increased, but the number of performers remains the same – the individual is much less absorbed into the group in this larger space, so individual actions appear more prominent, more exposed.
Yran Zhao has reworked her composition to suit the larger ensemble and at the same time created a new system of notation. Through more flexible instructions, the musical performance should be able to be adapted to the scenic even more than in Bremen.
Every year, the applications to NOperas! show that the independent scene is overflowing with ideas for new music theatre. Immersive concepts in particular are currently booming among the applications. Many of the projects submitted would have deserved to find their way to the City Theatre this year as well. Accordingly, the jury had a hard time deciding this time as well. After an additional (and thus third) jury meeting, the project for the 2024/24 season has now been decided: it bears the working title “XinSheng”. The production team consists of Davor Vincze (music), Aleksandar Hut Kono (text), Heinrich Horwitz (direction), Magdalena Emmerig (stage design), Premil Petrović (music director), Therese Menzel (production manager).
The Chinese word xīn shēng (新生) points to the sphere of association of regeneration and new life. Here it stands for a fictional drug that promises an increase in energy in the competitive struggle, but has hidden side effects and leads to premature death.
“XinSheng” is an intermedia project in which the live element of stage action is supplemented by digital media on an equal footing. “The piece,” says the application, “aims to sensitise the audience to a semi-dreamy, uncanny state in which everything is confused, loosely defined and slightly contradictory.” The focus is to be on the question of the way in which we construct “reality” from an excess of fragmented and thereby often contradictory information. For a more precise understanding of the plot, the audience is to be dependent on the use of smartphones – but not everyone is to come across the same information here.
Davor Vincze is the winner of several composition prizes. His music is performed by important ensembles for contemporary music (including Ensemble Modern, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Klangforum Wien). Analogous to the visual level, the musical live performance will also mix real instruments at the moment of sound production and “electronic” instruments from the field of digital playback.
Aleksandar Hut Kono has published two volumes of poetry that have won several prizes in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. He also gained experience in the field of musical theatre with libretti for the US composer Evan Kassof.
Several works have already brought Heinrich Horwitz (they/them/she/her/he/him) together with renowned composers and music ensembles as a choreographer and stage director. Most recently he was responsible for the music theatre “HAUS” with Sarah Nemtsov and Rosa Wernecke at this year’s Ruhrtriennale. He also works continuously as an actor in theatre, film and television.
Typical for the breaking up of conventional professional fields in the field of new music theatre, Magdalena Emmerig‘s work goes beyond her studies as a costume and set designer. In video works and performances, she explores the theatrical potential of digital media and images of gender and femininity. As part of the group “THE AGENCY”, she works on immersive theatre installations.
Premil Petrović is artistic director of the No Borders Orchestra, which he founded in 2012. His first recording with the NBO has been released by Universal Music/Deutsche Grammophon.
The Fonds Experimentelles Musiktheater is looking forward to this new team!
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.