The music theatre collective Opera Lab Berlin stages a controversial contemporary interpretation of the antique Odysseus theme.
Amongst the music theatre groups in the capital’s fringe scene, Opera Lab Berlin ist without a doubt one of the most experimental and refreshing. The name says it all, the collective sees itself as a creative laboratory. Their plumply filled, often flamboyantly colourful pieces are all at once opera and instrumental theatre, performance and walk-in installations. Trash and camp go hand in hand with satire, sharp critique and vitriol farce. […]
For their current project „Odyssey: Dead Men Die“ the collective focusses on the antique legend Odysseus. Homer portrays him as a cunning hero. Opera Lab Berlin on the other hand scrutinizes Odysseus relentlessly and puts him on trial. […]
In his music for voices, instruments and electronics, Gardner works with diverse stylistic references, quotes from pop culture and music history. These references are important to him as clear indications of socio-cultural contexts, which are covered in the piece. And they are highly up-to-date. Because here the story of Odysseus is read as ‚attempt to violently and ignorantly reinstate a deeply crisis-ridden and broken social order’, as Michael Höppner explains. Promising critique of capitalism with flying sparks, chipped out of the famous antique legend.
For six years now Opera Lab Berlin, founded 2014 by the composer Evan Gardner and the director Michael Höppner, has put the idea of a radical musical equality of all performers at the heart of its work. As with all since then presented projects, the realization of Gardner’s newest music theater „Odyssey: Dead Men Die“ profits from the ensemble’s working method, without hierarchies, based on common responsibility for the development of all aspects of the performance. […]
The performance proves to be a plump theater farce full of successful devices which is staged by Höppner - in a stage design by Martin Miotk and enhanced with videos by Christian Striboll - as a form of station theater in various spots throughout the venue. […] Again and again, Gardner’s music, with it’s shifts between finely elaborated and rather coarsely meshed structured passages, provides a basis for manifold theatrical actions. […]
That all of this functions immaculately, must be booked as Opera Lab’s great merit. The performance not only proves, with what meticulousness the ensemble members shape Gardner’s musical guidelines and develop them into the superordinate theatrical framework. It also makes clear, that the ensemble led by Shin-Joo Morgantini and Louis Bona does justice to the enormous demands of the performative structure - consisting of singing, speaking, playing without score and acting in formation with others or as a soloist. The outcome is only problematic in the fact, that the music theater evening’s abundance of allusions cannot be comprehended in its totality and would really require a second viewing, in order to fully contextualize the experience. But isn’t that a positive signal in a time, in which everything is reduced to handy nibbles and in return avoids everything all too voluminous?
A core feature of the ensemble is all associated artists and performers working in all expressive performative modes. Conveying experimental aesthetics with contextual topicality is a primary objective of the ensemble. It is therefore unsurprising, that the new production treats a theme so rich in tradition as the return of Odysseus as a music theatre mega farce. […] What at first sounds and looks like Theater of the Absurd, on second glance proves to be a remarkable undertaking for this small ensemble, which works with a lot of enthusiasm, but very little financial means. The costumes of Hanna Rode are shrill and colourful and personality evoking. Stage designer Martin Miotk has joined the two worlds with a red ramp, sometimes used as a bridge, sometimes as tribune for paroles. The difficult return of Odysseus is visualized by filmmaker Christian Striboll as march through the marsh of life.
Soprano Gina May Walter is the cinema landlady Penelope, who mourns being a grass widow with perfect comedic timing, in order to punish the home comer like a fury, before she resigns and accepts him. As her son, countertenor Georg Bochow first has to go on stage as a one-man-orchestra-with-popcorn-selling-function, only then can he shed his psychosis as half-orphaned child. Baritone Martin Gerke is a wonderful sleazy comedian, who has muddled through in the role of Odysseus for thousands of years and now wishes to surrender himself to frolic.
Evan Gardner’s composition is full of selective references in music history. Additionally to the primed cello sounds and other electronic outputs, there are piano citations from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as well as Alessandro Scarlatti’s opera Il Primo Omicido next to grecian choir declamations. The 15 music-making sirens are responsible both for singing and playing — much praise must be given on that account to the musical directors Shin-Joo Morgantini and Louis Bona as well as Evan Gardner for the electronics, because the musicians perform their pieces mostly from various positions in the hall. Very warm applause for the entire ensemble and production.
The revolution devours its children. Not a new insight, but an alarming one, and topic of discussion in Songs of Rebellion. […] What the performers accomplish, is incredible. No matter, whether individuals sing alone or the group creates the rebellious sound together, it’s thrilling from beginning to end. The end in this instance means, that the audience lies on the floor. The graveyard at the end of the rebellion is enormous. That gives food for thought. […] Songs of Rebellion agitates, poses questions and presents a lack of perspective. An unhealthy mix. And perhaps therefore a trying piece, holding its effect beyond the day.
While millions of people are out on the streets in Hongkong and Fridays for Future calls for a global protest, composer Brigitta Muntendorf and director Michael Höppner unleash a performative discussion about the partially ambivalent relationship between protest and song in the new production Songs of Rebellion. This performance was developed within a newly formed ‚Community of Practice‘. The premiere at the opening night of the BAM! Festival in Ballhaus Ost polarizes. The costumes with painted on penises and Antifa-symbols are on the artistic and mythic border to the pubescent, sometimes overcharged with infantility. But the music and performance are so powerfully convincing, that it only seems explicable in view of the project’s extraordinary collective genesis.
As ritualized uprising Songs of Rebellion (Brigitta Muntendorf / Michael Höppner) puts the contradiction, already resonating in the title, between romantically transfigured songs and socio-critical revolt forward to discussion. The dystopian pop music fabric softener (and equalizer) forms both workers’ song and „punkitude“ into a dull soundscape and the interconnection of Schubert’s Winterreise with the Internationale robs both respectively of their aesthetic and reflective power. But thus a mirror of our times is conjured, which sees us slide from one „rebellion“ to the next, without causing an overthrow: rebellion as a romantic mystified ritual somewhere between uprising and complacency.
“On the ‘Lonely Hearts Bus Tour’ the spectators sit in a dimmed bus. Opera Lab Berlin invites to an imaginary sightseeing tour of gentrified Berlin. A city guide in a pink rat costume sings praise of the city as capital investment. En route they pick up a clubber in golden leggings and wings. She sings her sorrow about a lost lover and quotes the Revelation of John – fallen angel or whore babylon? A modern oratorio.“
“Participating in the 'Lonely Hearts Bus Tour' (Opera Lab Berlin) meant taking a ride into Berlin’s club world in a veteran scrapped bus, parked at Koppenplatz. The lonely heart was that of a prototype party girl, whose party mood was caused and simultaneously massively constricted by lovesickness. The consequence: an hour long series of emotional outbursts. ‚Next stop: depression‘, a member of the musical bus crew comments sarcastically at the end.”
“In their self-produced ‚Lonely Hearts Bus Tour’ show Opera Lab Berlin relocates the self-discovery trip of an entire generation of young Berliners in a flickering and brutally modern way into a scrapped and modified bus, in which the audience together with the musicians undertakes an odyssey through the last stages of a broken relationship. Composer Evan Gardner finds the material for this shrill confrontation with the hardships of a generation left behind in the nocturnal capital’s stories about club nights and drug excesses. The bus becomes a cipher for rootlessness and forced mobility, making coming to rest an impossibility.”
“It appears to me that the aspiration of any political participation was missing in the individual productions - with a few well-made exceptions: an aged bus, repurposed as a theatrical space, parked in the midst of hip Berlin-Mitte, is indeed a political statement: funny, subversive – and pragmatical.”
“The bus at Koppenplatz goes nowhere. The wheels are jacked up, the windowpanes covered with boards. The ambience of glittering foil and a disco ball which awaits the passengers inside also has little to do with common public transport. This is the beginning of a static trip with classically interspersed electro sounds. Alba Gentili-Tedeschi at the keyboards and the flutist Shin-Joo Morgantini (in cat look) create a cold big city track. Soprano Gina May Walter announces the first stop with crystalline coloraturas: Anger. Denial, depression and acceptance are to follow. It’s a matter of coping with lovesickness and morning. A pressing topic in Berlin. ‚Lonely Hearts Bus Tour‘ is the name of this work by the Berlin ensemble Opera Lab.”
“The six Opera Lab Berlin musicians dwell here as naturally as the two pairs of singers, they sleep, shower, go to the toilet, cook and celebrate total complacency at dinner.”
“The musicians of Opera Lab Berlin are not hidden, but are present on stage as performers in outfits like purple swimming caps by costume designer You-Jin Seo.”
“The idyll is a zone, but also a state of peaceful and simple life, usually in rural solitude. The theatre ensemble Opera Lab Berlin revives this almost lost ideal in their music theatre piece ‘Rollbergidyll’”.
“The adventurous Opera Lab Berlin revives the long lost genre of idylls, which is strongly linked to the concept of a mythical Arcadia: a place beyond all social constraints. A thrilling event where wildly dressed up musicians and performers playing music from Schubert to Aperghis clash with reality and real life locals at a buffet in the Rollbergsiedlung Neukölln.”
“Immigrants, children and housewives don’t belong to the standard audience for experimental music theatre. But when I see the German housewives who have dressed up for this occasion and are eating from the buffet filled with curiosity and delight while the strange sparkling musical theatrical tale unfolds, it turns out, that there is a predominant common denominator among the audience: poverty. As a spectator and a critic I am filled with ambivalent feelings. What does it mean to transport so-called highbrow culture into a space which was created for society’s weakest? It becomes apparent, that Opera Lab Berlin’s experiment successfully masters the challenge. This communal project venture luckily omits the typical trap that has ripped open the century old chasm between contemporary art and the ‚people‘. Perhaps this performance can be imagined as a sort of transformational ritual in which music, singing, the set and sparkling costumes bestow power upon a place: tearing it away from its grey, busy everyday routine.”
“Adorno asserted that there is no right life in the wrong. But what does the right one look like? The ensemble Opera Lab Berlin assembles pieces by contemporary composers such as Helmut Lachenmann, Jennifer Walsh and Brigitta Muntendorf with motifs from Nicolai Tshernyshevskis social-utopian novel ‚What is to be done?‘ published in 1863: young people experiment with social changes within their commune.”
“For Opera Lab this is not just a matter of housing politics. It delivers an overview of the various lifeforms of the ‚bourgeois Bohème‘. The visitors move through the rooms of an apartment. Solos, Duos and larger ensembles are played parallel in three acts. […] This experimental music theatre draws on three clearly defined sources: the musical-postdramatic theatre, opera and classical contemporary music. Opera Lab Berlin is a sort of expert at creating a complex Gesamtkunstwerk. The music in ‚What is to be done? - A cabinet of curiosities‘ was not composed for this production, as would be the case in traditional music theatre. Instead it is comprised of compositions by various composers which are intended for the dramaturgic concept and interpreted scenically. If one is inclined, it is possible to draw a parallel between this form of mediated ‚poverty‘ and the ability of the cultural precariat to survive and be creative within hypercapitalism. Art always finds new ways. As can be seen in housing politics.”
“Opera Lab Berlin has stemmed Staatstheater in a disarmingly evident rough manner with highly professional musicality and theatrical devotion. Sensational hype. Post-Nominate to the THEATERTREFFEN!“
Mauricio Kagel's stage work "Staatstheater", commissioned by the Hamburg State Opera in 1967 and realized by the composer himself, is now being discussed by the independent group Opera Lab with two veteran fighters from the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Catherine Gayer and Klaus Lang in the main roles. [...] Faithful representations of operatic, vocal and instrumental music, theatre and dance are presented panoptically in the ballroom. [...] The Elders applaud from the stage and initiates the friendly applause from the premiere audience.
“Following Pierre Boulez’ revolutionary paroles from 1971 to blow up the opera houses, this staging takes place underneath their ruins. […] Evan Gardner creates a new version of this work with hundreds of every day noisemakers. Director Michael Höppner knows how to react to every noise, even if just with a naive but skillful eye-roll. The spectator keenly awaits each next effect, listening carefully to the diverse musical and vocal declarations”.
“The expressive Western Opera Gunfighter Nation by Opera Lab Berlin in cooperation with Klangwerkstatt Berlin, staged by Michael Höppner, is not about Buffalo Bill, but rather targets the dark sides of the western-cultural vandalism along the lines of ‚civilizing the wild‘. […] In a conventional opera, only the singers have to perform their roles off copy, but in this production the instrumentalists were given the same task. In Gunfighter Nation the composer Evan Gardner implements a radical musical equality in a most pleasing manner. […] Again and again there is talk about contemporary music being stuck at a dead end, an attempt to escape this dead end is to interweave it with other genres. Indeed contemporary music has often been combined with movement, but the divide between music and movement always remains noticeable. In contrast, the progressive and indeed division-less combination of music and action by accentuating the importance of ‚acting’ for all participating musicians in the Western Opera Gunfighter Nation is very much successful.”
“Opera Lab, the producer of this free opera production, seems to have expected this exact outcome of the US elections. The word ‘Western’ is turned into ‘West Earn’ in golden letters in the lavishly decorated Berliner Ballhaus Ost in the hip borough Prenzlauer Berg. […] Gardner’s score proves original in the use of musicians, who have to sing and act equally virtuosically, play their instruments not only by memory, but also make unusual use of them. […] Michael Höppner has skillfully staged a grotesk Trapp- or Trump-family on Martin Miotk’s stage in Andy Besuch’s highly precious and detailed costumes.”
“What could have been a proper White-Trash-Trump-parody turned out to be the world premiere of the opera-performance ‚Gunfighter Nation‘, which only as a footnote reacts to the recent presidential election. This curious, highly experimental post dramatic work produced by Opera Lab and Klangwerkstatt Berlin, is much rather an examination of the American myths and vulgarisms in all of their menacing facets. […] Without a doubt: this piece wants to be utterly obnoxious, just as the USA currently is for all outsiders.”
“Contemporary field research:
Opera Lab Berlin "
Series "New Music"
After becoming aware of the work of Opera Lab Berlin, journalist and artist Thomas Grötz produced a radio show for Deutschlandradio Kultur that has been broadcasted as part of the series "New Music" with the title "Contemporary field research: The Opera Lab Berlin" on June 7, 2016.
The show has interviews with members of the ensemble, excerpts from past productions and reflection on our artistic work in the context of the current contemporary music theater world. The episode is a great way to hear a portrait of Opera Lab Berlin.
“Thunderous applause. The performers Thorbjörn Björnsson, Angela Braun, Sophie Catherin, Bettina Gfeller, Magnús Hallur Jónsson and Timotheus Maas as well as the percussionists Evdoxia Filippou and Victor Barceló are being celebrated. The director Eva-Maria Weiß and stage and costume designer Lisa Fütterer enter the stage with the conductor and musical director Antoine Daurat. And the audience blissfully exits the theatre. Since 2013 Opera Lab, a more or less open pool of performers, directors and composers, produces music theatre shows in loose sequence in Berlin - in various places, with changing casts and ideas. It proved to be a wonderful format tonight at the leftwing Ackerstadtpalast. The ensemble doesn’t seek giant productions with long-term planning, but rather small carefully distilled experiments: open for unsecured ideas, improvised elements and an undogmatic handling of scores.”
"It’s fun to discover the various visual and historical quotations - the lady turns out to be Yoko Ono, the cellist is a personification of Man Ray‘s photographs, and so on. Salon Q is the composer Evan Gardner’s directorial debut; he entertainingly mixes various tableaus from the history of the string quartet with the electric guitar, bass and drums of the Beatles.
The various members of the quartet develop subtle personalities throughout the piece, although certainly within the context of common clichés. Nolundi Tschudi is a perfect Yoko Ono - aloof, narcissistic and with a heavily applied sensibility."
“The instrumentalists extend that soundscape of panting and shivering, of swelling and barking with great artistry and some delight. Sciarrino’s music captivates through clear contrasting situations, which are depicted in the instrumentation. It is very old psychological, onomatopoeic music, which is immediately filled with meaning by the scene action, on a scene which Flimm arranges like the traveling artists summer fair in the Hexenkessel-Hoftheater.”
"Since the two separate orchestras required by Sciarrino’s score cannot both fit in the performance space, one must play from outside through an open door to the other. Wondrous lyrical correspondences arise as a result between the performers as they share echoes of skeletonized expression through harmonics, key noises, and distorted oscillating sounds.
The force of sound created by David Robert Coleman dominates the audible landscape, a conductor who clearly breathes with the music. He has found excellent partners in Opera Lab Berlin."
“The bizarre location lends a strong element of magic to this new production, but the evening’s greatest strengths are musical. David Robert Coleman leads the assured players of the Opera Lab Berlin in a taut, engrossing account of the score.”