Philip Venables finds out how classical opera and clubbing collide in spectacular fashion at Berlin’s Kiez Oper…
At the onset of spring in a cosy bar in Friedrichshain, our two protagonists meet. A flaxen-haired opera singer and a free-spirited writer haphazardly start chatting and cook up a plan for a passionate crusade to bring opera to the people.
And so Kiez Oper was born. Fast forward a few months, and I’m with our two heroic warriors, Rowan Hellier, 28, a professional opera singer, and Alex Eccleston, 25, who has never before seen a complete opera.
We are seated in the Salon zur Wilden Renate, site of Kiez Oper’s forthcoming debut production. On 20 and 21 July 2012, assisted by a company of incredible singers and musicians, Rowan and Alex will mount a full production of Purcell’s classic legend of love and death, Dido and Aeneas. Their mission: to rouse and arouse the opera-virgin masses of Berlin’s vibrant clubland.
What’s Kiez Oper all about?
“Kiez Oper is about putting on opera for people who have never seen opera before, and those who wouldn’t normally think of going to see opera.” says Rowan.
“Anti-elitist?” I ask?
Alex mentions his first, recent experience of opera: “It’s amazing how powerful it is. We need to give lots of people the opportunity to see and hear opera right up close!”
Rowan agrees that she can sing pretty damn powerfully.
“Alex’s reaction was great – I am so immersed in the opera establishment now with my day job with a major opera house that I sometimes lose the sense of wonderment and amazement that people have when they first experience opera. You don’t often see our generation in the opera house, and I sometimes wonder why opera doesn’t connect with them. There’s no reason for it not to, so we really hope we can remove the stuffiness of the opera house and present the raw product directly to regular clubbers.”
But there’s quite a lot of alternative opera out there already, right? Does Berlin need another opera company?
“If you’re really addicted to the power and the passion of opera, like I am, then I don’t think cross-over stuff is the way to go,” says Rowan, who thinks that often there can be a lack of quality or integrity about some approaches to alternative presentation.
“You’re not actually presenting the thing that you’re passionate about in the first place, so it completely defeats the point of what you’re doing. If it’s not first rate performing then I’d rather not do it at all. Kiez Oper is really about bringing very high quality and integrity to the uninitiated listener.”
So engaging new audiences is a big motivation for you…but who exactly is the uninitiated listener?
“Well of course the ideal audience is a broad audience,” says Alex. “It’s not Berghain; we’re not telling anyone they’re not getting in!
But basically I guess we’re aiming it at people who like to go out on the weekend, and maybe most weekends they do the same thing, and this particular weekend they see an opera performance before they get going on the dance floor.
And so this particular weekend becomes just a little bit more memorable and unusual than the last. It’d also be nice if some kids snook in too…Not that I’m condoning kids going to nightclubs. But I am condoning kids seeing opera!”
So why did you pick Dido and Aeneas for your first project?
“Dido and Aeneas is in English, which was important. It’s easy to put on, with a small cast and ensemble, it’s only an hour long and it has something of a fairy tale air about it, all of which makes it perfect for Wilde Renate’s Garden setting.
It was the first opera I listened to a lot when I was young, and that I still listen to a lot – It’s a classic story about love and death. It’s really direct, the characters are clearly drawn, anyone can get it – maybe even if they’re a bit drunk.”
So what’s the story about in one sentence?
“A dilapidated Queen kills herself from heartache,” Rowan says. “It’s really basic, about the transience of life and love”.
Does she have a memorable line from the opera that sums it up?
“For tis enough, what-e’er you now decree, That you had once a thought of leaving me.”
Why did you chose Salon zur Wilden Renate for your first project?
Alex: “It’s slightly off the beaten tourist track in Berlin – not like Berghain or Watergate – and they have a history of putting on interesting stuff, both in their venue and in other locations. The regular crowd there is great.
I think they’re pretty open to new discoveries and embracing whatever Tony and his staff there throw at them. And the space there is so nice too – they’ve put a lot of effort into how the club looks, and the epic space really lends itself to an epic opera with epic singing and epic music. It’s all very epic!”
Are there any similarities between the depressed Dido character and the club’s very own wild Renate?
“Definitely,” nods Alex. “Our production is very post-apocalyptic – everyone is addicted to drugs because life is so empty otherwise.”
“Dido really goes with her emotions” adds Rowan. “She lives by her gut. Her guy considers leaving her, so she tells him to fuck off and she’s going to kill herself. This is ultimate hedonism! So I reckon Dido and Renate are both hedonists of sorts.”
What are your wildest ambitions for Kiez Oper?
“We want all the focus to be on our first show. But suffice to say, the stranger the location, the better…”
On Friday 20th July and Saturday 21st July 2012 you can catch Kiez Oper’s very first production, Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, at the Garten des Salons zur Wilden Renate, Alt-Stralau 70, Friedrichshain, 10245 Berlin. Doors open at 8pm, performances start at 10pm. Tickets available here or €10 on the door subject to availability, and the club is open after the show all through the night. Check out Kiez Oper’s Facebook page for more info.
About The Author
Philip Venables is a British composer and producer, living since 2008 in Berlin. His work is mainly for the concert hall, opera stage and installation. His music is often related to violence, conflict and speech within concert music. The Times has called his work “brutally effective” and the The Strad “gritty, soulful…”. His work has won numerous awards including the International Composition Competition in Bucharest and the Performance Arts Channel Young Composer of the Year. He has been heard on BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and Australian ABC Radio, and at venues including Wigmore Hall and Southbank Centre. Recent commissions have been for the London Sinfonietta, London Contemporary Opera and Wigmore Hall.
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