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Berlin project takes opera to unexpected places

Dreary period pieces? Pricey tickets? Stuffy atmosphere? Not at the Kiez Oper! Aiming to bring opera to new audiences, the group behind the Berlin project is staging its latest production in an abandoned swimming pool.

Berlin scensters are more likely to be found dancing the night away in Europe's techno mecca than enjoying altogether more soothing sounds in one of the city's three opera houses. But a new project called Kiez Oper - or neighbourhood opera - is breathing new life into the historic genre.

Like all good ideas, Kiez Oper began as a discussion between friends. English writer, illustrator and art director Alex Eccleston (26) and Rowan Hellier (29), a professional opera singer from Scotland, decided that they wanted to take opera to a "different crowd of people."

Rowan Hellier and Alex Eccleston from Kiez Oper 
Copyright: Kiez Oper, Berlin, 2013

Rowan Hellier (left) and Alex Eccleston hope to take opera to a different crowd

They approached one of Berlin's biggest techno clubs, Zur wilden Renate, about performing there, and advertised for opera singers on Craigslist. British director and opera singer, Andy Staples, was rehearsing in London when he saw the Facebook call for a director and wasted no time getting in touch.

A month and a half later, Kiez Oper was performing sold out shows to hip Berliner twenty-somethings, reaching new audiences in unexpected places.

Kiez Oper's last performance of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" went down a storm, with people singing along, cheering and interacting with the drama in a way that they wouldn't do in a traditional opera house.

"There was a bit where I had to slap another character on stage and everyone was just going 'Yeah! You go girl! Yeah.' They were really, really into it. It was fantastic," Hellier says with a smile.

Affordable opera in unexpected places

Poster for Kiez Oper's Insanity
Copyright: Cinnamon Nippard/Kiez Oper

The latest production, "Insanity," is being staged in a disused swimming pool

Taking place in prestigious opera houses where ticket prices are prohibitively expensive and the audience is expected to sit and remain respectfully quiet, opera is often viewed as elitist and ultra high-brow.

But British opera singer and director Andy Staples says that wasn't always the case. Opera was the cinema or theater of its day, a type of popular entertainment that was cheap and accessible.

"But then as it got sort of prized as this high art form, its audience got smaller and more elite and wealthier and then the storytelling started to drift towards impressing those kinds of people, and so you end up with a historically alienating art form," he says.

While some companies like Berlin's Komische Oper are leading the way in trying to push the boundaries of mainstream opera for the initiated, Kiez Oper is about reaching a totally new audience.

That means taking productions to unexpected venues like the Stattbad - a disused indoor swimming complex in the Berlin district of Wedding. It's a rabbit warren of spaces used to host street art exhibitions, parties and sometimes the secret Boiler Room DJ sessions.

Immersing the audience in a free space

After the success of "Dido and Aeneas," Kiez Oper is staging an original narrative this time around. With Berlin's depressive winter in full swing, the idea to do a performance about madness seemed like a logical one.

The latest production is called "Insanity," and features work from a range of different opera composers from the Renaissance up to the present day, including Gesualdo, Handel, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Bach, and Britten.

"In some of these Handel operas you have to wait three hours for them. So we've kind of compressed those ideas into one long show and used that for an hour long piece," Staples explains.

Since there's no stage, the audience is let loose in the space amongst an international cast of professional singers, dancers and a live baroque ensemble. It brings an element of unpredictability to the live performance that just isn't possible in a traditional opera performance on stage.

Kiez Oper in Stadtbad Berlin
Copyright: Cinnamon Nippard, Berlin, 2013, zugeliefert von Hellen Whittle

The Kiez Oper cast and crew preparing for the next performance at Berlin's Stattbad

Even though it's a huge space, down in the depths of the swimming pool the atmosphere is claustrophobic as the wild-eyed performers crouch or rock against the high, blue-tiled walls. It doesn't look or feel like opera, but that's the whole point.

The Kiez Oper cast and crew are working for free, there's no funding and the Stattbad got involved simply because they liked the idea - something which the organizers, including Staples, believe could only really happen in Berlin.

"I don't think you could really do this anywhere else. I don't think the audience and the kind of attitude and the open-mindedness exists quite as it does in this city - especially in a place like this."

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