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Kinder machen Oper - Deutsche Oper Berlin

Children write opera

Is it possible to write musical theatre with primary school children? Of course it is! A report from the classroom

Asal, student I was at the climbing park over the weekend. At first I was scared of heights, but I got over it. Then I felt like I could do anything. But I still think about what was going on last year.

Nuran, student Three women had from the Deutsche Oper Berlin had come to our primary school to do a workshop with us. First they asked us a bunch of questions, like what fear have you managed to get over and felt better about yourself after because of it? Or, if you could protest something that would then go away afterward, what would it be? Maria told us how scripts are laid out. Then we got to write scenes and make freeze frames.

Asal Our answers were war, sexism, homophobia, climate change, pressure to achieve and poverty.

Nuran We answered each of the questions in our own words. Later on, the women came back with a finished work and we read it together. It was great: We recognised our own stories. It’s going to be performed as an opera in November and we’re all going to the premiere.

Franziska Seeberg, director We want to make an opera by children, with children and for children. The text by Maria Milisavljević came from conversations with the children’s choir and the sixth-year class at the Brüder-Grimm-Grundschule in Wedding. The main characters are sung by soloists from the children’s choir. I view myself as a sort of mediator for the project, and orchestrate the various voices in order to make them heard. I want them to remain delicate and accessible. Participation should be more than just a word.

Maria Milisavljević, author There’s no fooling the young generation, they know better – when it comes to both the positive and the problematic. This is what IMMMERMEEEHR is about: The deluge of information, media overload and self-determination. When the workshop sessions started, I explained to the children how a screenplay is structured. They were more familiar with that than an opera libretto, because for many of the students in Wedding this will be their first experience ever with musical theatre. The children’s scenes were built around the same tension curve that they know from Hollywood movies: Every character needs to have an adversary, and they need to have a conflict. In the final libretto, these adversaries are the adults. There has to be a climax, and a point somewhere around the middle where things don’t go as well, meaning a moment when you think the antagonist could possibly win. Then there has to be a resolution at the end, a cathartic moment such as a happy ending. Astonishingly, the children did not shy away from brutality and explicit scenes. Murder and suicide appeared in nearly every text. In the case of IMMMERMEEEHR, the message at the end is as sobering as it is optimistic: “It’s okay to only be okay.”

Franziska Seeberg It’s a credo for solidarity, civil courage and accepting ambiguity. For the multifaceted nature of coexistence in a society, for generosity and cohesion. But not in a church congregation type of way, but rather with the message that the bleakness of life also has a place.

Maria Milisavljević It was important for us to show that every story is significant. I grew up with the false idea that nobody would listen to my perspective, and this narrative needs to change. Every child should have the opportunity to tell their story in their own, unique way. To be heard is an empowering experience, and it fosters a sense of responsibility in you as you’re growing up. I want to see theatre performers and audiences that reflect society as a whole. We don’t want a sugar-coated version of the present, but to show that the perfect life doesn’t exist: For every light and hope there is the dark. That’s completely fine, as long as you keep yourself together and are allowed to be radically different.

Gordon Kampe, composer My composition also has the “Dark Choir” and the “Light Choir”. There are cheerful and happy characters, each with specific vocal characteristics. Spoken words are different from song: In opera, you can spread just a few words over a span of minutes with music, just as recited text can be “gotten out” very quickly when spoken at a fast pace. Characters interrupt each other, there are repetitions and variations. The text breathes along with me when compositing, and then eventually it does so with the singers.

Franziska Seeberg The dialogue is especially important to me, both with Maria and Gordon as well as with the young performers. I’d like to put myself in a situation in which I learn at least as much from the children as they do from me. You cannot underestimate young people, and instead you should have a lot of faith in them. Sometimes you should even ask a great deal of them. Not in a sentimental way, but very directly. There is a directness in working with children and non-theatre people that can be particularly moving and captivating for the audience. You create an accessibility without compromising complexity, at least when you literally strike the right chord. No pathos, but lots of feeling and humour. And, of course, the performers have to be protected, especially when they’re up on stage addressing topics that are personal to them. Working on an even footing is only possible with mutual trust. In this regard, I’m quite hopeful: Christian Lindhorst has a very special way with the children’s choir, clear and direct while remaining caring and inspirational. And, of course, there’s a bit of anarchy thrown in.

Christian Lindhorst, children’s choir director The children aren’t laypeople by any means, they’re stage professionals in their own way. But still, it’s very unusual that the main roles in IMMMERMEEEHR are sung by children. Normally, the children’s choir roles are sort of supplementary to the arias by the adult singers. Yet here, the adults are the side characters while the protagonists are 10 to 13 years old. The solos have been tailored to the children’s specific voices, and they get individual voice training for the project.

Gordon Kampe Before I started working on the composition, I attended concerts by the choirs and met with the choir director. We both considered the musical possibilities, meaning the children’s vocal ranges and vocal colours. We also thought about how to have the orchestra play during the solos in such an airy way that the voices could still be heard, without the children getting hurt. I don’t want to ask too much or too little of the kids. That’s not a restriction, on the contrary, it’s the framework in which I have the freedom I need to compose.

Asal I’m excited to hear how the other kids sing our stories. But the workshops were all really interesting. I thought about a lot of things and memories. Like how our teacher Ms Schulte-Berge taught me how to ride a bike during a field trip. At first I was really wobbly, but then I practised for so long that I rode a long way all on my own on the last day. It was a little like the climbing park over the weekend. Nuran and I are attending Gymnasium now, but sometimes we go back to our old primary school to visit Ms Schulte-Berge.

Nuran I’m looking forward to seeing my old friends from primary school again when we go to the opera in November. A friend of ours recognised his scene in the piece and he was so surprised, we were all really happy for him. We’ll see if it’s the same for us.

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