Brent Meersman[1]

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Via Intolleranza II
, concept and direction Christoph Schlingensief, set design Thekla von Mülheim and Christian Schlechter, costumes Aino Laberenz, light Voxi Bärenklau and Michael Dietze, video Meika Dresenkamp, music Arno Waschk, dramaturgy Anna Heesen and Carl Hegemann. Premiere in Brussels, May 2010. Seen at Helsinki Festival, August 2011.

Via Intolleranza II fills the stage with conflicting messages. Photo by Aino Laberenz.
Via Intolleranza II fills the stage with conflicting messages. Photo by Aino Laberenz.

As the people of Europe slowly become more civilized, they are beginning to question their notions of cultural superiority. This process is however extremely slow, at times it even appears to be going backwards.

The period of colonisation and imperial expansion was a second dark age, particularly unenlightened and unspiritual, marked by gross ignorance of the cultures and peoples the colonisers were busy exterminating.

While most of South America achieved independence already in the 1800s and Asia in the immediate post-World War 2 period, independence in Africa dragged on all the way through the 1970s right up and until 1980. The Europeans awareness of their unconscious racism and imperial attitudes to Africans is still in its infancy. The widely-held prejudices of Europeans are reinforced by Africa’s failed regimes, obscene poverty and continued dependence on Western handouts, even as the Africans’ vast natural resources continue to be plundered, only today disguised as so-called free trade.

Burkina Faso, the landlocked West African state, formerly known as Upper Volta, achieved ‘independence’ from France in 1960. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. It is here, in Loango, Ouagadougou [pronounced ‘wa-ge-du-gu’], that the late German cult director Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) wished to construct Remdoogo, an opera village.

Via Intolleranza II makes music visible. Photo by Aino Laberenz.
Via Intolleranza II makes music visible. Photo by Aino Laberenz.

He is not however a latter day Fitzcarraldo; in fact far from it, as we shall see.

Three years since Schlingensief first conceptualised the opera village and €500 000 later, on 8 October 2011, the school he had planned was at last inaugurated. A village, festival hall, sports facilities, guest houses and infirmary will follow. The layout of the village (by Burkina Faso architect Francis Kéré) is planned to expand dextrally, to grow organically in the shape of a snail shell.

Schlingensief’s last theatrical ‘work’ (he referred to it as a ‘research project’), Via Intolleranza II, is a deconstructed dramatic realisation of this journey of collaboration between himself and the artists of Burkina Faso.

His project had a practical outcome in mind; besides raising funds and awareness of his project, the work invites the artists to challenge his whole notion of creating an opera village in Africa in the first place. In so doing, ironically, he hoped to give his notional ideas substance. (Though there was never any thought it seems of abandoning the project.)

Via Intolleranza II is most helpfully viewed and understood in the context of everything that has foregone in this article. Outside of this, viewed as a theatrical production, it is somewhat shambolic, often frustrating.

We have on stage a riot of multimedia, fragmented and layered; a set behind and within a set behind and within another set; improvised lighting and sound; a multilingual performance with a dozen actors, griots, rappers, comedians, musicians and dancers; the Fönix orchestra; film projections on sheets that are pulled backwards and forwards on rails. What is on display is the manic energy of a director trying to accomplish as much as possible as he battles a terminal illness in his last year.

The work opens with the director (since Schlingensief’s passing way, played by Stefan Kolosko, but as himself) booting up his laptop on a worktable to the familiar Windows software jingle. He explains that they do not have the rights to Nono’s Intolleranza and will therefore be showing L’inferno, Giuseppe de Liguoro’s silent, black and white film of 1911 (comic and ridiculous today for its superstitious, literal attempt to render Dante’s Divine Comedy).

The cast move in and “out” of character as in a rehearsal; they argue and disobey the director, at other times they take instruction, embrace and reconcile. The cast often directly address the audience; there is no pretence of a fourth wall. These challenges between the director on stage and the cast create a brilliant point of entry, and yet are also a sleight of hand. The work is carefully crafted and staged, despite its apparent looseness; the wrestling between the participants on stage is scripted and preconfigured.

How genuine has the collaboration been between the Burkina Faso artists and Schlingensief? The audience cannot tell, and yet, enigmatically, one has an overwhelming sense of authenticity from what is happening on the stage. Much of this is derived from the playfulness and sense of humour that permeates the work no matter how poignant the material. The African artists do not feel in the slightest way manipulated. This is the contradiction at the heart of this work: a transcendent failure.

Schlingensief took Luigi Nono’s opera Intolleranza 1960 as a stepping stone because of its stance against racism and its political message. His targets are clear: European hypocrisy, patronising paternalism, exploitation, the global media misrepresentation of the fly-encrusted, drought-stricken, hopeless continent. He also enjoys provocation. One of the Burkinans (Amado Komi), a young boy with an exceptional magnetic stage presence, blows kisses to the audience, repeats “I love you”, and asks if someone in the auditorium will marry him so he can stay on in Europe.

In another exchange, a European performer asks an African dancer, Ahmed Soura, to represent hunger. When he does so, graphically sucking his body up into his ribcage, the European performer, though clearly impressed, quickly disparages him; when he was his age he could also do that, he says.

At the end of the performance (in Helsinki) thank you speeches were made and the audience were put upon to please make donations to an actor with his cap in hand.

Christoph Schlingensief appears in Via Intolleranza II posthumously as a superimposed image on pictures from the opera village construction in Burkina Faso. Photo by Aino Laberenz.
Christoph Schlingensief appears in Via Intolleranza II posthumously as a superimposed image on pictures from the opera village construction in Burkina Faso. Photo by Aino Laberenz.

Via Intolleranza II is not unique among Schlingensief’s works to position itself as part-hoax part-soul search. As such, it is frustratingly inconclusive, so filled with contradictions, ruses, theatrical tricks and subterfuges, it constantly threatens to cancel out its own significance. It is a quicksand for meaning. Immersion is impossible. The audience is instead seduced by the theatricality and the strength of the superlative performers, but left disorientated and robbed of any certainty. This is not a negative thing.

Most strange of all, this project, at the forefront of the latest theatrical trend of ‘performance as research through practice’, investigates the dynamics of collaboration across continents with different cultural codices and relentlessly questions its feasibility, yet fails to address what one could not be blamed for thinking would be fundamentally at question here: what does opera in Africa amount to? Why opera, that most European (at last in this particular context) of art forms?

Perhaps it is because opera brings together so many ‘high’ art forms. Or has Schlingensief purposefully chosen opera to be precocious? Does he interpret opera in terms so broad it has lost its original meaning? As with so much else in this production, we are left guessing, not least of which is the question of the social relevancy of opera for Africa. Schlingensief seems to hope that as the village grows organically, as the first students pass through the school, a new form of opera will take root and evolve of its own accord.

The South African experience is instructive, having the only two functioning African opera companies in the world, besides Cairo. During the dark days of apartheid, the world famous South African soprano Mimi Coertse received death threats and had her music room torched by right-wingers simply for fraternising with black South Africans. When apartheid collapsed there was an immediate interest in opening the stages to black singers. The opera school at the University of Cape Town under Professor Angelo Gobbato was at last free to train singers for the city’s opera company and offer them real prospects. Within a relatively short period of time Cape Town Opera was able to stage almost entirely black performances of the classic repertoire sung in Italian, French, German and even Czech.

There was however ideological opposition. Then Minister of Arts, Pallo Jordan, notoriously said that teaching black people to sing opera was turning them into “imitation whites” (Pallo Jordan, quoted in the Sunday Times, 25 September 2006). Nobody would dream of calling Jessye Norman, Leontyne Price or Barbara Hendricks imitation whites. Besides, some of the South African performers were far from imitations, but went on to international careers. The minister seemed to think that black South Africans needed some kind of special ideological protection lest they be corrupted by European art forms.

Other experiments included uCarmen eKhayelitsha, a Xhosa adaptation and translation of Bizet’s Carmen, which was made into a film and went on to win a Golden Bear. It was directed by Mark Dornford-May from the British Broomhill Opera Company. He went on to conceptualise several “African” operas, ‘Africanizing’ and adapting European classics, such as A Christmas Carol and The Magic Flute. These productions enjoyed successful international tours. Critical acclaim in South Africa was however lacking. The directorial vision felt alien and imposed. Local audiences were not forthcoming. The black singers and musicians felt exploited. Eventually, the opera company imploded in a blaze of publicity.

Critical Stages: The IATC Webjournal - A scene from macbEth (photo by Stuart Ralph)
Critical Stages: The IATC Webjournal – A scene from macbEth (photo by Stuart Ralph)

There have been some highly successful African transpositions of classic European opera, most notably Brett Bailey’s macbEth (2007), a free adaptation of Verdi’s opera and scheduled for a European tour in 2013, Verdi’s bicentenary.

The latest development in opera in Africa has been the work of composer Bongani Ndodana-Breen, whose Winnie, based on the life of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, premiered at the State Theatre in Pretoria in 2011 to a rapturous reception. It is the first full length opera to be written and orchestrated by a black South African.

In an interview I conducted with Ndodana-Breen, he said: “Making opera our own is not merely putting black singers on stage; it’s nice, and thanks for providing all those jobs to my colleagues, but we have to start telling stories meaningful to the people in this country. And we have to start looking in the orchestra pit. . . . There is room in this country for Tosca and Carmen, but also room for Winnie. We should do our own stuff and not ape Europe. . . . I think opera in this country is not what opera is in America or Europe. It is used here as a reminder of an identity and a heritage that I find problematic. I look at opera as an art form first rather than as a cultural identity. That perception of opera causes us to compromise on a lot of things in terms of artistic quality, integrity at the level of performance. So we end up making decisions that do not favour excellence in the art form but favour a certain cultural political agenda that ends up destroying the art.”

In an e-mail to Meika Dressenkamp (videographer) quoted in the programme for Via Intolleranza II, Schlingensief wrote: “They [Burkinans] are great and don’t need a Schlingensief . . . They solve their things completely on their own”.

This honestly expressed insight should not be judged too harshly for its inherent presumption – why would Schlingensief think they couldn’t? – for that presumption is made more as a “great” (his word) director, than as a European.

Ultimately, and from this Via Intolleranza II obtains its validity, the work turns its gaze back upon Europe: what can the European audience learn from Africa instead of presuming to try and teach Africa? How does Europe look when viewed through African eyes?

Schlingensief believed Europe had lost its way, had become vapid, disconnected, emptied by ennui.

Via Intolleranza II is about the many misunderstandings and failures on the road of collaborative dreams, but in the end, Schlingensief stubbornly, defiantly, wilfully confounds that failure by having established, posthumously, an opera village made of bricks and mud and new artists.


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[1] Brent Meersman has been the theatre critic for the national weekly newspaper the Mail & Guardian since 2003. He is a published poet and novelist: Primary Coloured (Human & Rousseau, 2007) and Reports before Daybreak (Random House, 2011). He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

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German Discovers Opera in Africa