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Trojan Horse

By Georg Kasch

Culture despite the Crisis (Episode 10): Opera Lab Berlin and Evelyn Hriberšek from Munich are working on the accessibility of contemporary music theater.

Ghosts come at night. As the cleaner makes his lonely rounds in the aisles of a supermarket, the light suddenly goes out. A chip bag rustles; a violin whistles in harmonics. Then the bassoon enters with the motif in F minor that made pop history as a guitar riff: Jaa dam, dadada dam, jaa dam, dadada dam. And an alto voice, thin, fragile, as if not of this world, sings, "Load up your gun, bring your friends..." "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from 1991 might not only be Nirvana's most famous song, but also one of the most covered songs in the world. Artists like Miley Cyrus, Metallica and Patti Smith have all tried their hand at it. From October on there will be another version by Opera Lab Berlin, including a music video. In it, the cleaner gets so caught up in his nocturnal world of thoughts that – with the help of the ghosts who are making the music – he becomes undead himself. As if in passing, one listens again closely and differently. What are those percussion sounds? What is scratching, buzzing and whistling? And what does that do to the song?

The opera is a museum. Almost the entire repertoire comes from dead men. Even in the 19th century, most premieres were world premieres. Today they are the exception, the business is kept up to date by the singers and musicians – and by the director-led theater, which tries to question old material anew. Yet, as with spoken theater, music theater tends to become a spectacle for connoisseurs and to exclude a less specialized audience.

So how do you make music theater popular again? That's what Opera Lab Berlin and Munich-based artist Evelyn Hriberšek are currently exploring in two different #TakePart-funded approaches. For both, social media and technology are key to reaching new audiences. Neither are they afraid of mixing what is serious with entertainment.

The Berlin-based group Opera Lab, which deals exclusively with music of the 20th and 21st centuries, dedicates its five-part web series "Who's Afraid of Pop Culture?" to this. Icons of Pop Music. Evan Gardner, composer and artistic director of the group, has arranged the scores of the individual songs as if they were contemporary experimental opera music: rare instrument combinations, sound textures on the border between sound and noise and the taking of harmonic liberties. In addition, there are the classically trained voices; big voices, full of pathos and vibrato.

With the video series, Gardner wants to break down the barriers to pop culture and make people curious. On YouTube, cover versions have long been a pop-cultural genre in their own right. However, no one would expect contemporary music theater here. In this sense, Opera Lab's five videos, which will be published on its YouTube channel from the end of October, are something like Trojan horses. The film directors who directed the clips present aesthetics that tie in with the tradition of music videos and their narratives – with ghosts and the undead, for example, one almost automatically thinks of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. At the same time, they work with opera-typical elements such as exaggeration – large gestures, long glances.

By using songs by Nirvana, Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, the Opera Lab team is venturing into a legal gray area. That's part of the game. "Of course it's difficult in terms of copyright. But that's the spirit of YouTube: Just do it!" says Gardner, who emphasizes what a gift the work is for him as a composer. "It's so much fun!" His biggest dream is that pop artists themselves will take notice of the cover versions and think they're cool. And, of course, that people stumble across the videos by chance on YouTube, get caught up – and realize that opera is not as old and dusty as we always thought.

Video still. A person in overalls wears VR glasses and headphones. The headphones and a bracelet glow red. The image has a frame similar to a computer game. Above the person's head "01:55" is displayed. © Evelyn Hriberšek & Adrian Schaetz © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

HADES LIVE 01 | Copyright: Evelyn Hriberšek & Adrian Schaetz

Evelyn Hriberšek's "HADES LIVE 01" in a similar way, only via a different platform. In terms of content and technology, the evening follows on from her previous works: the single-player experience "O.R.PHEUS" from 2012, in which every visitor could discover the rooms of a 1000-square-meter bunker – thanks to a specially programmed augmented reality app, with smartphone and headphones. And the interactive, virtual-analog space installation "EURYDIKE" (Eurydice) 2017, in which the actors moved around wearing VR glasses and headphones. Both projects revolved around the ancient myth of Orpheus, who beguiled even the guardians of the underworld with his song, and with which opera has been working since its inception.

What "HADES LIVE 01" is about is a secret, because, as always with Hriberšek, the plot fragments and the question of what one is actually being invited to do only become apparent on location. However, on location in this case also means the internet. For the first time, a production by the artist will not only take place live in Munich’s Digital Art Space, but also in parallel as a stream on Twitch in combination with Instagram. On October 16, there will be an initial preview at the Long Night of Museums in Munich. Further dates are planned.

Another stream, after all the months of the corona pandemic with its countless broadcasts? "I've often wondered why musical theater streams aren't created with the content and staging in mind for each platform. One answer is: it's incredibly costly on a real and digital level, and it's also risky," says Hriberšek. Especially when it's not a reproduction of a work, but an interactive game that you can play from your home computer if you like (passive watching is also possible).

The gamified platform Twitch offers the right conditions for this – even if high culture is increasingly streamed here, it is still shaped by the gaming community. An ideal place to lure people who think opera is fusty into a gaming environment that turns out to be music theater.

However, Twitch also has its limitations and challenges. "For example, the platform is extremely speech-based, often reducing sound to chat noise and background chatter," says Hriberšek. This creates a lot of potential friction for her music theater project. There are also hate comments and so-called hate raids, in which successful streamers incite their followers against others. After all, Twitch (like YouTube) is a social medium that is all about fans, followers and interaction. It's ideal for getting into conversation with people. But that can, unfortunately, create a headwind.

In addition, you can only enter Twitch if you become a partner – for which the platform has guidelines. "Twitch promotes sweetness, submissiveness, questionable role models," says Hriberšek, who has long been concerned with toxic masculinity on the web and in the tech world and which she counters with her feminist, immersive projects. Copyright issues are also complicated: "Even if the composer and I agree, that doesn't mean GEMA and Twitch will agree."

HADES LIVE 01" is an experiment. Is it possible to share high culture with people on the internet using pop-cultural means without selling one's artistic soul or having problems with copyright? "It's important that we, as artists who work with new media and technologies as well as streaming, subsequently share our empirical values," says Hriberšek. So that artistic engagement with streaming in general can move forward. But also so that the net is not left to the trolls as a lawless, toxic place. For some time now, Hriberšek has been working on an ethically sound way of being part of and dealing with the net. "The #TakePart funding is a milestone because it makes it possible to research and experiment there," says Hriberšek. "It's just a shame that it took a pandemic to make it happen."

In the series "Kunst trotz(t) Krise" (Art despite the Crisis), cultural journalists Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch take a look behind the scenes of funded projects on behalf of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. What is the impact of the Fund's #TakeThat funding as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR program of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media?