Visionary and outsider

For a long time, the independent scene and the opera houses did not see eye to eye. The bastions of musical theater misjudged the creative potential of freelance artists - and studiously overlooked their flexible and cost-saving structures. The freelancers, on the other hand, were suspicious of opera as an outdated art of representation, which also devours a lion's share of subsidies. The ideological trench warfare now seems to be a thing of the past. When Nico & the Navigators premiere "Mahlermania" at the Deutsche Oper in November, it will be a debut in two ways. For the first time in its 15-year history, the ensemble is cooperating with a municipal Berlin stage. With the Mahler homage, the company is also inaugurating the "Tischlerei," the Deutsche Oper's new experimental stage. Director Nicola Hümpel is predestined for this, because with her Navigators she has formulated a sensual theatrical language that combines language, music, movement, mimicry, lighting, stage design and costume as elements of equal value. "We are radical poets. We are not afraid to bring poetry to the stage, which many are afraid to do today," Hümpel explains, and it almost sounds like the group's manifesto. The multiple Mahler This much is certain: Nico & the Navigators bring a breath of fresh air to the house. For a long time, Nicola Hümpel has upheld the independence of her company. That's why she was initially skeptical that the cumbersome apparatus of an opera house wouldn't hinder the shrewd and imaginative Navigators in their play development. But after the first rehearsal phase, she is almost relieved to say, "The singers and the Navigators have grown together." The new management is also doing its best, she says, to wrestle creative freedom from them. After all, they want to maintain their way of working in this first co-production. The five Navigators, actors Patric Schott and Annedore Kleist and dancers Anna-Luise Recke, Ioannis Avakoumidis and Philipp Repmann, are joined by two singers: baritone Simon Pauly and mezzo-soprano Katarina Bradic. Singers, actors and dancers embody different facets of Gustav Mahler and of Alma, the composer's wife and muse. "As is traditional in our work, we will do research together," Hümpel says. "This research, in addition to examining Mahler's life, consists of making his music sound in our bodies today and looking: What emotional states and images does the music evoke in us?" For the classically trained singers, the collaboration with Nicola Hümpel represents a challenge. They are not simply expected to deliver vocal parts, they are involved in the creative process from the very beginning and are also challenged in a completely different way. In the process, Hümpel encourages the singers to find their own physical expression. "I have observed: If the body is authentic, then the voice is also strong." Nico & the Navigators have conquered musical theater with the Handel operas "Anæsthesia" and "Orlando" and with a staged performance of Rossini's "Petite messe solennelle." In "Mahlermania" they once again expand their artistic radius. They approach the important composer by focusing primarily on his song oeuvre - and at the same time explore the flights of fancy and the abysses of an entire era. "What I find exciting about Mahler is his brokenness," Hümpel says. "He clings to old values, but already sees modernity coming. The question is: How much self-betrayal can you do, and where do you have to stay true to yourself?" The changeable stage space designed by Oliver Proske hints at the epochal shift from late Romanticism to modernism. "I'm very interested in the beginning of modernism, especially in architecture," Proske explains. "Protagonists of that era, with the knowledge of ornament, tried to overcome it, only to get tangled up in functionalism afterwards." Scratching the Manifesto Hümpel put together the songs for "Mahlermania" together with dramaturge Jörg Königsdorf. Of course, the romantic idylls of "Wunderhorn" and the intimate "Rückert-Lieder" will be heard. However, she begins the evening with "Abschied" from "Das Lied der Erde" and looks back at Mahler's life from the end. "In 'Abschied,' you notice that Mahler's music no longer pushes, no longer fights, it is grounded; the composer seems to have returned to himself," Hümpel explains. But she doesn't have a biographical treatise in mind. "We first let the power of his music work and then look for the reason for this power." In doing so, they plumb the contradictions that characterize Mahler's work and life: manic drive and delusions of grandeur on the one hand, a sense of being an outsider on the other. "It's material full of potential for excitement," says Nicola Hümpel, promising, "We're scratching the manifesto."

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