Deutsche Oper: Nico and the Navigators create a Tableau Vivant around the life of composer Gustav Mahler.

A progressive outlook versus fear of the unknown, the bitterness of the outsider versus a yearning for greener grass, a manic drive versus self-absorption… Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) music is a mass of contrasts and dualities linked only by a weak tissue of shifting balances. In Mahler’s body of songs no less than in his nine symphonies, this inner conflict thrusts itself upon the audience with existential urgency: each song marks a way-station along a road that leads from the romantic idylls of the “Wunderhorn” via the familial intimacy of the “Rückert–Lieder” to the contemplative outlook of Far Eastern lyricism in the “Lied von der Erde”.


In their first production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin Nico and the Navigators tackle the cosmos of Mahler’s songs in an evening of poetical and physical expression that endeavours to distil this sifting of senses for the stage. For Nico and the Navigators, following on from their successes with Handel’s Orlando at the Hallenser Festspiele and Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, this Mahler project featuring singers and musicians of the Deutsche Oper Berlin represents not only another excursion into musical theatre but also the beginning of a sustained collaboration with the opera house.


The production process was aired in December 2013 in a 90 minute television documentary on Arte. The live recording from EuroArts can be ordered over their online shop:


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Press reviews

Kai Luehrs-Kaiser / Berliner Morgenpost

… “Nico and the Navigators”, that is a Berlin barge sailing with a captain, slowly approaching the open sea. “Mahlermania” already means: big trip. There is no ‘Navi’ to help…

Kai Luehrs-Kaiser / Berliner Morgenpost

Can Alma dance? The capacious Madam', known as Alma Mahler-Werfel, would hardly be believed to be able to. "Not that I know of!", even Nico has to admit. Nevertheless, there are two dancing Almas in "Mahlermania": an older one and a young one. Mahler also appears twice. The evening for singers and dancers is a departure for the Berlin performance troupe "Nico and the Navigators," even a first-time break from the off-scene. "It is the first time that an opera company has provided us with permanent singers for a 'free' project." Who on earth are "Nico and the Navigators"? Originally a visual artist, Nicola Hümpel has been gathering different collaborators, dancers and singers around her for 14 years, depending on the project. In Berlin this happened mostly in the "Sophiensaele" or in the "Radialsystem". Productions such as "Wo du nicht bist", "Anaesthesia" or Rossini's "Petite messe solennelle" have brought Nico and her friend, the stage and costume designer Oliver Proske, concept funding from the Berlin Senate since 2007. Last year, the George Tabori Prize followed. "Nico and the Navigators," in other words, is a Berlin growth. The person behind it, Nicola Hümpel, is of course from Lübeck. Like many from there, she carries around a little "Thomas Mann trauma." "You don't always want to be nailed down to it," she laughs brightly. "Pruschten" is what Thomas Mann would call that laugh. And "Hümpel" means dung heap to boot, she laughs on. She doesn't regard her "navigators" as guests, but as co-authors. As a ship's crew similar to the big barges that docked in Travemünde, where Nico learned to swim. "Don't drift off with the air mattress," the children were always told. Border territory still loomed to the east. Nico actually got into the Mahler material with the help of Adorno. Before that, Mahler was not necessarily among her favorite composers. "In Mahler's music, the security of Romanticism was lost," she says appreciatively. "You lost the innocence, and today we all just have a big question mark inside." The agglomeration of contemporary history, life and music is amazingly dense in Mahler, she says. So that she has since become a "Mahlermaniac" after all. In her Mahler pastiche of songs and symphonic passages, the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony is also quoted. Through its use in Visconti's "Death in Venice" Mahlermania gained momentum. One should not overdo it with Mahler, however. "I found the 'Mahler' film by Ken Russell, for example, atrocious," Nico says honestly. Mahler, she said, is "standstill and gallop, late Romanticism and modernism, Nietzsche, André Breton and Freud." She wants to bring that to a young audience, she said. And to break up the music so that it doesn't necessarily go down like butter. In fact, Mahler is one of the very few composers whose complete works are almost entirely familiar to audiences. Unfamiliarity is what's needed. In the new carpenter's workshop, Nico can play in the middle of the audience, taking up a lot of space. A peephole is not planned. One of her great role models was Pina Bausch. "Through her radical poetry, which is one of the hardest things to achieve in theater." Also Marthaler's body slapstick and everyday accuracy. "Nico and the Navigators" is a captained Berlin barge slowly approaching the open sea. "Mahlermania" already means: big trip. There is no 'Navi' to help.

Ulrich Amling / Der Tagesspiegel

“The Berlin theater group Nico and the Navigators cruised so intensively and good-humoredly in the fairway of musical theater in the past years that they now logically tie up at the Tischlerei for the opening.”

Ulrich Amling / Der Tagesspiegel

But construction sites in Berlin can also be completed. The Deutsche Oper succeeds in proving this - albeit by the narrowest of margins. The house's new experimental stage still smells of paint, the toilets are missing mirrors, and what will one day be a solid threshold is still a teetering board at the opening. From Zillestraße, one enters the foyer of the carpentry workshop and climbs the stairs to the high workshop from the thirties. The plans for the remodeling were donated by the architect Stephan Braunfels, and the implementation was paid for by the Senate and the sponsoring association. Now the building has received what Götz Friedrich always dreamed of: a space for discoveries, for ventures, for new talent. This diversification only became possible under the umbrella of the Berlin Opera Foundation, which set up central workshops. This meant that the Deutsche Oper's carpentry workshop lost its traditional purpose - and offered a free space that Dietmar Schwarz and his team are now proud to take possession of. With one subtle caveat: On opening night, the artistic director does not want to give the impression that the Deutsche Oper can afford its second venue. After all, the company is trying to prove to cultural policymakers that the building on Bismarckstrasse is structurally underfunded. So Schwarz points out that in the future, third-party funding will be needed to stage productions in the Tischlerei, in other words, sponsors who want to get involved in new musical theater formats. For the first artistic tour of the space, the Deutsche Oper has chosen a cooperation partner from the independent scene who is also familiar with lean production and profitable networks. The Berlin theater group Nico and the Navigators have been cruising so intensively and cheerfully in the musical theater's waters in recent years that it is now logical for them to moor up in the Tischlerei for the opening. This should also open up new perspectives for the Deutsche Oper ensemble. And so, in her scenic fantasy "Mahlermania," director Nicola Hümpel can draw not only on her proven actors and dancers, but also on a chamber orchestra and singers Katarina Bradic and Simon Pauly. Framed by 16 numbers from songs and symphonies of Gustav Mahler, the production does not want to string more anecdotes of the composer and his unfaithful Alma - although one may not quite recognize anything else: We take apart our Mahler's composer's cottage and turn it into a bungalow in the style of Walter Gropius. Alma is not happy about this either. "Piefiger Preuße," she slurs sullenly after the lover-architect and fills her glass in a basin that is surely meant to symbolize the Grand Canal. Kokoschka builds himself an Alma doll, everyone looks watered. Apples are passed around, but there is no sign of the graham bread that Mahler appreciated just as much. Nevertheless, the two brave singers visibly - and audibly! - which was probably due in no small part to the wonderful Mahler arrangements by director of studies Anne Champert.

Klaus Geitel / Berliner Morgenpost

…The amiable ensemble is there with naked body (plus swimming trunks) and fire soul…

Klaus Geitel / Berliner Morgenpost

It can be found in the rearmost left part of the Deutsche Oper and shoots mightily up to the sky. It once served the house as a painter's hall. Now the mighty hall has been thoroughly renovated and a sturdy steel scaffolding framework with fourteen rows has been hewn into it. From high above, one can see down to the small, flat stage at its feet. At least Oliver Proske knew how to enchant it at the opening premiere: "Mahlermania" is the name of the premiere spectacle for which the Deutsche Oper joined forces with the ensemble "Nico and the Navigators". In completely inscrutable allusions, it circles around the difficult relationship between Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma: this tragic St. Vitus' dance of love, which admirably fertilizes Mahler's music to this day. No wonder, then: the emphasis of the scenically richly mysterious action is on Mahler's music, and a small orchestra formed of the opera's musicians under the excellent Moritz Gnann plays it in its changing arrangements in a very haunting way. Almost all the pieces, sixteen in number, have had to be trimmed down instrumentally, but sound quite excellent in their reductions by Anne Champert and Rainer Riehn. A handful of songs are included, most sensuously performed by mezzo-soprano Katarina Bradic's, who is moreover ably assisted by baritone Simon Pauly. Two actors and three dancers complete the amiable ensemble rehearsed by Nicola Hümpel. The main roles are played by an abundance of fur coats, fur jackets, fur scarves, and probably also fur gloves. In addition, a heap of large sheets of music thrown about in confusion. The ensemble is with naked body (plus swim trunks) and fire soul at the dramatically heated, but secretive thing. This is also due to the fact that the high room acoustically does not favor the speakers with their possibly enlightening statements. At times, one does not understand a word. At least the eye is constantly occupied in the most pleasant way by the constant reconstruction of the composer's house. Many a spectacular thing happens again and again, one basically just doesn't know what for. And this for a full but never boring two hours. The small acrobatic interludes, the headstands, the diagonal mutual supports, somersaults, roulades take care of that. At the end, the audience applauds with a rich and continuous applause from friends.

Sandra Luzina / Deutsche Oper Magazin (Tagesspiegel)

„With the Mahler homage, the company inaugurates a new venue of the Deutsche Oper: The ‚Tischlerei‘. The former carpentry workshop has been converted into an experimental stage. Here, opera, dance, performance and theater are to meet in a new way. The start with Nico and the Navigators is promising, as the group has provided a breath of fresh air in musical theater with their playfulness and sense of style…“

Sandra Luzina / Deutsche Oper Magazin (Tagesspiegel)

The name sounds like a pop band: Nico and the Navigators. But Nico is not a singing siren, but the nickname of theater director Nicola Hümpel. Born in Lübeck, she studied first at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and later at the Bauhaus Dessau with Achim Freyer, and realized early on that she was not at home in just one discipline. While still in Dessau, she founded the group Nico and the Navigators in 1998 together with stage designer Oliver Proske, her partner in life - and quickly put the ensemble on the road to success. "We are radical poets. We're not afraid to bring poetry to the stage - something many shy away from today," explains Nicola Hümpel, and it almost sounds like the group's manifesto. When Nico and the Navigators performed "Lucky days, Fremder" for the first time at Berlin's Sophiensaele in 1999, the audience rubbed their eyes in amazement. For here a new, immensely sensual theatrical language was formulated that combined language, movement, mimicry, sound, light, stage design and costume as elements of equal value. Nicola Hümpel, the border crosser between the arts, created a picture theater of absurd wit and wry poetry. Her performers, who had very different professional backgrounds, transformed themselves under her shaping hand into "full-body poets" who courageously catapulted themselves into all kinds of oblique positions, always acting with a choreographic precision. Like wide-awake dreamers, they often balanced on the edge of the abyss - rarely was failure celebrated with such grace as in Nico and the Navigators. They look like the grandchildren of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, for example, when they get into a fight with a shoe shine machine that suddenly takes on a life of its own. Oliver Proske's abstract housings quickly become a sophisticated multifunctional trap. They do not reveal their purpose, but change in use. But the Navigators are also famous for their idiosyncratic, sometimes abstruse art of formulation. They invent games almost without words, but the wondrous sentences with their twisted Dada logic seem like coded messages. They mark out the horizon of non-understanding and create a kind of clairvoyant confusion. In this way, Nico and the Navigators dislocate the perception of the world, make the senses dance - and they do so with a playful lightness, a tender mockery and a gentle melancholy, which always delights the audience anew. Nicola Hümpel knows how to effectively stage the idiosyncrasies of her actors. "I study my Navigators to the core," she says with a smile. With her enigmatic images of space, sound, movement and language, Hümpel wants to open up "landscapes of thought." Her pieces always revolve around the exploration of human behavior. Everyday rituals are alienated, processes are driven into the artificial and absurd. The graphic clarity of the stage design contrasts with the floating states. Nico and the Navigators celebrate a theater of slowness that thrives on the art of reduction and omission. The ensemble has developed a special editing technique for its scene collages. "In visual art, I was particularly interested in the cut. In a sculpture, I look for the moment of greatest tension and make a razor-sharp cut. In doing so, I give the viewer the opportunity to continue the line in his or her own imagination." Nico and the Navigators' theater relies on the co-producing imagination of the viewer. It constantly lays out new tracks - and refrains from any rash explanations. The actors navigate with pleasure into the unknown. In the past, it sometimes happened that the director slipped a small piece of paper with a brief instruction to an actor before the performance began. The Navigators have always been experts at this form of free play, which requires a high level of concentration, a clear sense of rhythm, and a stupendous presence of mind. Today, Nico and the Navigators are not only one of the most original free groups from Berlin - they have also earned international fame, especially with their music theater productions. The fact that they have been increasingly turning to musical theater for several years is no coincidence. "In a way, this takes me back to my beginnings," she says with a smile. Nicola Hümpel attended a music high school in Lübeck and learned to play the violin. In her parents' home, she came into contact with classical music at an early age, as her father is a passionate Wagnerian. It is above all the power of singing that she raves about: "It can take us into the here and now and show us something that we have lost. That's what attracts me to singers." In 2006, Nico and the Navigators collaborated for the first time with the music band Franui for Wo Du nicht bist; the production made the music scene sit up and take notice. It was followed by Although I Know You, a smaller project for four actors, a violin and a piano. The pastiche opera Anaesthesia, which premiered in 2009 at the Handel Festival in Halle, quickly became a hit piece. A year later, as part of the 2010 Handel Festival, Nicola Hümpel presented her acclaimed production of Orlando at the Halle Opera. In 2011, the ensemble devoted itself to Rossini's Petite messe solennelle. The staged version of the mass, which premiered at the Kunstfest Weimar, turned out to be a triumph. The performance proved that Nico and the Navigators have expanded their musical resources; it also delighted with its idiosyncratic art of interpretation. Between Kyrie and Sanctum, the Petite messe solennelle deals with questions of faith in a most enjoyable way: What role does religion play today? What substitute rituals does man create for himself, who strives for something higher than the mere administration of life? When Nico and the Navigators now release the world premiere Mahlermania in November, it will be a debut in two ways. For the first time in its 15-year history, the ensemble is collaborating with a Berlin municipal stage. With the Mahler homage, the company is also inaugurating a new Deutsche Oper venue: The "Tischlerei." The former carpentry workshop has been converted into an experimental stage. Here, opera, dance, performance and theater are to meet in a new way. The start with Nico and the Navigators is promising, as the group has brought a breath of fresh air to musical theater with their playfulness and sense of style. Nicola Hümpel is proud of her ensemble's independence - it's the only way to ensure a continuous research process, which is how she sees her work. "We have so far turned down almost all offers from opera houses because we didn't want to give up our working methods," she explains. But this time the conditions are right. Besides, it excites her to address a different audience. "The theater view is not the only valid one for our work," she emphasizes. And she appreciates the music lovers as a very sensual audience. They will maintain and develop their working methods in this first co-production with Deutsche Oper, Nicola Hümpel emphasizes. The five Navigators, actors Patric Schott and Annedore Kleist and dancers Anna-Luise Recke, Ioannis Avakoumidis and Philipp Repmann, will be assisted by three singers: baritone Simon Pauly and the two mezzo-sopranos Katarina Bradic and Clémentine Margaine, who will sing alternately. Singers, actors and dancers embody different facets of Gustav Mahler and of Alma, the beloved, wife and muse. "As is traditional in our work, we will explore together - this exploration, in addition to exploring 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? What modes of expression emerge? All productions of Nico and the Navigators are developed together - this has not changed until today. Nicola Hümpel calls her method guided improvisation, which she now teaches at various institutes, such as the renowned Otto Falckenberg School or the August Everding School in Munich. The group improvisations often revolve around complex themes and questions such as farewells, friendship, work, things or faith. In the joint search process, everyone is allowed to spin off - and often the Navigators fall into a creative frenzy in which they inspire each other. For the classically trained singers, working with Nicola Hümpel is often a challenge. For they are not only expected to deliver their vocal part, they are involved in the creative process from the very beginning and are also challenged in a completely different way in terms of performance. Hümpel encourages the singers to find their own physical expression. She never forces them into a role type, but encourages them to free themselves from shackling conventions. Meanwhile, it has proven effective for performers and singers to do physical training together every morning. "I've observed: If the body is authentic, the voice is also strong," Hümpel says. With Mahlermania, Nico and the Navigators are once again expanding 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. He clings to old values, but already sees modernity coming. The question arises: how much self-betrayal can one engage in, and where must one remain true to oneself?" Nicola 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, no longer forces anything; it is grounded and the composer seems to have returned to himself," Hümpel explains. But she does not have a biographical treatise, a station drama in mind. "We first let the power of his music work and then look for the reason for this power."

A Deutsche Oper Berlin Production in cooperation with NICO AND THE NAVIGATORS.

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