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Living-room opera lends a new twist to an old art

Living-room opera lends a new twist to an old art

Posting in Design

BERLIN -- Could a troupe of classical performers help rejuvenate patronage for opera?

BERLIN -- In the living room of a private apartment in Berlin's Kreuzberg district, Danish soprano Henriette Neess Borup hits the highest note of the evening and holds it -- just long enough to diffuse any persisting apathy in the room.

Soon, mezzo-soprano Hetna Regitza Bruun breaks onto the stage in protest, igniting a fiery, operatic duel. The exchange ends, and all 50 audience members seem to dissolve into a rumble of laughter and applause at exactly the same time. The casually dressed guests are teachers, students, engineers or designers of varying ages seated in tightly arranged rows of folding chairs.

Bruun has managed to fill living rooms like this one a total of ten times since May 2012 with her project called Home Opera. The series features operetta-style performances put on by classically trained, professional musicians in private homes. Anyone can apply to host an evening of Home Opera: The only requirements are high ceilings, a well-tuned piano and room for at least 40 guests (although some evenings have attracted more than 70). Hosts usually sell food and drink during the event.

For each scheduled performance, a rotating cast of four singers and a pianist weaves together a new arrangement of their favorite works from a broad range of eras and composers -- from Mozart and Wagner to Gershwin and Stravinsky. Especially endearing, though, is the troupe's light-hearted approach to its program: Paperboy caps, gaudy boas, hipster shades and even a bathtub make a cameo. Costumes and props help the audience laugh as much as they help it tap into the energy of each piece -- especially when lingual or cultural barriers exist.

Bruun says she thinks Home Opera has the potential to expose a broader audience to the genre:

"There are a lot of barriers to traditional opera for people today. You see it in Denmark where a lot of the culture revolves around sports. But we want to cast opera in a new light -- and we think the best way is to have fun with it."

Bruun's concern about dwindling interest in opera isn't unfounded: Data from the Allensbacher Market and Media Analysis Group (AWA)indicate a slight but steady decrease in those identifying as regular opera and theatre goers from 2007 to 2012, as well an increase in the number of Germans who who say they never attend shows. The country's Die Welt newspaper reported on a similar trend in Berlin's opera houses in 2008, and an October 2012 survey by TheaterManagement Aktuell revealed that more than half of German event directors are concerned about dwindling attendance over the next five years. A consortium of Berlin's three opera houses and other classical venues even offer the ClassicCard -- a pass for heavily discounted access to dozens of classical concerts for anyone under 30 in an effort to increase attendance by young people.

Bruun says Germans tend to have a high level of cultural competency compared to other places in the world -- but the troupe's current piano player Markus Syperek points out how this naturally also presents challenges:

"I think there are many people who still think they're at a traditional concert here: many don't get that they're allowed to laugh," Syperek says.

"On these evenings, people are sitting quite close to the singers, and when some of them can't handle that lack of safe distance, they clam up. If you have a lot of those people at once, it can make a performance difficult."

Bruun's brother Steffen, a bass and guest moderator this evening, says the intimate nature of Home Opera makes things interesting for him:

"Normally you have a border as an opera performer: the people are there and can't come through, then you have costumes and makeup," he says.

"But this is much more in-your-face: every performance is a new audience, so sometimes two people laugh right off the bat and the others go with it. Other nights, I'm turning red in the face because no one is reacting."

Though Home Opera's performers all have day jobs, the cast only averages a couple rehearsals a month -- one of which takes place in the hours leading up to each performance. Bruun says part of the beauty of the project is the spontaneity the format offers.

"In a small place like this, the performers and the audience members are constantly feeding off one another," Bruun says. "At that intensity, humor can help to relax things -- so we make sure to have fun with the pieces, and use the space, as well as mistakes -- to improvise some."

This evening's host, Achim Anscheidt, is a car designer with little personal connection to opera. But he says Home Opera reminds him of Hausmusik, the German tradition of playing music at home with the family, in school or in other social circles.

"I'm actually an opera culture philistine, but a friend hosted one of these evenings before, and what's appealing to me is the idea of having people over and having a good time."

A donation of 30 Euros per person is requested for each show, which Bruun uses to pay her performers -- a model she says is important in ensuring that the quality of performances remains entirely professional. But she says would like to see the project franchised soon, and has already applied for a trademark.

"This has become such a great way to reach new audiences and people who are actually kind of intimidated by big institution opera or think it's kind of expensive," volunteer production assistant Steffen Madsen says.

"And this is a way to pull it down and make it more successful -- which is part of the mission here. The target audience is people who are not putting opera on their iPods."

PHOTOS: Jan Windszus/Dejan Patic

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Shannon Smith

Correspondent (Berlin)

Shannon N. Smith has written for WNYC's The Takeaway and TheLocal.de. She holds a degree from the University of Texas at Austin. She is based in Berlin, Germany. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure