Mozart opera takes to the Berlin metro

Mozart's opera "The Magic Flute" has been performed all over the world but Berliners will be treated from this week to a modernized production in an underground metro station, writes AFP's Simon Sturdee.

Mozart opera takes to the Berlin metro
The Queen of the Night and Pami. Photo:

And not just any station. The Queen of the Night’s arias will reverberate around a stop that is one of the final pieces in the two-decade mammoth project aimed at transforming Berlin into a world-class capital city.

More than 200 years after one of Mozart’s most enduringly popular operas was first performed in Vienna, avant-garde opera director Christoph Hagel has updated the work for the 21st century.

Papageno, in the original a bird catcher covered head to toe with feathers, has been transformed into a homeless bohemian living off state benefits and is played by Jan Plewka, former frontman of a German rock band called Selig. The action begins with him sleeping off a hangover in the underground station.

The hero Pamino is chased by a train not a serpent, his love quarry Pamina – cast as a typical Berlin student – is arrested for not having a ticket and the youths who help out the heroes along the way wear baseball caps and ride skateboards.

The sonically awe-inspiring Queen of the Night wields an axe – only to be run over by a high-speed train at the end. Her attendants are cleaning ladies – who become leather-clad dominatrices with whips. The dialogue from the 1791 work has also been modernised and the length has been slashed to 120 minutes from the usual three and a half hours. But Hagel dismisses any talk of dumbing down.

Emanuel Schikaneder, who wrote the libretto to Mozart’s music and who first played Papageno, was a Viennese entertainer not an opera singer and Papageno was a well-known figure in folk culture, Hagel says.

“I am sure that when it comes to Papageno, he (Mozart) would have been okay,” Hagel, who also conducts the orchestra, told AFP. And for purists, the hero Pamino remains a blast from the past, a prince straight out of a more conventional production complete with powdered wig, silk stockings, impeccable manners and unimpeachable honour.

His 18th century garb and archaic diction cause much amusement to a slurring and swearing Papageno as they see off Masonic tests of will to win Pamina and punk-girl Papagena.

Hagel is no stranger to operatic experimentation. He first made his name in 1997 with a production of “Don Giovanni” in a power station and with “The Magic Flute” in a circus tent in 1998.

He says he was inspired for “The Magic Flute” by German lonely hearts adverts where singles try to get in touch with someone they caught a glimpse of getting on or off a particular train at a particular time. But it is the station, due to be opened in 2009 in a new line linking the historic Brandenburg Gate with the brand new Hauptbahnhof main station, that is the “secret star of the show,” Berlin’s public transport company BVG says.

The history of Berlin’s metro network mirrors that of the city. Bombed to smithereens in World War II and split in two during the Cold War, since reunification in 1990 it has seen a major expansion. Designed by architect Axel Schultes, the new stop is almost ready.

The performers use bits of it as props – the bins, the track and even the public information intercom – and the station is illuminated by a state-of-the-art light show.

Described by the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel as an “underground cathedral” that even without an opera going on is an impressive sight, spectators are placed on tribunes around the station that give them the closest of close-ups and even audience participation.

It is not the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and German unification that the vast reconstruction effort has been used as a backdrop for art.

In 1996 for example cranes were made to move in time with music as an orchestra conducted by Daniel Barenboim played at the central Potsdamer Platz. The Bundestag station has already been used for other events, BVG spokesman Klaus Wazlak told AFP, like a go-kart championship, a party given by Robbie Williams and a modern opera called “Angie” about Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The opera premiered on April 26 and runs to May 25.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.