Mozart opera takes to the Berlin metro

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

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.