Refugee drama

INTERVIEW. Initiated by opera singer Cornelia Lanz, a new project reimagines Così fan tutte with the help of an ensemble of professional artists and Syrian refugees. The opera makes its Berlin debut Feb 21-22 at Radialsystem.

Image for Refugee drama
Photo by Sebastian Marincolo

Initiated by opera singer Cornelia Lanz, a new project reimagines Così fan tutte with the help of an ensemble of professional artists and Syrian refugees.  

The new staging sets Mozart’s classic romantic farce in a refugee home, integrating the Syrians’ performances, songs and stories. After premiering in Stuttgart last year, the opera makes its Berlin debut Feb 21-22 at Radialsystem.

How did the idea to stage Così fan tutte in a refugee home come about?

Director Bernd Schmitt found it fitting for different reasons. He thinks that this story of a bet might come from boredom – and where can you be more bored than in a refugee home? Then it happened that we could rehearse at the Oggelsbeuren former monastery, which was also going to be used as a home for refugees from Syria. That’s when I thought: if we are going to be so close to each other, then we should do something together! And I wrote a concept to integrate refugees into the process, looking for possibilities like scenery construction, singing in the choir, dancing and cooking… 

How was the first encounter with the Syrian refugees?

On May 14, a bus full of refugees arrived in the Swabian countryside. I was there, it was very intense. The moment they jumped out of the bus, I could feel their sorrow. Most of them had been on the run for three years – a few months in Syria, where many of them spent half a year in prison, and then two years in Lebanon – and now they would finally like to live somewhere. Their looks were saying: “Thanks for welcoming us, but this is not our home.” We felt quite helpless. At some point a little girl put her little sister in the arms of a Swabian; that was an icebreaker. 

How did you work together?

We started by building the scenery and doing singing exercises – improvising together on German and Arabic music, slowly building trust. After two weeks we had our first Mozart rehearsal with piano, singers and a conductor. The refugees hung around, and at some point some of them started to dance, and then later that night they came out with suggestions, how they could be integrated into the project. After that first rehearsal we had a system: we rehearsed with the singers every day from 10am to 8pm – the rehearsals were open to the team of refugees – and then at 8pm we rehearsed with the refugees in two groups, men and women, preparing elements we would integrate to the piece a few weeks later. 

So what do the refugees do on stage?

The piece starts with their own texts and a short improvisation about their life in the refugee home: they look for mobile phone networks, smoke shisha, learn German, argue… A man had written poems in Lebanon about their situation with lines like, “People, I’m not a number” or “I have lost my homeland but I find it in my Syrian friends abroad.” We did integrate some of those sentences into the opera. A very strong moment is the choir singing the song “Janna”, by Ibrahim Khashush – assassinated in 2011 – a song about paradise that is now a hymn for freedom and peace. It’s a very emotional moment, women still cry while singing it… Some wanted to use the revolution flag that came originally from the peace resistance movement, which is not so peaceful anymore – since our project want to promote peace in Syria, we decided not to use the flag. But that shows how different the points of view on the situation were among the group. 

What did surprise you?

I totally underestimated what it means for a person, for a mind, to come from a war and still be there through their friends and relatives that are still on site. I have an even greater gratitude for the peace we have, that we should struggle for. I remember strongly when, during a rehearsal, a WhatsApp message came: “Your cousin was just shot.” All the women broke down, and a man told me, fatalistically: “It’s war, Conny.” Now what I am really trying to do is to make more encounters between Syrian refugees and Germans possible – in Berlin for example, with Syrians staying at private homes.

Cosí fan tutte, Feb 21-22, 19:00 | Radialsystem V, Holzmarktstr. 33, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof