Critical mass

INTERVIEW: Nicola Hümpel of Nico and the Navigators. The ensemble is stages Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle, putting a contemporary spin on what the great comic composer called his “poor little Mass”.

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Photo by Falk Wenzel

Theatre ensemble Nico and the Navigators is a labour of love from Lübeck-bred director Nicola Hümpel and set designer Oliver Proske. Rooted in the Bildertheater (picture theatre) tradition of the Bauhaus movement, their pieces have been challenging traditional ideas of narrative, performance and creative process for over a decade.

Together with British conductor and kindred spirit Nicholas Jenkins, the ensemble staged Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle at the Kunstfest Weimar over the summer, putting a contemporary spin on what the great comic composer called his “poor little Mass”.

Exberliner caught up with Hümpel as she prepared to transfer the work to the Radialsystem V stage.

How did you become interested in staging Rossini’s mass as a theatrical work?

Inside all his music, you can always hear this contradiction, these doubts. One moment he’s full of passion, and you see him in a big cathedral like the Pantheon in Rome, where he looks into the sky and experiences this ecstasy, feels the sacred power and energy of religion. Then the next moment the music changes, and it becomes very funny; it’s like a little child behind a column staring into a church, watching what’s going on and making fun of it.

So when I heard the music, I was like, “Wow, it’s so theatrical and so bizarre, so passionate on one side, and so doubtful on the other.”

 Does religion play a role in your version?

We ask ourselves: what is religion today? What does it mean to us? Or what are our placebos for it? Because we always need to look to something higher, otherwise we can’t bear everyday life. Organization, time management – it can’t be all there is.

 Do you come to some sort of conclusion?

It’s not meant to make a moral statement or say whether religion makes sense or not. Of course, we wonder how religion still functions – or doesn’t – in society. But I am more interested in asking philosophical questions than trying to answer them. Like Nietzsche once said, we can’t be animals and we can’t be God, so we have to be philosophers. That made sense to me.

We never get to this point of pure divinity in our lives – maybe when we die, I don’t know – and on the other hand we can never just let go of thoughts and just be here and now, just eating and sleeping. It’s neither nor, so what do we do? We think about life instead of living it! [laughs]

How would you characterize your work now that you’re veering toward opera and away from Bildertheater in the tradition of Bauhaus and Fluxus?

It’s a kind of landscape of thoughts that we create, so ideally we have as many interpretations in the audience as people. You bring your own biography, you get questions and thoughts from what’s happening on stage, and you see yourself as the character from whose angle you want to see this world of religion, or world of whatever topic the piece deals with. In a way, you participate in this picture, but you put yourself in your own landscape of thoughts – or in the best case, in your own world.

And it’s so funny sometimes, because I’ll be sitting in the café or the foyer afterwards, talking about the evening, and people will see such different pieces and get into real conflicts: “I saw it like this!” “No, I saw it like this!”

Have you ever done more installation-type work where the audience physically interacts with the piece?

We worked more in museums in the early years, but then we realized we need a relaxed atmosphere for the work we do and that we prefer the quiet space of the theatre where you really have the chance to be with yourself.

That sounds almost like meditation. Is it comparable to a religious experience?

I wouldn’t at all say ‘religious’, but people in the ensemble do compare the time we work together to being in a community.

I also think that this can be the best therapy for a person who has experienced war. I worked with a man from Belgrade who had been threatened for 24 hours with a gun. In the end he wasn’t shot, but that was inside his body, this incredible fear. It’s really strange to say because it sounds a bit funny, but it was one of my favourite moments in my life when I realized, “Oh, my art can make sense on many levels.” In the end, he was everybody’s favourite, because he came back to himself.

Regarding religion, I think sometimes it’s true that if you work for a higher sense, a lot of things are on a level of vision… I don’t want to talk about a mission because it sounds too religious. If you have a vision and you follow it, then everything else is not that important. It doesn’t matter if you’re sick, or if your mother makes trouble. Everything flows from one thing because it seems to make sense for you, because you need to talk about this. And I think that has an effect comparable to that of religion.

 What do you see as the purpose of this kind of theatre?

Since I was a child, I have looked at people and felt that the eyes and the bodies and voices and words really don’t fit together very well; I always felt contradictions. I hated it when I was a teenager and all of the kids started to play coolness games, and I thought that people must see it’s just a game – it’s a fucking game! And so I started to become more interested in the combination of these three aspects – eyes, bodies, voices – and I realized that sometimes the words speak the opposite of the eyes, and sometimes the body speaks differently than the eyes or the voice.

Often it’s so random that everything merges into one, and I think that’s what we long for our whole lives, that we feel one. I think this is what gives me the drive to research human beings on stage with all their contradictions, with their longings and failings and these bizarre accidents of dialogue. I’m interested in this space that’s between eyes, text and bodies: where’s the authentic person?

And sometimes it is a little bit on the border of normality. When is somebody crazy and when is somebody normal? It’s a big question, no? Because sometimes I think people who seem to be normal are much more crazy than the people who express this craziness of our everyday life.

The similar big question is: when are we being ourselves and when are we acting?

I know they sometimes wonder themselves where they’re acting more – in life or on stage. They sometimes mix it up.

Petite messe solennelle, Nov 16, 18-20, 20:00 Radialsystem V, Holzmarktstr. 33, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof, half English, half German