The Munich Music Theater Biennale shows the future of opera culture

Perhaps this is the solution: a sound sculpture by the sea, perhaps only for one listener and one soprano, an encounter full of intimacy, even when the waves are rolling and the sea is roaring. Or in the forest: on one tree a mechanical bird plays music, and on another tree a real bird sings, below the listeners. And maybe theremin.

Norway’s Øyvind Torvund has his own ideas about what future opera performances might look like. But he is serious, at least halfway, at least his play, which premiered at the Munich Biennale of Music Theater, is called Plans for the Opera of the Future. Torvund wrote music and script and made small films for this, with some hits that look like early drawings by Alberto Giacometti. They offer to arrange his ideas for implementation, whose resonant content provided Mark Knope on piano and synthesizers, and Juliette Fraser with her wildly unaffected voice.

This is more than just a gimmick – it goes to the heart of musical theater

This is much more than a whim, it goes to the heart of musical theater. Because Torfond treats music, especially when it becomes theatrical, as a communicative phenomenon. And maybe sometimes you have to have some crazy ideas in order to cleverly cross the target, which can only mean that the listener is meant and feels.

This year’s Musical Theater Biennale is entitled Good Friends, which clearly means the collaboration of artists, some of whom have come from different continents to work together, but it also touches on the way they engage with the audience. Since Manos Tsangaris and Daniel Ott took over the Biennale of Musical Theater in 2016, they have done a lot to make it a public festival. In many places, “contemporary musical theater” still leads to direct defensive behavior, and potential viewers believe they have no place there without at least a degree in musicology.

This does not apply to the Biennale. For any of the seven new works this year – the Biennale is just a premiere festival – you need the slightest prior knowledge. This applies equally to themes and music. Well, two of the works are so complex in essence that you have to search for a long time to find a point where they can bother you. But they are all calls to get involved in something. And unlike many world premieres, which small opera houses have long included in their repertoire, none of the shows had an acting character. At the Biennale you don’t just get something in front of you, you participate in it.

Perhaps the strongest is in the ‘Spuren’, a Musikhochschule production in their basement. The building was built by the Nazis as “Führerbau”, the basement is a shelter, and now you meet the singers there in extreme emotional distress, in an emergency, so close yet so far away – an experience that would be oppressive even without current world events, but now Fully packed. Polina Korobkova’s music creeps into your head and into your heart, gorgeous Victoria Matt sings and pleads with at least three words from a loved one. Of course, musical theatrical works that gain their strength from the specifics of the space chosen for them also occur from time to time outside the Biennale. Because theaters want to create that instant experience. And the audience yearns for it.

There are also people who are not geeks and have no idea about contemporary music

The Biennale has had a good turnout so far – and runs through Thursday – although one has to admit that four of the shows have been planned from the start for a manageable audience. The result of a small, completely unrepresentative poll after the premiere of the not-so-small Muffathalle: there are also people who are not geeks and have no idea about contemporary music and who do not know any of the artists. It would be easy to describe a festival with this claim to innovation as the perfect bubble. But fortunately that wasn’t true.

Also because almost all business in the end is definitely political. The premiere of “Songs of Expulsion and No Return” was an opera for refugees, “The Little Lives” by Anne Claire and Al Kennedy deals with a wry smile on the backdrop of Brexit and the special effects of political decisions, titled “The Damned And The Saved” ‘It is a totalitarian dystopia, but with hope in the end. Swede Malin Bång penned a libretto script for Pat To Yan, who was born in Hong Kong, for music with very effective and very harsh vocals. In the center are two women, each embodied by a singer and actress, who were abused and tortured in the dungeons of the regime – in the first image one of the best images of political violence ever seen on an opera stage.

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