When Roller-Skating Nuns Came to the Opera House


In a rehearsal last week at the Mecklenburg State Theater in Schwerin, northeastern Germany, Fleshpiece, a shirtless performer with tattoos and purple hair, strode to the front of the main stage and delivered an impassioned monologue.

“This opera house, this is our church,” Fleshpiece intoned. “We continue to nail you to the present, just as Jesus was nailed to the cross.”

Supervising the scene was the experimental choreographer Florentina Holzinger, wearing a black baseball cap and a T-shirt printed with a picture of two nuns engaged in B.D.S.M. play.

Her previous works, including “Ophelia’s Got Talent” at the Volksbühne in Berlin and “A Divine Comedy” for the Rührtriennale festival, were boundary-pushing, peripatetic shows in which nudity, profanity, onstage helicopters, onstage ejaculation and performers hanging from their teeth have shocked and awed audiences. “Ophelia’s Got Talent” jointly won Germany’s Faust prize for best dance production last year, cementing Holzinger’s status as one of Europe’s rising theater stars.

In the German-speaking world, that kind of profile brings invitations to direct opera — and Holzinger’s work, which matches music with powerful, stage-filling spectacle, certainly has operatic qualities. Yet a gilded opera theater still seems an unlikely home for Holzinger, 38, whose anarchic works are collaged from new and old text and music, often with sharply contrasting styles.

For her next piece, which premieres at the Mecklenburg State Theater on Thursday, before moving to the Wiener Festwochen festival in Vienna from June 10, Holzinger is trying something different and staging an existing opera, Paul Hindemith’s one-act “Sancta Susanna.” She has expanded the piece into an extravaganza called “SANCTA,” featuring a skate ramp, a climbing wall and an industrial robot arm on which a dancer performs aerial choreography. As usual for a Holzinger show, there is abundant nudity and profanity.

“I wanted to make sure that we are not stuck in the corset of an opera,” Holzinger said in an interview, though she added that her earlier shows weren’t so different from Hindemith’s hair-raising 25-minute piece. “If you can dig ‘Sancta Susanna,’” she said, “then you can dig my work.”

The opera — in which a nun called Susanna has erotic fantasies about Christ on the cross and which ends with her stripping off her habit and Christ’s loincloth — is the third in a trilogy of one-act pieces in which Hindemith pushed the boundaries of his day. Written in Hindemith’s early, expressionist style, the score escalates from a delicate opening to a finale with thundering brass chords as the other nuns in Susanna’s convent denounce her as a Satanist.

For “SANCTA,” the opera’s three singers will be joined by some of Holzinger’s regular collaborators, including roller skaters, a sword swallower and performers who hang from hooks embedded in their skin. At the end of the Hindemith piece, the show proceeds without a break into a kind of staged mass, with music from settings of the Latin liturgy by Bach, Rachmaninoff, Byrd and Gounod, plus new music by the Austrian composer Johanna Doderer and the musician James Grabsch, whose artist name is Born in Flamez.

Holzinger, who grew up in Austria, which is predominantly Roman Catholic, said the piece was her first explicit reckoning with the church. “Only now, in reflection, do I realize how much that Catholic imprint is inherent in my upbringing,” she said, adding that the church fit well with some of her shows’ previous topics: “women, sex, the devil.”

These themes still have the power to shock, especially in a part of Germany where a far-right political party currently leads in opinion polls. Cornelia Zink, who plays Susanna, said she had heard some comments about her participation in the project. “Colleagues said, ‘If you were my girlfriend, you wouldn’t be doing this,’” she said.

“I think it comes from a place where people, mostly men, have a deep fear of strong women,” she added. “I think, socially, it’s scarier for a woman to be naked onstage expressing power. A woman being suppressed and sexually abused is OK.”

The production has a mostly female cast and creative team — a rarity in opera, where most directors, and especially conductors, are men. Marit Strindlund, who will lead the musicians for the production, said that this gave the piece an important edge.

“In opera, we struggle with how females are represented onstage,” she said, listing off repertory staples like “Carmen” and “La Traviata,” in which the heroines are seducers or victims of male violence. “Even in contemporary opera, we don’t always succeed in creating really interesting female roles. This piece shows women in many ways, as human beings.”

Andrea Baker, who plays Sister Klementia, an older nun, said “SANCTA” had “a feminist gaze — not a female gaze, because we have trans and nonbinary people in our troupe.”

That gaze, she said, is what made the nudity in this piece special. “I have spent a lot of time onstage naked. But it was from a male, often straight, voyeuristic vision.

“And that is completely different from a feminist, inclusive vision of what it means to be a woman,” she added. “In this space, no one is other.”


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *