It is night. Behind the windows of an immense hall, some scanty cars and cyclists pass by. The deserted space is filled with what seem to be rows of beds waiting for patients. An improvised covid-19 hospital? Then the camera zooms in and we see the contours of design tables.
Against a soundtrack of departing underground trains, fragments from Aida and a cacophony of interplaying instruments, the rest of the building is also explored. Our gaze skims past stacked chairs, steel tubes, wooden palisades, technology rooms and clothing racks. The penny drops: we are in a decor studio.
With this opening of In nabijheid (In proximity) the artistic team hits the bull’s eye in this fourth production of OFFspring, a project of Dutch National Opera (DNO) in which the latest generation of theatre makers responds to performances that were cancelled due to corona. After all, in this bleak-industrial setting the sets and costumes are made that take us into the artificial world displayed in performances.
In this case the Egypt of Aida, the opera Verdi composed in 1871 for the opera house of Cairo without ever setting foot in Egypt. Although the libretto recounts the rapprochement between an Ethiopian princess and an Egyptian soldier, the music remains stuck in ‘orientalism’, composed as it is from a typically Western, colonial view.
We can do better, opined the artistic team commissioned to formulate a response to Verdi’s classic. While demonstrating in the Nelson Mandela park in the context of Black Lives Matter, the four up-and-coming talents became even more acutely aware of Aida’s ‘imperialist discourse’. When, during the demonstration, they heard a performance by the men’s choir Black Harmony, they immediately decided to enter into dialogue with them and their different, unfamiliar world.
As a matter of course they strove to work on the basis of equality and mutual respect. Five singers of Black Harmony find their match in as many men of the choir of DNO. The two groups meet in territory that is both familiar and unknown. Like DNO’s set design studio, Black Harmony is based in Bijlmer, but has no experience with opera; DNO singers normally rehearse in the Music Theatre in the centre of Amsterdam, but now commuted to this district in the Southeast of town.
The composer Sílvia Lanao Aregay uses the sound of underground trains to connect both worlds. The metro also appears in Gershwin Bonevacia’s poem about a man who describes how he is going to explore the world via the underground railway. ‘Hope you want to help me find my way’ says a voice on tape (Danny Westerweel), while a lonely dancer (Dan Radulescu) meanders through the different spaces. Some singers sing excerpts from the same poem, embedded in polyphonic, sustained tones of the others.
While singing, the ten men form intermingling geometric patterns, always respecting social distancing and dressed in black gala costumes. They don striking accents of costume designer Allysia van Duijn: the men of DNO wear a white cummerbund, the members of Black Harmony have white lace collars. These are reminiscent of the portraits that painters such as Frans Hals and Rembrandt made of the ruling class. A witty reversal, since the elite portrayed largely owed their wealth to slavery.
Director Stijn Dijkema and scenographer Han Ruiz Buhrs cross-cut the images with earlier shots of duos of one black and one white singer facing each other in casual attire. Contemplative, level-headed, challenging, sometimes dismissive, but gradually more trusting, culminating in a liberating smile at the end.
While the white singers continue walking their patterns, larding their polyphonic singing with muttered lyrics, Orlando Ceder, leader of Black Harmony, starts an Afro-Surinamese song, now answered with polyphonic singing by the other members of Black Harmony. Their colourful tunics refer to African clothing.
Even if you don’t understand a word of Sranontongo, their interpretation is compelling. They perform a melancholic, orally transmitted song from their ancestors, who worked on the plantations of Dutch rulers. The DNO singers gradually join in. Lanao Aregay manages to forge the two essentially different singing styles into a wonderfully coherent whole.
After the liberating smiles of the duos have broken through, the ten gentlemen form a queue. While singing they traverse the building, in the swaying pass we know from funeral rites in St. Louis; the dancer makes exuberant whirls in the empty hall. The singing dies away and the electronic music returns, including the underground sounds. These now carry a hopeful message: no matter how great a distance may seem, it can always be bridged.
With In Proximity the four young makers and their team powerfully illustrate the social relevance of opera. This fourth production within the framework of OFFspring definitely tastes like more.
This review was originally written for the Dutch blog Theaterkrant. The production can be viewed online until 30 January.