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Participatory opera projects: stepping out of our comfort zone

interview with Anthony Heidweiller

 

What are the new stories of our century? How can we imagine new narratives and nurture the dialogue between different cultures? How can we reach new audiences? With these questions in mind enoa, together with the Dutch National Opera, initiated a cycle on participatory opera projects to give young artists the keys and impetus to start their own project. As the second workshop of the cycle started this weekend at the Dutch National Opera, we had a talk with its mentor: baritone and opera maker Anthony Heidweiller, who has a wide experience in participatory and community arts. 

Why do you think it’s essential to keep developing participatory opera projects that involve amateurs and local communities? 

In the opera world, we are all looking right now what are the stories we want to tell in the 21st century. I think it is important that we step out of our comfort zone and that we go into society because the opera world is not the real world. We need to step into this society that is cosmopolitan and much based on many many different cultures. We need participatory projects because this is where professionals meet amateurs, where the artists meet the public and in the end where people meet people. 

 

Does it have to do with the role of the artists in society? 

For the last 200 years we have given the artists their own places such as museums, theatres, concert halls, schools where you can learn or teach art, which is a beautiful thing and we valued a lot their virtuosity, but now I think we have to find an authenticity as well. It would therefore be very inspiring to have in an opera house a stage where one evening there would be only professionals, one evening only amateurs and another one a combination of the two of them. 

 

What is important to take into consideration when starting a participatory opera project? 
It’s very important before talking about concrete aspects of the project to have a first and real contact with the persons, the community that are going to be involved and to get to know each other well. Then you can talk about the theme, the scenes but you always have to start by asking who are you? And why do you do this? 

 

Could you share with us your best memory from a participatory project you were involved in? 
Back in 2005 I did an opera project in buses. It didn’t start easily as the bus drivers were against the project because they thought that it would be useless and a waste of money. One year before performing the project, I went to meetings with the 600 drivers and tried to explain my project but it didn’t convince them. I thought that the only way to get to them was to first work with them in their buses. So I started cleaning the buses by night, from midnight to four o’clock in the morning. They saw me doing this and in the end I became part of their business, I was one of them and that created a real bonding. They finally accepted the project and me. The only thing I could do to create this project was to start working with them and be part of their community. 

 

What would you say to an artist willing to start her/his project but who has no clue where to begin? 
It starts with the first question, what is your personal urgency? You really have to find a very good answer for this! You have to ask yourself why do you want to do this project and the answer has to come from the heart. Many artists willing to do a participatory project are not able to get close to it. 
I also had to find my personal urgency. For me, I have a handicap, I stumble and as a child I couldn’t talk so people would make jokes about me. So it’s very important that I find the silent voices within a community. I always look for “Anthonys” in my projects, the people who cannot talk because actually singing helps you talking. Every time I have doubts about my project or find people doubting about it, I talk about my personal urgency and everybody feels it and understands it and we can go on. 
Once you know what is your urgency, it’s important to become part of the community you want to work with, to become friends with them. You touch people’s heart if they can say afterwards “that’s my project” and not “this is Anthony Heidweiller’s project”. 

 

Interviewed on March 15th, 2018

 

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