Berlin's Komische Oper is introducing Turkish subtitles for its opera and musical productions. Berlin has the largest Turkish population outside Turkey, but will the subtitles be more than just a symbolic gesture?
In the Komische Oper, subtitles appear on the back of the seat in front of you
For most opera aficionados, Turkish in the opera house conjures up a harem in Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" or Rossini's "Il turco in Italia." But times are changing.
Berlin's Komische Oper recently announced it would introduce Turkish - as well as French - subtitles starting next season. Unter the motto "Turkish. Opera can do it!," the Turkish translations are to cater to the city's community of some 300,000 inhabitants. French translations are intended for the city's growing number of tourists. Until now, only German and English words have graced the stage.
Of Berlin's three opera houses, the Komische Oper is on the cutting edge of attempts to bring opera to a wider public. The theater champions a highly contemporary approach to staging and performs all productions in the German language - in principle, a populist approach.
Adapting to the times
Since the current director, Andreas Homoki, took office in 2002, the organization has run a successful children's opera series and engaged in outreach with schools throughout the city. It now boasts 300 workshops annually.
Homoki explained that the idea for translating into Turkish came about during one of these workshops. He and the staff noticed that many of the students had to translate for their parents, adding that the men often had superior language skills to their wives.
Shermin Langhoff says the subtitles are important, even if change is slow
"We want to reach the whole family," he said. "Opera is a wonderful, living art form that should be accessible for everyone. This is an important issue of our time that we have to address."
He added that, as the son of immigrants to Germany, he can recall how difficult it was when his grandmother came from Hungary to visit. "A trip to the theater would have been out of the question because of language barriers," he said. "Something like [the subtitles] creates a bridge."
While it is unclear to what extent the new subtitles will alter the house demographic, the Komische Oper is already the youngest of the city's opera houses with an average age of 45 among audience members. Around eight percent of current visitors have an immigrant background and Homoki hopes to align this fraction with the city at large, which includes an immigrant population of about 25 percent.
Need for 'complex solutions'
Luring city dwellers who have never nurtured an interest in opera may prove to be a challenge, however. Shermin Langhoff, director of Berlin's Ballhaus Naunynstrasse theater, which focuses on multicultural and post-migrant productions, expressed doubts that the subtitles would find many readers despite her praise of the gesture's symbolic meaning.
"One can't expect that these people will become opera-goers overnight," said Langhoff. "But the recognition of diversity and attempts to find different ways of creating access to opera and theater are necessary for the future of these art forms."
The incorporation of multi-lingual subtitles may be a natural consequence of the German capital's ever-growing multicultural environment. A mere 20 percent of Berlin's residents were born in the city, according to a recent figure. One only has to look at the colorful programming of the Berlin Philharmonic's "Alla Turca" series to see change in the air.
"As Berlin increasingly attracts more immigrants, our reality is changing," said Langhoff. "That's where the need for complex solutions comes in."
Opera should reflect its city
She also pointed out that while opera houses have always been natural bastions of cosmopolitanism and international flair, they haven't traditionally involved foreigners living within the city. While many may perceive opera as stuffy and elitist, she believes it belongs solidly to the middle classes.
The Komische Oper is capitalizing on the city's complex fabric as it tries to reinvent the traditional role of an opera house. Incoming director for the 2012/2013 season, Barrie Kosky, recently wrote a column for the Tagesspiegel newspaper stating his view that an opera house should reflect the "intercultural" nature of opera and music.
Berlin's Turkish community is around 300,000 strong
He also praised Berlin as a city "for gypsies and nomads, for the exiled, dreamers, and lost souls." Kosky has announced plans to further entrench the outreach program and commission a children's opera from a local Turkish composer.
Freedom to experiment
Anne-Kathrin Ostrop, the Komische Oper's education manager, believes that the respect inherent in such initiatives will automatically yield a return in kind. She mentioned that the day after local papers had announced the onset of Turkish subtitles some parents came to one of her workshops with article clips in hand and thanked her.
"Some understand Turkish as the language of emotion and German as the language of information, so we can proceed from the assumption that the new motion will be honored and facilitate better access to opera," she commented. "It may not have an effect overnight, but we shouldn't underestimate its symbolic meaning."
Ostrop added that while the children's program, Oper Jung, was slow to take off, it eventually yielded a noticeably younger audience.
While no one has the recipe par excellence, experimenting with various approaches may be a necessary process in trying to create a more cohesive exchange with immigrant populations.
"All new ideas are welcome because it means that people are thinking about the issue and perceive the city as an open institution," said Langhoff. "The interest and curiosity are extremely important, regardless of what form an attempt takes."
Author: Rebecca Schmid
Editor: Kate Bowen