Ask people what they associate with opera audiences, and you'll likely hear money, gray hair and a willingness to sit still for hours. But they'd be way off when it comes to a Berlin project called Home Opera.
Bureaucrats, students, tradesmen - it's a mixed crowd that has gathered in this apartment in Dahlem, a green and well-heeled district in former West Berlin that's home to the city's Free University. The guests are squeezed in on rickety folding chairs, and the floor creaks as the opera singers make their way between the rows of chairs, performing right next to the audience.
The performers know not to expect much space. The distance between audience and stage in a classical opera houses doesn't exist here; there's no orchestra pit, no elevated stage. Instead, the guests can hear every note that's off and the singers immediately pick up on every bored yawn.
Just one rule
The concept goes by the name Home Opera - opera performances up close from the comfort of home. Danish mezzo-soprano Hetna Regitze Bruun came up with the idea of making opera available to people in their living rooms. A mix of Romantic arias and love duets make up the program.
"It's a great pleasure, a joy," gushes a French and geography teacher Friederike Prinz-Dannenberg, who opened up her 180-square-meter (1,940 square feet) art nouveau apartment to visitors, for whom there are few rules. They are permitted to browse through her library and use her bathroom. The kitchen serves as a bar and bistro with wine, pretzels and beer. Coats can be checked at the door, and the bedroom is used as a backstage area, where singers can change and get ready. There's just one condition: Prinz-Dannenberg prefers the roughly 70 guests to take their shoes off at the door - to protect the floor.
Of course, Prinz-Dannenberg adds, she informed each individual neighbor in advance that things would be a bit louder than usual. But she insists "loud" isn't really the best description for the night of song.
Each aria or duet is announced with witty and, in some cases, rather odd dialogues and slapstick routines. There are pieces by the likes of Humperdinck, Donizetti or Richard Strauss, but there are also completely unknown Danish composers on the bill. The organizers want to excite listeners and show that opera can, in fact, be trendy and cool. It's arguably an ideal way to pique the interest of newcomers to the genre, maybe even leading them to check out opera's traditional homes like the Scala in Milan or Berlin's Staatsoper - places where few young people regularly head.
Home Opera's ensemble is made up of true professionals. Mezzo-soprano and organizer Bruun and soprano Denise Beck, who speaks perfect German, are both from Copenhagen. Pianist Clemens Göschel-Hund is from the state of Brandenburg and studied at Berlin's prestigious Hanns Eisler Academy of Music. Each musician lives from professional engagements.
The performers are seeking fun and a new challenge with their unusual program. And when there's a clank or a beer bottle tips over, nobody whispers or shakes a head in irritation. Instead, people laugh - clear proof that this is no classical opera house. A further piece of evidence: the ticket in can be had for a small donation of 25 euros ($33.5).
Anyone can host
Behind it all, the organizers of Home Opera say they aren't making a statement about the contemporary state of the genre. Instead, Bruun says she sees it as a kind of educational initiative and hopes to bring opera's huge emotional arc to those who have never or just seldom seen the interior of an opera house. This time, she's drawn a diverse audience with ages ranging from 20 to 70.
"That's simply more interesting than an aseptic atmosphere," says Bruun, a thin and nearly two-meter-tall opera singer who studied music in Berlin. Bruun has a weakness for private performances, saying she prefers the direct exchanges and open communication. "And that works best in a private residence," she says.
Home Opera's vocalists are open to taking the 'stage' in everything from a shared student apartment to a swanky condominium. There are few restrictions on who can host an opera evening, but one thing is essential: a piano.
Performances by the Danish opera singers, who are between 25 and 35 years old, almost seem like a Fata Morgana in the Berlin apartments in which they perform. After all, the performers are anything but heavy-set divas or neurotic Carusos.
In an era where consumers can choose from a baffling array of events, the Home Opera project isn't nostalgia anchored in by-gone times. It's about the longing of a small group of singers to bring their art to new audiences who may feel alienated by opera's well-heeled society who often make their way with complete apathy into opera houses, more concerned with making a status statement than with music.