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German ensemble brings first opera to Iraq

For the first time ever, an opera performance has been staged in Iraq. The Cologne Opera company embarked on a guest visit to the war-torn country and was celebrated with a standing ovation.

The Cologne Opera ensemble rehearses 'Il Seraglio' at the Telary Honer cultural center in Sulaymaniyah prior to the premiere

Setting up the stage at the Telary Honer cultural center was a challenge

The city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq's northern Kurdistan region hosted the country's first-ever opera over the weekend - Mozart's "Il Seraglio," performed by the Cologne Opera company from Germany.

Until recently, the Kurdistan region was considered to be the most peaceful and stable part of Iraq. As its population is 90 percent Kurdish, it has not experienced any intense ethnic conflicts. However, the previous weeks' unrest in the Arab world has had an influence on the area, with regular demonstrations - some violent - now taking place in Sulaymaniyah.

The opera production's director, Uwe Eric Laufenberg, faced a difficult decision when agreeing on the performance, but said the group did "thorough research" before embarking on the trip. It was also in touch with the local German consulate.

Laufenberg pointed out that in Iraq, unlike in many other Arab countries, there is no major debate about whether artistic expression is moral or permissible. For this reason, he sees the role of the opera tour as kind of peace mission.

Local Kurdish leader Mullah Bakhtiyar had invited the German ensemble after attending the production's premiere in November 2010 in Cologne, as the official representative of the Republic of Iraq.

The Iraqi Kurdistan flag planted in the ground at the Dukan river near Sulaymaniyah

The Iraqi Kurdistan region has been experiencing unrest

Bakhtiyar's attendance was made possible by a Berlin-based group that assists in Iraq's cultural reconstruction. This organization was initiated by Christoff Bleidt from the Berlin Theaterhaus theater and Iraqi-Kurdish actor Ishan Othmann, who played the speaking role of Bassa Selim in the Cologne production of "Il Seraglio."

Improvisation in the pit

The Cologne Opera company experienced a few hurdles when setting up at the Telary Honer cultural center where they performed. Since the theater did not have an orchestra pit, one had to be created underneath the floor in front of the stage. But there was no underground entry to the pit, so the musicians had to be lowered down into it from the stage.

The location also lacked a cloakroom and - most importantly - technical theater infrastructure, which proved to be a particular challenge for technician Volker Rhein.

"We didn't use the few floodlights that were there because they didn't meet our requirements," said Rhein. "It's normal that we create the stage design, but this was more work for us than a normal guest performance at a venue that is in regular use."

Despite the extra challenges, everything functioned correctly during the premiere. The Kurdish audience filled up the hall completely and enthusiastically received the opera, which deals with the cultural conflict between East and West, calling for reconciliation.

Even scenes portraying clichéd European views of Islam were met with amusement and laughter. At the end, the ensemble received a standing ovation.

Author: Regine Müller / ew

Editor: Kate Bowen

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