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Opera for the people

April 7, 2010

An opera house in Africa? Diebedo Francis Kere, the architect behind director Christoph Schlingensief's visionary idea, tells Deutsche Welle why the project is good for his country, Burkina Faso.

A computer generated image of Christoph Schlingensief's planned opera village in Burkina Faso
Construction on the opera village began in FebruaryImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

German stage director Christoph Schlingensief had a vision: to build what he calls an "opera village" in Africa. The project includes a 500-seat theater, but also a hospital, a school, a recreation area and bungalows. Earlier this year, the keystone was laid in Burkina Faso and construction is underway.

Architect Diebedo Francis Kere, who was born in Burkina Faso and studied in Berlin, is partnering with Schlingensief in the one-of-a-kind project and has designed the complex.

Deutsche Welle: You've just returned from Burkina Faso. What's the situation there? Is the opera village starting to take shape?

Diebedo Francis Kere: Yes, it's going well. The opera village is growing, first at the foundation. A lot is going on at the construction site. Around 150 people are working there. It's like a public fair because there are so many visitors.

Diebedo Francis Kere
Kere now lives in BerlinImage: Diébédo Francis Kéré

Are the local residents involved? How can we picture this 'fair'?

A lot of people heard about the project from the very beginning and come and want to participate. We recruit workers and they are paid - that's really good; the project creates jobs for the people who live there. We collect construction materials. Vendors come by to try to sell us their products, but they see that we get what we can from natural sources and then try to sell us other materials that we cannot get elsewhere. A lot of technicians come and - this might surprise you - development aid workers, too. They want to have a look and offer advice or their help.

It's like a real fair - women turn up to sell food, rice, traditional bean cakes and peanut rolls to the workers who are there.

You were born in Burkina Faso and grew up there and then came to Germany to study architecture. Is this project an opportunity for you to bring together these two parts of your life?

Yes, in some way. But I should say that, even while I was studying, I started building schools for the people in my own village and I also launched development projects. Then Christoph Schlingensief came along and wanted to undertake this exemplary project. I am, so to speak, the bridge. He needed me, my experience, and my connections to accomplish his vision.

For me, primarily, it's a chance to show that - through art - we can do something for the people there. And I am very proud to be that bridge.

When you started studying architecture in Berlin, did you plan on building in Africa?

Yes. I signed up to learn the science of building. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about going back to my country later to improve building methods there. That was my idea from the very beginning.

With the school project you worked on during your studies, you dealt with very little funding and had the added challenge of the extremely hot climate in Burkina Faso. Did you assume that the conditions would be similar with Christoph Schlingensief's project?

With the opera village, Christoph had the vision and then we came together with our ideas. He became acquainted with my building methods and how I work with the people at the building site.

At the beginning, a lot of people didn't understand the idea of an opera village. I was very surprised myself when I heard about it. I was told I should contact him, but I didn't do that because I thought, this is a crazy guy with a crazy idea! Why build an opera house in Africa? But then I got to know him and his vision. It was a big coincidence: you have two people who come from different perspectives and suddenly they have something in common.

I can build there and implement sustainable ideas and Christoph has the big vision and the strength to get people behind it.

A drawing of the opera house for Burkina Faso, designed by Diebedo Francis Kere
The theater is to seat 500 peopleImage: picture alliance / dpa

Where did you begin with your concept?

We stuck with the description "opera village" because we want to separate ourselves from a traditional opera house, which is something for the elite few. The main idea behind the whole thing, as Christoph says, is that Burkina Faso is a passageway. Lots of cultures pass through and each one leaves something behind. This house will serve to tie all of that together and bring us back to Europe. It will be a window, a gate to the West and to the modern world for Burkina Faso, which is known for its film and theater festivals. These are a model for the rest of Africa. This opera village gives the country a chance to become even more well known, to achieve something it can show to the outside world.

What does this project mean to you personally?

It's an opportunity to be able to work with an artist like Christoph and I'm proud that he always stresses the friendship that connects us. It also shows that when artists from my continent have the chance to acquire knowledge, that we can also achieve great things - which bring cultures together - in cooperation with artists here [in Europe].

That's the most important thing for me - that we achieve something that has to do with Europe but is for Africa and helps bring more appreciation for Africa. Through this project, [Burkina Faso] is suddenly looked at more positively everywhere - in Germany, Switzerland, Austria. That’s really good; it's extremely important for a country like Burkina Faso.

Interview: Silke Bartlick (kjb)

Editor: Susan Houlton