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'Strangers in a Song'

April 5, 2012

In the mood for some opera but don't want to dig out the tux? A Berlin-based performance project may have the answer. Just pick up the phone and dial.

A telephone used in Strangers in a Song
Image: DW

"Hello? Hi, I would like to listen to Marilyn," says Vincenza Benedettino, a 27-year-old artist's assistant visiting Berlin, as she picks up a phone in Berlin's Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theater. Benedettino listens as a Marilyn Monroe song streams from the phone's loudspeaker. Other curious people gather around, drawn by the tune as it wafts over to the bar.

They have become participants in the "Strangers in a Song" audio installation, in which professional opera singers perform for audience members in a rather unconventional way: over the telephone.

German opera director Sybille Polster and American mezzo-soprano Dylan Nichole Bandy came up with the idea. They see it as a way to explore the audience-performer relationship and classical repertoire in a novel, playful way.

Uwe Friedrich, a music and opera critic from Berlin, appreciates the uniqueness of using a telephone to create, then close a gap that normally would not exist between listeners and singers.

"You want to be closer to the person who is usually far away - that's why you use a telephone. And here you use it to bridge a gap that usually isn't there when you hear classical music, which is turning things upside down," Friedrich noted.

A personalized concert menu

"Strangers in a Song" didn't just draw critics' attention when it was performed at the 100 Degrees of Theatre festival at the three HAU theaters in Berlin. It won the audience award.

Six professional opera singers were placed in unusual public spaces in each of the HAU theaters - from an old ticket booth in the foyer, to a dark cupboard next to the toilets, and even a display window facing the street.

Each singer prepared a repertoire, a concert "menu" tailored to their persona and performance space. The lists of music were placed next to phones in various locations, inviting listeners to call a singer and choose something from the menu.

Audience members might walk past a doorway and catch a snippet of song from the opera singer just a few metres away. Or they might hear an aria via telephone loudspeaker, or from the intimacy of the handset, direct into their ears.

Red-light arias

"My character in this piece is the performer-prostitute aspect of the singer: the person who is performing, who does takes on different characters," said Dylan Nichole Bandy, one of the installation's singers and an American mezzo-soprano.

Bandy stood in a risqué outfit in the display window of the HAU 1 building - reminiscent of prostitutes advertised in windows in Amsterdam. She chose a repertoire that she described as having various sexual undertones.

"For example, Ursula's song 'Poor Unfortunate Souls' from Disney's 'The Little Mermaid,' or 'Carmen,' the 'Seguidilla.' They have kind of a sexual element to them already. But there's also a really performative aspect and an aspect of taking on a character - there's a different voice per character," she explained.

Giving back

While classical arias form the basis of the project's repertoires, Bandy's songs - which include a Marilyn Monroe number - reflect the diversity of the catalogues of music on offer.But the unusual programs and performance context make many listeners a bit uncertain.

"Initially, people have reactions of being uncomfortable, whether that's laughing or not breathing or not reacting. Sometimes, people talk back to me during the song, and it has this awkward element of: 'Do I keep going or do you want to have a conversation now?' Sometimes I just don't know," Bandy said.

And it doesn't stop at unexpected conversation once a passer-by gets on the line. One listener even asked to sing something back, Bandy reported - namely, "Beautiful" by American singer Christina Aguilera.

Out of the pews

Critic Uwe Friedrich noted that the Strangers in a Song performance isn't really opera, but it illuminates the way in which audiences typically approach the genre.

"Especially in Germany, you quite often have this pseudo-religious touch to opera. When you go, there is an audience gathering just like in a church. You're silent all the time, you're thinking about the deep meaning the artist wanted to reveal and so on," said Friedrich.

It's the down-to-earth approach of "Strangers in a Song" that appealed to Friedrich and other passers-by.

"You never hear people singing to you in real life, it's on the big stages. You're a big audience and this is really personal, so I like it," said listener Colyne Norange from France.

It may be a bit too personal for some. Fortunately, though, hanging up is a lot easier than sneaking out of a packed opera house.

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Greg Wiser

Audience members
Some listeners got uncomfortable, some sang backImage: DW
Dylan Nichole Bandy
American singer Dylan Nichole BandyImage: Nic Fey
A song menu from the installation
Listeners can choose songs a la carteImage: DW