(Excerpt from the publication Selam Opera! Interkultur im Kulturbetrieb)
Interculturalism at the Komische Oper Berlin
A brief history of migration in Germany and Berlin
Migration has been a common phenomenon throughout human history. The movement of people from one habitat to another, whether willing or enforced, has always meant loss (the old homeland) and gain (new experience) for the migrant population as well as for the residual population (losing fellow community members, gaining others with their experience). Migration is therefore nothing new in itself – and yet represents a big challenge for all concerned.
After the huge population displacements and deportations occasioned by World War Two, and with frequent lack of self-determination in respect of people's place of residence, the Federal Republic of Germany, suffering from an acute shortage of labour, attracted an influx of workers etc. from Yugoslavia, Greece, Portugal, Italy, Tunisia and Turkey from 1955 onwards. The labour shortage was further aggravated by the building of the Berlin Wall. Binational agreements on labour recruitment were signed, regulating the number of "guest workers" (Gastarbeiter) and the length of their stay.The initially adopted rotation principle, whereby migrant workers were permitted to stay for two years and the immigration of family members was forbidden, was rescinded by the amended version of the labour recruitment agreement with Turkey in 1964. In the wake of the recession triggered by the Oil Crisis of 1973, the Federal Republic decided to put a stop to labour recruitment and to allow the migrant workers already working in the country, including some 500,000 to 750,000 from Turkey, to choose whether to return permanently to their country of origin or to stay on in West Germany – as the vast majority chose to do. Migrant workers made a substantial contribution to the so-called "economic miracle" in West Germany after the Second World War. In the German Democratic Republic there was immigration, too. Most of the contractual workers, as they were called, came from Vietnam and were accommodated in housing complexes specially built for them. In West Berlin, owing to social policy and town-planning that was not very visionary or forward-looking (and to the unpredictable course of history), migrant labourers of Turkish origin, now joined by their family members, ended up inhabiting districts where the rent was low. This was the case primarily in working-class districts like Kreuzberg, Wedding and Neukölln which were either still partly damaged by the war or had not experienced wholesale redevelopment. While segregation (=separation from a mass) is a natural process in urban life, given that people have a tendency to seek out their own kind, "[...] it can nonetheless be detrimental to integration policy for two reasons: firstly, linguistic and religious enclaves form an obstacle to intensive exchange with the German majority society; secondly segregation can lead to a concentration of socially disadvantaged families inpoor districts". The majority society moreover increasingly perceives these districts as a parallel society. Society's chief possibilities of exerting an influence – school, job market, social services – have not adapted adequately to the changing needs of the changed, more mixed citizenship of thatsociety. Realization of this finally sank in, for the public at large, in 2001 when the first PISA results were published. These revealed that the German system of education systematically disadvantages the children of immigrants. Success at school in Germany depends very strongly on the social status of a pupil's family. Poor school education has a negative impact on the transition to vocational training and on integration into working life. This is significant for an intercultural project at an opera house in so far as it is a known fact that the use of so-called high culture depends on educational level. Now (2014) one in four Berliners has an immigration background. Nearly one quarter of a million people living in Berlin are of Turkish origin. In the school year 2013/14, 40 % of primary school pupils in Berlin have a language of origin other than German.
The history of migration and spoken theatre in Germany
Migrant workers began to form their own amateur theatre groups in the 1960s. The prevailing view among West German politicians being that migrant workers would only stay in Germany for a few years before returning to their country of origin encouraged an orientation towards the language and culture of the country of origin and there was no state support whatever for professionalization among migrant theatre groups. This attitude is responsible for the fact that to this day migrant theatre is virtually without exception a phenomenon of the independent scene, i.e. without public funding. Professionalization in migrant theatre began only with the founding of the Theater an der Ruhr in Mülheim in 1980 by director Roberto Ciulli, dramaturg Helmut Schäfer and stage-designer Gralf-Edzard Habben, and with the founding of the German-Turkish Arkadas Theater by the teacher Necati Sahin (and later Lale Konuk) in Cologne in 1986. Under the auspices of Fatih Akin, the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in Berlin was reopened by Shermin Langhoff in 2008, since which time the translocal theatre has functioned as a "crystallization point for artists of migrant or post-migrant positioning and beyond". Other professional theatres (Deutsches Theater Berlin, Theater Dortmund, Bühnen der Stadt Köln etc.) subsequently opened up to migrant and post-migrant subject matter, performers and performance styles. The first ever gathering to discuss current developments in the field of "migration and theatre" took place at the annual conference of the Dramaturgische Gesellschaft at Theater Freiburg in January 2011. Some fifty (!) years after the signing of the labour recruitment agreement with Turkey, this conference represents the recognition of migration as subject matter for spoken theatre also at municipal and state theatres in Germany.
Komische Oper Berlin – opera for all
Komische Oper Berlin, which was opened under this name by Walter Felsenstein in 1947, has always seen itself as an opera house for the people, open to everyone. The house's name is a reference to the Opéra comique in Paris which staged operas that, unlike courtly Opera seria, contained spoken dialogue and were immediately accessible and comprehensible for ordinary citizens. This aspiration to be an opera house for all led, in 2002, to the establishment of the initiative "KomischeOper Jung", which opened up the opera house to children and young people, both artistically by participation in stage productions and also through special educational programmes. The workshops for children and young people reflect the changing population structure of Berlin, as the pupils represent many different ethnicities, cultures and traditions. The wide range of religious, moral, musical and linguistic experience the young people bring to the workshops moreover means the art form is subjected to fairly rigorous probing.This diversity can be seen as a challenge or indeed as a far-reaching opportunity for freedom and globalization. The perceived need to open up the opera house to cultural diversity and establish an intercultural project at the opera house is a direct consequence of the music theatre pedagogy work done on a daily basis at the Komische Oper Berlin.
What has happened since then?
These workshop results, seen against a background of demographic change in Germany as a whole (i.e. "fewer – older – more mixed"), together with an awareness of Heiner Gembris and Hans Neuhoff's findings about future audience development and not least the fact that of the approx. 450 staff at the Komische Oper Berlin not one had yet been of Turkish origin made it clear that the opera house needed to take action to develop its own audience in line with changes in society. Interestingly enough, the impulses for cultural institutions to open up and become multicultural and participatory very often come from the institutions' educational departments – provided they understand education to mean "permeable in both directions", as cultural mediation directed outwards but also inwards into the institution itself.
At the beginning of 2010, representatives of the management, dramaturgy, music theatre pedagogy, publicity, and sponsorship/fund-raising departments of the Komische Oper Berlin held a meeting with the experts Dr Martin Greve, Nesrin Tanç and Frank W. Albers from the Robert Bosch Foundation to talk about the possibilities and limits of intercultural opening at the opera house. Serving as a basis for the discussion were, firstly, the book Interkultur by Mark Terkessidis, the brochure issued by the Berlin Senate, and lastly data about visitor figures and visitor demographics at the Komische Oper Berlin. Together the participants developed an intercultural project that would consist of specially targeted outreach programmes, Turkish translations of the librettos for the subtitling system, publicity and ethnic marketing tailored for specific audience groups as well as a basic self-conception of the opera house as an institution that learns.
The Komische Oper Berlin aspires to be an interculturally open institution. To achieve this, greater attention should first of all be paid to Berliners of Turkish origin. It is necessary to initiate contact with them personally in order that they can be recruited long-term as a new audience segment for the Komische Oper Berlin. It is important to bear in mind that there is not just one Turkish community in Berlin – it is in fact as diversified as the total population of any globalized city.
The pilot project consists essentially of outreach programmes aimed at specific target groups in addition to the translation of librettos into Turkish on the subtitling devices. This is because it is often the case that people are reluctant to go to the opera for fear of "not understanding anything" and not being able to follow the plot, coupled with vague prejudices – for example, that going to the opera is expensive and reserved exclusively for members of an affluent educated class.To tackle these "threshold fears" and dismantle perceived obstacles, the Komische Oper Berlin project envisages music theatre pedagogy workshops targeting specific segments, introductions to the works being staged, visits to rehearsals, guided tours behind the scenes, collaborative projects, intercultural training, plus other specific outreach formats that are in development as well as publicizing the opera house's socially responsible price structure, with the aim of increasing the general accessibility and facilitating an understanding of opera. To this end the Komische Oper Berlin will cooperate with initiatives, organizations and institutions that are already active and successful in the area of integration and social affairs, and will furthermore expand its successful collaboration with schools, nursery schools and youth centres. At the same time the libretto subtitling system installed in the backs of seats – still the only one of its kind in Germany – which enables opera-goers to follow what is being sung in a choice of German, English and French, and has proved to be a real aid to understanding for people new to opera as well as tourists, will now be used to display Turkish translations too. Summaries of opera plots and information designed to make a first visit easier will also be put into these languages. Marketing that is carefully targeted at different demographic sub-segments and specific publicity activities will allow citizens with a Turkish background resident in Berlin to find out about what is on at the Komische Oper Berlin regardless of their degree of knowledge of the Germanlanguage. Key to the success of the project is the opera house's conceptualization of itself as a "learning institution". This is the only real way for the Komische Oper Berlin to reap the dividend of interculturalism, whereby what it learns from residents of Turkish origin can be incorporated long-term in artistic and institutional practice.
The project was launched in the2010/11 season and designed to be sustainable. It was originally entitled TÜRKISCH – OPER KANN DAS! ("Opera can speak Turkish!"), but this title was revised in the light of initial experience because, being too narrow, it appeared to exclude Kurds, Alevis, Arabs and other ethnic groups from that cultural region. For the 2013/14 season, the project was given the name SELAM OPERA! which is more understandable internationally and more inclusive.
Project realization at the Komische Oper Berlin – Selam Opera!
In 2011, financial support by patrons and foundations made it possible to take on two new members of staff, Mustafa Akça and Oliver Brandt, who since then have been actively forging contacts throughout the city and specifically with the Turkish community, and raising intercultural awareness inside the opera house itself. The SELAM OPERA! project has come to consist of a variety of modules which, to be successfully implemented, very much require the aforementioned contacts in addition to an understanding of opera as a genre and the opera house as an institution.
The chief milestone in artisticterms is the German-Turkish children's opera Ali Baba und die vierzig Räuber ("Ali Baba and the FortyThieves"), which was composed by Taner Akyol. Premiered in 2013, the opera was seen by over 15,000 children and family members in its two-season run. Toaccompany the production an audio book was published containing pre-performance and follow-up activities for young opera-goers.
As regards channels of communication, first of all contact was established on a personal level with Berliners of Turkish origin. Project members visited Turkish business people and had tea with them in their premises; they attended women's group meetings in neighbourhood management offices, and offered to take part in intercultural initiatives organized by other bodies. Key figures in Berlin's Turkish community, Turkish language teachers from Turkey and representatives of the Turkish-German Chamber of Industry and Commerce were invited to opera performances, after which the participants exchanged ideas in a networking session. The Operndolmuş ("opera minibus") is the project building block that carries out "prospecting work". The minibus carrying three musicians, two singers and one dramaturg from the Komische Oper Berlin travels to community centres, old people's homes, migrant organizations and educational establishments in city districts with a notably high proportion of people from different cultural areas. The aim is to go out and meet people in their communities and build bridges from there to the world of opera, so as to make opera going a more manageable experience, but also to acknowledge the valuable intercultural work being done by those institutions. For groups of all kinds the KomischeOper Berlin offers workshops to prepare people for a visit to the opera. The workshops are tailor-made for individual groups: workshops for women's cafegroups are different from those offered for Turkish and Arab males.
Thirty children of Turkish and Arab descent have joined the children's choir, where children of all backgrounds now sing together and learn from one another. From the inception of the project the Komische Oper Berlin has advertised its shows in media that Berlin Turks use, for example the daily newspapers Hürriyet and Sabah and selected cinemas. There is also close media cooperation with the Turkish radiostation Radyo Metropol FM. These are certainly just the firststeps on the way to acquiring a basic attitude of intercultural openness. After all, everyone still has a lot to learn about Turkish Berlin. Everybody working at the Komische Oper Berlin – from the box office to the board room, so to speak – is expected to contribute to a culture that is welcoming, characterized by mutual respect, cross-cultural and historical knowledge, curiosity and cordiality. The art of cultural mediation lies in bringing together and harmonizing the needs of the ethnically Turkish target group and, looking forward, the needs of a highly diverse audience with the needs of the opera genre and of the opera house itself. What this requires in concrete terms is, firstly, the creation of suitable performance conditions for the Operndolmuş musicians when they visit the various welfare institutions; marketing campaigns that reach the migrant population via their own media while still conforming to the opera house's standards in terms of style; scheduling invitations in such away that they are convenient both for particular cultural groups and for a strictly organized opera house; making opera performance recommendations that fulfil an entirely different set of criteria;always being attentive to the needs of the families of children's choir members;communicating with Berlin's highly diverse population in an equally strategic and emotionally appealing way; and remaining open – as individuals and as aninstitution – to changes in relationships and culture.
The path we have set out on is by no means conflict-free. A high degree of intercultural competence on the part of our staff members is essential if they are to be constantly open to the discussion process and to regard differences as opportunities, and if a new "culture in between" is to be given the chance it needs and deserves in all areas.