‘Hop hop is a kick in the pants'

Artistic director Jan Vandenhouwe guides you through the new season

by Ilse Degryse, Mon, May 6, 2024

Jan Vandenhouwe color 0706 koen Broos

An intriguing theme for the year, that hop hop. But what to make of it? Where does it come from and how do you see it reflected in the performances this season? Artistic director Jan Vandenhouwe explains.

Jan, first of all, where does hop hop come from?

Hop hop are the final words of the opera Wozzeck by Alban Berg, with which we will close the 24/25 season. The destitute Wozzeck has just committed suicide, after first killing his wife Marie. Their son is playing with other children and takes a stick to ride as a hobby horse. As he plays, he says the words hop hop! As a spectator you have just seen an opera depicting a harsh, inhuman world. You could interpret that final scene as a sign that the cruel world continues to turn and the child faces the same fate as his parents. Or you can read hop hop as an expression of the idea that the world can also be different. Berg himself described the ending of his opera as ‘an appeal to the audience’, a call to take the side of the most vulnerable. He had just returned from the First World War and stood up for everyone who is a victim of a system of oppression.

You call Wozzeck ‘the best opera of the 20th century’.

Alban Berg had never written an opera. This was his first, and he immediately produced a masterpiece without a single unnecessary note. Wozzeck is for me an example of what opera should be, in the sense that Berg dares to look the world in the eye, unflinchingly showing it as it is, but not giving up. The hop hop is a kick in the pants.

We see something similar in Intolleranza 1960, Luigi Nono’s first opera.

Intolleranza 1960 is a searing protest against intolerance and oppression. We follow the story of an emigrant who encounters all kinds of protest movements and police) violence on his way home. This resonates with the world today, in which we once again see increasing polarisation and hardening attitudes everywhere. We live in a time of war, violence, closing borders and rampant intolerance. These are not new problems, on the contrary, they are centuries old. We present performances that are about that.

It makes you want to despair...

Not at all. What’s wonderful about great works of art is that they often offer a perspective towards a way out or suggest a way to deal with it, thanks to the imagination. In the words of Johan Simons, who is directing Wozzeck for us: ‘You haven’t got a chance, so seize it.’ These works often also raise new questions, and I think that’s also our job at Opera Ballet Vlaanderen.

We kick off the opera season with Madama Butterfly, an audience favourite. In what way does that work embody the new energy and the hop hop?

Madama Butterfly is one of the greatest titles in the repertoire, but at the same time one of the most problematic works to perform today. It is the story of a Japanese girl who is hopelessly in love and quite naively waiting for her husband’s return from America, who has bought her together with his house. The work is a colonial construction. It simplifies the image of the other but it is also a masterpiece, fantastically orchestrated music that never fails to move you. The hop hop is found in the contemporary reading that director Mariano Pensotti contrasts with this. He brings a refined staging that strips the story of the anecdotal and offers a profound reflection on how we construct identity through the gaze of the other.

The Spaniard Rafael Villalobos is an up-and-coming talent. He stages his first opera Iphigénie en Tauride for us.

I met Rafael Villalobos as a laureate of the prestigious Ring Award for young opera directors. In his staging, he reminds us that the story of Iphigénie takes place in present-day Crimea, in other words, Ukraine. In his decor he refers to the Mariupol theatre, where people took shelter from Putin’s rain of bombs. Villalobos depicts the theatre as a refuge from all forms of barbarism, not only the building itself but also the art form. He shows the universality of a tragic story and how a family experiences the destruction of war firsthand.

With Ersan Mondtag, we welcome back a familiar face.

He previously directed Der Schmied von Gent and Der Silbersee and now brings Salome by Richard Strauss, based on a play by Oscar Wilde. I am of course happy that we discovered Ersan Mondtag as an opera director. Today he is in demand in almost all the major opera houses. His colourful, expressionistic world fits perfectly with the decadent universe of Salome, in which not a single character is appealing. The mood of doom in that work again resonates strongly with an unease that we all feel today.

There is also room for laughter, and no better place for that than Christoph Marthaler and his staging of Der Freischütz.

Der Freischütz has a bit of a stuffy image in Germany due to the rather unbelievable story about a hunter who makes a pact with the devil in order to become a better shot – during a competition and also in love. (laughs) Romanticism can quickly turn into caricature and the libretto of Der Freischütz has a high tralala quotient. That’s precisely why Christoph Marthaler is the ideal director. He delicately exposes the absurdity of the petty bourgeois world in the shooting club. It is a pertinent and topical satire on a narrow nationalistic world and at the same time it shows the loneliness of the people there.

On to the ballet and to Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev, the ultimate love story, but with a political slant.

Prokofiev returned to the Sovjet-Union in 1936 after a stay in the United States and tried to find an audience there. In his music for Romeo and Juliet, in addition to the timeless love story, he emphasises the political side of the story and in particular expresses the horror and destruction caused by the family feud. Romeo and Juliet is one of the most popular ballet scores of the 20th century. We asked the Spanish choreographer Marcos Morau to radically bring it into the here and now. Last year he was voted choreographer of the year by the magazine tanz.

A highlight in our ballet programme is Rain by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to music by Steve Reich.

Steve Reich’s minimal music inspired Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to create what is perhaps her absolute masterpiece. With Rain, she delivered a real cult performance in 2001. It’s a gem and I’m truly proud that we can once again add a work by Anne Teresa to the repertoire of Opera Ballet Vlaanderen.

Someone else who has also created a cult performance is Gisèle Vienne with Crowd.

Gisèle Vienne is a French-Austrian choreographer whose work is performed at all major arts festivals. Crowd is an ecstatic performance and depicts a rave that winds down at the end of the night, set to electronic music. For the first time, Vienne will perform one of her works with a dance company other than her own. She will really recreate Crowd with our dancers. To look forward to!

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