Cosi fan tutte

It is not unusual for directors at opera house around the world, when staging operas even in the standard repertory, to transport the setting to a time and place far removed from that mentioned in the original libretto. In fact, it is almost de rigeur for this to be the case.

Don Giovanni set in a ghetto, Norma uprooted from pagan Gaul into puritanical 19th century America, a puppet-show version of Wagner’s Ring cycle, Rigoletto as bartender to his Mafioso don instead of the Duke. It’s all been done by now. It doesn’t even raise eyebrows anymore. Sometimes it works, a lot of the time it doesn’t. But opera directors carry on regardless.

So it should come as no surprise then, if Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa (comic opera) Così fan tutte were set within a Syrian refugee home in 2014 instead of 18th century Naples. But this is the real thing. In May 2014, a group of over seventy refugees from war-torn Syria were housed a world away from the strife, in the tranquil ambience of a Franciscan monastery Oggelsbeuren in the district of Biberach in southwest Germany’s Upper Swabia. They became participants of an unique opera project.

The opera title Così fan tutte literally means “Thus do all [women]” in Italian, and is popularly used to mean “Women are like that”. The enigmatic title is taken from the words sung by the three men in the cast (Guglielmo, Ferrando and Don Alfonso) in Act 2 Scene 13, just before the finale. Don Alfonso, an old philosopher, lays a wager to the two young officers Guglielmo and Ferrando that their fiancées (Dorabella and Fiordiligi, respectively), in whose fidelity they have unswerving faith, will cheat on them given the first opportunity. The whole opera is built upon this idea.

Mezzo-soprano Cornelia Lanz, in an interview to BBC television, explained,”Our director (Bernd Schmitt) had the idea to put the setting of Così fan tutte into a refugee home… because the whole bet idea can derive from boredom. And where is there more of this than in a refugee home?”

Lanz, who plays Dorabella, has dreamt of playing a part in Così fan tutte since her teens. The concept took flight after she contacted Father Alfred Toennis, who is founder of the charity Give a Home, in Oggelsbeuren.

When the idea of this opera project was first mooted to the refugees sheltering at the monastery, there was some hesitation and even scepticism. Among them was Ahmad Osmani, who had been imprisoned for six months by forces of PresidentBashir al-Assad’s regime. But he was won over as well, and now describes the experience as “a great thing in my life.”

The rehearsal sessions involved daily physical, breathing and vocal exercises, language and diction workshops, and rehearsals with the chorus and crew to assimilate Syrian songs and dance into the production. The rehearsals had an open-door policy, and visitors were encouraged.

The opera project went a long way in integrating the refugees with the local village community. It has also given the refugees a new sense of meaning and purpose, and put an end to the humdrum monotony of their existence in their newly adopted country. Eighteen- year-old Mayza Chemali spoke to BBC TV of the transformative effect of the opera on her perspective and outlook for the future in Germany. The refugees and local villagers, and the opera production crew all worked together to set up the stage for the opera.

The opera also provides a medium for giving the refugees a voice, and to spread their message to a much wider audience. Syrian freedom songs and some stories of individual refugees have been incorporated into the libretto of Così fan tutte. Osmani explains “We are here because of war. We are asking for peace, this is our message. We are looking for peace. Stop war. Enough blood. This is our message.” His weary eyes betray the horrors that he has seen first-hand.

Lanz met regularly with the refugee community and through conversations and rehearsals, heard the stories of their turbulent lives and felt the need to”instil a strong and clear message of hope and peace” into the adaptation. “I am very touched and very hurt by what war does to people”, she said.

Lanz wishes the message of peace to transcend the conflict in Syria. “In the middle of a rehearsal, one of the refugees got a message that some of their family members in Syria had been killed, and that signifies why we want this opera to be a message of peace for Syrians, and also for the whole world.”

This unique production of Così fan tutte premiered in Stuttgart at the Theaterhaus on Sunday 5 October 2014.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 October 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)