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26 April 2019

«I Go Through the World with an Open Mind»

von Tatjana Mehner

Dan Tanson in conversation with Tatjana Mehner

You develop musical-theatre formats for young audiences for some of Europe’s outstanding concert halls. What do you find especially attractive about this work?

Mainly that we can really reach these audiences. Every age level has its very own needs. While children of 13 and upwards no longer require a clear narrative line, but are very well able to let the music carry them along, the younger ones (between five and nine) need a clear story. Then again, the very youngest ones (aged two to four) are more likely to respond to playful situations in the present than to stories. It is important and fascinating to align our work with the horizon of experience the children may have at certain ages. I particularly enjoy finding the balance between entertaining and challenging an audience. My basic assumption is that children are always eager to learn and do not only want to be confronted with what they know already. It is healthy to take them to their limits, to a certain extent; yet it is equally important that no child is overwhelmed or left out.

That means that our work has to be particularly accurate. For me, children are the most wonderful audience I can imagine. They do not cling to formats or sequences, they are much more open-minded about what is presented, and that in turn makes it possible to deal much more freely with the music or any other material. I enjoy this freedom very much.

How do you keep finding subjects that children are enthusiastic about?

I go through the world with an open mind and have no prejudice whatsoever; I do not make a-priori judgments. Nor do I judge music: I see no problem with having equal esteem for Helene Fischer and Patricia Kopatchinskaya. It is important to me that art should be honest – I make no distinction between high culture and whatever. I can watch a high-end arthouse movie after a Disney film and enjoy both equally.

In this year’s children’s programme at the Philharmonie Luxembourg, you are responsible for the series «Boutchou» (with programmes for two- to four-year-olds) and «Musek erzielt» (with programmes for five- to nine-year-olds). Each approaches the audience in very different ways…

In one series, the story is told in Luxembourgish and the other is without words. With spoken language, of course we initially appeal to the children’s horizon of experience, consciously referring to the movie inside the listeners’ heads – the dramaturgy is oriented towards a story line. This is the case for «Musek erzielt». «Bout’chou», on the other hand, follows a situationist approach and is not bound by any story line. I always assume that little children live in the here and now; it would be futile to say to them: «Imagine we are in a field with snow everywhere.» They cannot find these things in a space which contains only chairs and theatrical lighting. It can develop there, but it has to happen in the here and now.

On the other hand, you can certainly say these things to the slightly older children to whom «Musek erzielt» caters. They have a richer trove of experience and stories. They can call up a snowy landscape, perhaps because they have seen Frozen or have been sledging themselves.

How would you describe your working method?

For «Musek erzielt», I always find the story first. One main characteristic of my work is that I always seek encounters with other art forms. To me, there is always a trio of basic elements: words-music-images. These three are able to create real movies inside the listeners’ heads. I would like the listeners to develop their own stories, and I don’t like dictating. In the case of «Bout’chou», on the other hand, I tend to develop the action from the material. Again, I have a trio of elements, but instead of words, here we have materials. The trio leads to a situation from which a story can develop. I think that the success of «Bout’chou» is based on teamwork.

The audience, however, consists not only of children, but also their accompanying adults. Do you focus on them as well?

Basically, our audience consists of about 50 percent adults. I think it’s important that they should have as much fun as the children. And that is possible if everyone comes up with their own images, based on their own associations. I always do a double check: what do I see as an adult, and what would a child read in this? This double meaning is what I try to convey to the ensemble.

Dan Tanson: Musek erzielt | Gusti Minettsdapp & Aucassin et Nicolette | photos: Sébastien Grébille

Your work takes you all over Europe. How does your work in Luxembourg compare?

I have to say that at the moment, the audience here is the best anywhere. That was not always the case. I have been observing this for about five years, and I think it is the result of a development that began in 2005, when the Philharmonie opened. I have been part of this from the beginning; in 2006 I staged the first children’s piece at the Philharmonie. At that time, the children hardly had a relationship with music, and parents all but brought popcorn to the concerts. During the past five years or so, I have noticed that now we really have children and parents who come because they want to hear music. The listening process has actually changed. We have an open-minded and quality-conscious audience here now. And I know that there are parents who have found their own way into the world of classical music through their children, and now attend concerts.