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Good show(?)! – Mozart Undone

His circus-like extravaganzas have sliced and diced The Beatles, played fast and loose with Bob Dylan, and spawned successful imitations across the theatre scene in his native Denmark. Now the gleefully wilful director-cum-ringmaster Nikolaj Cederholm brings his trademark ‘theatre concert’ to London’s Barbican, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s temporary residence in the British capital. Will his hi-energy, water-sporting brand of music-theatrical freestyle be every Mozart-lover’s cup of tea? Only if you have an open mind, he tells ASH Smyth.

The Betty Nansen Teatret’s Mozart Undone features six singers and five instrumentalists in a two-hour ‘freewheeling musical deconstruction’ of 20 of Mozart’s most recognisable melodies – or what Nikolaj Cederholm would call ‘hits’. Formerly-recognisable, anyway. These ‘hits’ have been, according to the show’s garrulous and inimitable press release, ‘re-imagined and re-engineered into a wild synthesis of ancient and modern genres’ involving such (neo?-)classical touchstones as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mumford & Sons, and – deep breath – Dolly Parton.

The players come nominally dressed as characters from The Magic Flute – plus Don Giovanni (naturally) – but with only half a dozen of them, each playing numerous ‘roles’, there are never-ending on-stage costume-changes, and no shortage of off-stage antics (we will say nothing of the poor girl charged with inserting microphones into condoms…). The costumes themselves, however, seem influenced less by the fashions of Mozart’s own era than, say, the aesthetics of a Stanley Kubrick production, with a dash of Lady Gaga thrown in for good measure – the net result roughly approximating, perhaps, the opium-befuddled nightmares of an overwrought Mozart scholar. In many respects, it’s not a million miles away from Amadeus. Except that – ahem – there is no actual narrative to speak of. What there is, is a lot of water. Bloody gallons of the stuff.

This entire thing probably has to be seen to be believed – a kind of full-on (and slightly inevitable) ‘Cirque du Gubbay’. But doubters be warned: the company’s Beethoven show had Darwin, Turner, and Nelson Mandela in it. And that ran for months. In Norway.

So, what is a ‘theatre concert’? You have to run to keep up with Cederholm’s comically relentless enthusiasm for his work (think Adrian Edmondon’s Red Baron in Blackadder), but the rough explanation goes something like this:

‘Theatre and music are very old colleagues. But the musical, vaudeville, opera – these are not the ancestors of the theatre concert: they are its cousins. The theatre concert is a real hybrid: music and theatre as equals!

‘In Copenhagen, in the Nineties, we wanted to do musicals; but there was a dissatisfaction with the way that musicals were done – the music was always serving a secondary role. You know when the story calls for a song about someone finding a letter on a mantelpiece… and it’s always a bad song! And there’s always that certain style of singing. Rock concerts, also, had these Old Testament-style rituals: “Good evening, London!” And they had a very low dynamic. In the first quarter of an hour they had shown you everything they had to offer: lighting, playing, singing.

‘So our first show was Gasoline, about ‘The Rolling Stones of Denmark’, and we took an interpretation of their work – as when a theatre does Shakespeare or Chekhov. The only difference is we can hear how the Beatles were supposed to sound. We had the boldness to say, “It doesn’t matter: a song can mean a lot of things.” We interpret not only through the music but also through the rituals, the costumes, the dramas. It’s very rich. You cannot necessarily get everything from seeing it only once.’

Cederholm, it seems, is constitutionally incapable of resisting a challenge. Having subsequently pulled off theatre concerts on Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and the Beatles (twice), he thought ‘Why don’t we do a classical composer?’ Why not, indeed. But between the mischievous mentions of ‘electro-Irish, punk, and power ballad’ influences, and the programme credits for ‘Music Directors and Producers’ (Jens and Peter Hellemann) and ‘Songs written by’ (Neill Cardinal Furio), an obvious question arises: what really remains of Mozart once he’s done being undone?

Cederholm doesn’t falter: ‘The basic notes.’ But his aim is not to put on a note-for-note concert of Mozart’s music so much as to recreate the antic spirit of, say, Die Zauberflöte’s original Freihaus performances. ‘We just took the music that we could talk with,’ then ‘we tried to make the lyrics about important issues today that would fit…’

To wit, as played over (a piece formerly known as) a piano concerto: ‘Where is my target? / Where is my drone? / The cruel insurgency / I track on my phone.’

Your call. As I said, there’s no storyline. ‘This is not about Mozart, certainly. But if you want to make connections, you are free to do that for yourself.’

Traditionalists will argue that the end product is less Mozart being re-worked than Mozart being worked over. At best, it’s Mozart being sampled (remember the Lloyd Webbers vs Paganini, back in the day? That. Only more so). But Cederholm is unbothered. In fact, he’s far more concerned about people turning away from it because it’s ‘Mozart’.

‘Is it for Mozart-lovers? Maybe… if you are an open-minded Mozart-lover!’ But not liking Mozart is not a reason not to go, either. ‘The years gone since Mozart composed have added to the significance of his music,’ he says, with heavy ambivalence. ‘Same as with The Beatles, Mozart produced some of the greatest hits – part of our understanding of what Music should sound like. He’s a big hit-maker: in the cinema, in the supermarket… So the audience come with their luggage; but the most exciting thing is people don’t know what it is they are going to experience.’

The whole performance, not so incidentally, is in English. ‘Mozart was German but wrote in Italian, the language of opera. English is the language of pop music, and we want to reach out to an audience everywhere.’

And that audience is…? ‘It’s a lot of people who would rather go to the movies. But also traditional theatre-goers, who find the energy very satisfying. It’s a family form. It’s for everybody who loves a good show!’

For Sinfini Music. Published/edited version here.

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