The construction of an Opera village in Burkina Faso© Henrike Grohs/Operndorf Afrika/afrol News
Culture - Arts
Burkina Faso's "crazy opera", a dream coming true
Since then, the Burkinabe architect has taken his success abroad, building schools in Yemen and India, and an international debate centre in Fuerteventura, Spain, in addition to office and conference buildings in Ouagadougou, the Burkinabe capital.
But still, when Mr Kèrè met Christoph Schlingensief (1960-2010) in January 2009, he first thought the proposals he was hearing went across the line of the possible. Mr Schlingensief was a famous German film and theatre director, actor and artist who had received a death sentence from his medics due to an advanced lung cancer diagnosis.
Mr Schlingensief had directed the Parsifal opera by Richard Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival from 2004 to 2007, and after receiving his diagnosis in 2008, he decided to create an African Bayreuth as his lasting legacy. Looking at possible location sites in Cameroon and Mozambique, he finally decided on Burkina Faso.
That is when Mr Kèrè ran into the German director and visionary. "When I was first confronted with the question of an opera house for Africa, I initially thought it was a joke. Such a fantasy could only come from somebody who either doesn't know Africa, or who is so saturated that all he can think up is nonsense," the Burkinabe architect recalls from his first meeting with Mr Schlingensief.
But the two men soon found out that combining their two visions, an African Bayreuth could be viable and that Burkina Faso was indeed the right place. After all, Burkina Faso is already "the cent
The Burkinabe architect had a tough fight with Mr Schlingensief to get the African reality into the project, a 2010 interview with the German magazine 'Der Spiegel' reveals. A compromise was the result, where Mr Kèrè could use his experience in local involvement, using local materials and giving something back to the community. Building schools and providing cultural education became new key parts of the project.
Mr Schlingensief however had the last word in choosing the location. In flat Ouagadougou, where the Ministry of Culture already had provided several possible locations for free, the German visionary found no inspiration.
In the village of Laongo 40 kilometres north-east of the capital, however, Mr Schlingensief found the magic hill he was looking for, surrounded by stone sculptures on a vast savannah plain. Just like in Bayreuth, the hill provided a natural stage for the opera.
Mr Kèrè sat down to draw the massive project. His plans included a festival theatre, workshops, a health station, guest houses, as well as solar panels and a well, a school for up to 500 children and teenagers with music and film classes. The Opera village "Remdoogo" was to accommodate both the wishes of picky cultural tourists from overseas and poor villagers - a difficult compromise skilfully elaborated by the Burkinabe architect.
His German colleague, reputed as a visionary motivator, managed to gather support for the project in Germany and Burkina Faso. The Burkinabe Ministry of Culture enthusiastically embraced the project, seeing it as "a great possibility" for the country to develop its image as a cultural tourism destination. Every possible support was given.
Equally important, Mr Schlingensief founded an organisation, "Festspie
Finally in February 2010, the construction works at Laongo started. Soon, the first modules started to pop up in a snail shell pattern, allowing for continuous expansion of the opera village.
As all seemed to go well, Mr Schlingensief died on 21 August the same year. The great visionary, the primus movens and the high-profiled contact to German donors was gone.
His assistant, Christoph Knoch, and his widow, Aino Laberenz, are now is heading the project together with Mr Kèrè, promising that everything will go according to plans despite the death of Mr Schlingensief. All partners had promised to stay onboard the giant project. Mr Kèrè still directs the works but initially admitted that he became more unsure about the future of the project after the death of its initiator.
The risks in 2010 of course seemed overwhelming. The Laongo opera village, as any other large-scale cultural site, would need long-term support and donations to be viable. It would need enthusiastic leaders to secure not only donations, but also international artists and art quality. It would need knowledge and maintenance to accommodate international tourists. The loss of Mr Schlingensief therefore threatened the entire project.
But Mr Kèrè and his German colleagues soon grew with the new responsibility and new fame. For his Gando School, he was the first sub-Saharan African to win the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture. This year, his Burkinabe schools gave
And in October 2011, the team behind the Festspielhaus Afrika GmbH presented its final proof that the initiative was viable beyond the death of Mr Schlingensief. The school at the "Remdoogo" Opera village, Mr Kèrè's key contribution to the project, finally opened its doors in a large inauguration celebration.
At first, 50 young Burkinabe pupils are admitted to the cultural primary school each year - pupils Mr Kèrè hope may become Burkina Faso's cultural avant-garde spearhead in some years. At first, there are few signs of this, as the young villagers first are tought their basic ABC from local Burkinabe teachers - it is a standard Burkinabe education. But the organisers promise that the 25 girls and 25 boys soon will be integrated into "workshops with international artists" and "encouraged to develop their own art projects."
The opening of the school indeed was a milestone for the Opera village, which now turned into life. "With this, the first of three construction phases as been finalised, the Festspielhaus Afrika organisation proudly announced, adding that further works would go on.
And, beyond all odds, the construction since that has just been accellerating. In December 2011, the teachers' apartments were finalised. The snail shell pattern is slowly being filled with buildings and content. The German press regularly reports about major donations to the project. Even the first tourists, mostly Burkinabe and German, start streaming to the construction site.
It could seem, then, that "the crazy opera" in the Burkinabe bush indeed has a future. And that it may further strengthen Burkina Faso as the cultural centre of West Africa. The dream is coming alive.
By staff writers
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