Kenza Koutchoukali | Photo: Juri Hiensch
Photo: Juri Hiensch

Director Kenza Koutchoukali talks about her work as an opera maker

1 March 2024

With the world premiere of OUM and the return of How Anansi freed the stories of the world, DNO has two productions this season by the director Kenza Koutchoukali. What drives her as an opera maker this day and age?

“I don’t know any other art form as wonderful as opera. With music as the driving force, the texts, images and movements come together in a sublime whole. That grandeur appeals to me, precisely because you can tell an intimate story within that framework. There is something very honest about the connection between the performers and the audience during a performance. When you get that human connection in the context of a large-scale opera, something magical happens.”

“I believe empathy based on equality is essential for our society. For a long time, I assumed this was a given, but now empathy and solidarity are coming under increasing pressure. That is why the world today needs stories that require you to empathise. I wonder why we always find it so difficult to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. What I am looking for at the moment, both for myself and in my productions, is radical empathy. These stories aren’t necessarily political, but the very act of telling them is a political act. In that sense, I’ve definitely become more political in recent years.”

Kenza Koutchoukali

“What I’m looking for is radical empathy”

“That’s why it’s so important to tell stories that don’t get enough attention, and to show points of view that are still underrepresented. A lot of people who live in the Netherlands have roots in the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa, ed.), so it should be a matter of course to have that culture reflected in the programmes of the main venues.”

Considering your roots

Because the co-existence of different cultures and religions was an accepted fact of life when I was growing up, I assumed you never had to justify that. Of course, we talked about it at home and discussed it, but when you see some people deny the right to exist of key aspects of your identity, it becomes newly important to consider your roots. When I was working on Anansi in 2020 – 2021, I saw how many of the performers involved found it self-evident that you take your background with you onto the stage. And I realised that was something I didn’t do. After that project, I contacted the Amsterdams Andalusisch Orkest. I wanted to do something with my Algerian roots but didn’t know what. The creative director Mohamed Aadroun said to me, ‘Just come and listen to our music’. The natural spontaneity of his invitation eventually led to my involvement in OUM.”

“I love the fact that I can incorporate my personal explorations in this project, and that in the process I get to meet people who I can then work with. For me, collaboration is essential when creating an opera. The nuances of the world on stage are only possible thanks to the people I work with and all the different backgrounds and experiences they bring with them. The performance itself is also a form of collaboration, one between the performers and the audience in which they jointly decide to put themselves in the position of someone else.”

Text: Wout van Tongeren

  • How Anansi freed the stories of the world, a co-production by Dutch National Opera and Dutch National Ballet, can be seen from 16 to 25 May 2025 at Dutch National Opera & Ballet
  • OUM can be seen by Dutch National Opera at Dutch National Opera & Ballet from 21 to 23 March 2025