Mart van Berckel
Laurien Riha

Director Mart van Berckel mounts the barricades with music theatre

22 February 2023

Text: Margriet Prinssen

Asked whether art can change the world, Mart van Berckel doesn’t hesitate for one moment. “We should at least try. Not with the blind optimism of the 1960s, but with a realistic acknowledgement of the world’s complexity.” Ändere die Welt! is a compilation production packed with revolutionary music. 

To tie in with the theme of ‘Freedom?’, the leitmotif in DNO’s season as a whole and the Opera Forward Festival in particular, artistic director Sophie de Lint asked the young music theatre maker Van Berckel to create a production in partnership with the conductor Pedro Beriso on the topic of revolution, making use of the existing repertoire. 

That meant tackling some major questions. Has any piece of music ever changed the world? Do political revolutions always go hand in hand with big cultural changes, and if so, does the one precede the other or are they simultaneous? Van Berckel: “If you consider the major revolutions that have shaken our world, from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution at the start of the twentieth century, they have always been accompanied by upheaval in art and music. When you look at this history, you see periods of wild rebellions, fierce battle cries and fiery polemics, often with equally fiery art and music, to varying effect. Sometimes it results in amazing things; sometimes it is more destructive than creative. It’s no coincidence that ‘The revolution devours its children’ is such a well-known saying.” 


‘We’re a transitional generation’

Van Berckel belongs to the generation of millennials who grew up with the internet. “Our window on the world is broad. We are aware there is so much going on everywhere, but that can also have a crippling effect: when the world is so complex, how do you know where to begin? We’re a transitional generation. We are socially engaged, unlike the generation before us who came of age in the 1990s. To be blunt, that was a time of cynicism and post-modernism. ‘Let’s party and to hell with the consequences’. At least my generation makes an effort. I certainly see an honest desire among the people around me to do a better job, or at any rate try to.” 

‘I certainly see an honest desire to do a better job, or at any rate try to’


Ändere die Welt! takes place on the battlefield after a revolution, in a set full of the debris of ideologies that were fought over in the past. The performers are four singers, nine musicians and a child. “When the curtain rises, you see people who appear to be coming out of hiding. Then they start a big clear-up, as the floor is littered with rubbish. Of course that joint effort of getting rid of the waste is an apt metaphor for what the world needs right now, and it also creates a sense of solidarity with the group.” 

The music was selected in close consultation with Pedro Beriso. It is a potpourri of revolutionary tunes that have reverberated down the ages. The featured music includes works by Hanns Eisler, Weill, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Schumann, Auber, Beethoven and Wagner, pieces that played a key role in periods of upheaval, and exude transformation and rejuvenation. “They are very different kinds of music, but were all composed in turbulent times. Pedro has arranged the music for a chamber music ensemble. In the production, we combine this with modern-day sounds: the spoken word and electronic soundscapes. We both felt that was needed, as you can’t put on a production about revolution and liberty and not give space to the voices of our day.” 

Spoken word artist Amara van der Elst guides the audience through the performance and provides a commentary in the language of 2023, to the accompaniment of soundscapes by Wouter Snoei. “She used the theme of revolution and change as her source of inspiration. She herself is very political and socially engaged, and we had some really stimulating discussions with her. When writing her texts, she took our choice of (classical) music and those lyrics as her starting point. She also regularly attends rehearsals so she can fine-tune her texts to fit what is happening on stage.” 

The scenography is by Vera Selhorst, who Van Berckel calls his “artistic other half”. “We have worked together closely from the start really, and we can almost read one another’s minds.” The same applies to Rosa Schützendorf, his regular costume designer. “She has a very intuitive approach and an impeccable feeling for what clothing is needed. Sometimes she’ll see someone wearing yellow socks on Waterlooplein, around the corner from here, and she’ll know immediately that’s what she needs for a certain character.” 

‘You can’t put on a production about revolution and liberty and not give space to the voices of our day’

When working with his artistic team, Van Berckel likes to take a collective approach. “In the interest of openness and equality I am curious to hear everyone’s ideas about the production, including the people on the stage, but I still want to be the one who takes the final decision. Knowing I bear the ultimate responsibility gives me peace of mind.” A collective approach with everyone on an equal footing is less common in opera than in theatre, so it can take some getting used to. “But they are all young people and everyone finds it a really exciting process. Back in October, we worked together for three weeks to set up the basics of the production. From mid-February, three weeks before the premiere, we will fill in the details.” 


Since graduating in 2016, Van Berckel has had the luxury of a fully booked diary. “I was fortunate to be part of various development programmes, first with KASKO and De Nieuwe Oost (see inset) and since 2019 with NITE. Thanks to this, I stayed involved in projects during the tough COVID years, unlike many of my colleagues.” 

He also knows Dutch National Opera well as he previously worked as an assistant director to Lotte de Beer (The New Prince, world premiere at OFF 2017) and to Robert Wilson in the return of Madama Butterfly (2019). “I learned so much from both of them. Wilson is world famous and you might expect him not to pull out all the stops for the return of a successful production, but in fact it was quite the opposite. He worked incredibly hard and was very meticulous, down to the settings for the lights. Lotte de Beer is quite special because she is so enthusiastic and yet she keeps an eye on everything. She knows how to make people feel they are seen, which is an incredibly important quality in a director.” 

He certainly had not expected to get a commission as a stage director for Dutch National Opera so soon — he is only 27. “I think opera is a fantastic art form. Plays and text-based theatre address the mind more; the appeal is to your rational side. Music has such an emotional impact; it takes you to another dimension, with very different dynamics. I often find it very moving to see all those people on stage and backstage, and then sixteen hundred spectators in the audience. That is something indescribably special.” 


Mart van Berckel

Mart van Berckel (1995) studied piano, music theatre and directing at ArtEZ University of the Arts (Arnhem) and Zurich University of the Arts (Zurich). 

From 2016 to 2019 he worked with KASKO (Before I Die and Een Kersentuin), an organisation in Zwolle for the development of talented young makers of music theatre, and for the production house De Nieuwe Oost (2017-2021). 
Since 2019 he has been involved in a new talent development programme at NITE (National Interdisciplinary Theatre Ensemble of Noord Nederlands Toneel/Club Guy & Roni) in Groningen. Directors get training in how to use an interdisciplinary approach and create big-stage productions. Since 2021, he has had a position as a regular creator at NITE and 17 February saw the premiere of his new music theatre production My First Tragedy: Iphigeneia. 
At Dutch National Opera, he has worked as assistant director to Lotte de Beer and Robert Wilson. 
He recently made his debut as a director in Germany with the world premiere of Johannes Harneit’s Silvesternacht at Staatsoper Hamburg. “A successful, highly dramatic production in which limited means were used to great effect,” wrote the Hamburger Abendblatt