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Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe does away with pigeonholes for genres and audiences

"I'm conducting a conversation between the past and the present, rather than coming here to burn the place down.”

If there’s one artist who embodies Toneelhuis's ambitions for the coming years, it's Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe (b. 1995). The young director, singer and performer has made 'connecting’ his artistic practice. He builds bridges between tradition and innovation, between disciplines and genres, between audiences and artists. The result: deeply sensitive, breath-taking productions.

You graduated from Toneelacademie Maastricht, Institute of Performative Arts in 2018, but almost immediately plunged into the world of opera with the exuberant A Revue. What attracts you to the blending of music and drama?

Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe: "The fact that it’s a blending, and I love fluidity. Moreover, opera has a deep-rooted tradition, and it offers a way of expressing the most emotional highs and lows in a person's life. My shows are very much about those big emotions. At the same time, I like to carry the past into the future. In that sense, A Revue was a futuristic rewriting of the opera repertoire."

You gather a motley crew of people together on stage for these performances.

Meirhaeghe: "For me, that’s actually the most essential part of the work: putting together the cast. I am carefully building up an open community of highly diverse artists. Imagining the future is a collective process, you know; I don't do it alone. And it’s marvellous to bring people together who at first glance have nothing in common. Like for instance the classical soprano Eurudike De Beul and the performance artist Dolly Bing Bing, who come from completely different worlds. Or the trained and untrained singers who stood side by side in Madrigals – and yet spoke the same language. I think that's fantastic."

Getting your cast together is a necessary part of your work process, but it’s also your subject matter: making connections is not only what you do, but also what you want to tell an audience.

Meirhaeghe: "Perhaps there’s where the political potential of what I do lies – although I find it hard to call my work 'political', or to claim anything like that. But the fact is, the audience simply sees a group of very different people on stage, who dare to step into a new world together."

You often work with non-professionals: untrained singers, dancers with no formal training. Do you value 'being unable’ more highly than technical virtuosity?

Meirhaeghe: “Not necessarily more highly, but bringing together those different forms of 'being able' and 'being unable' makes for an interesting colour. I deliberately work with figures who operate in a different niche of the arts business than in the 'official' world of theatre. I believe they will also attract a different audience. For me, the mixing of audiences isn’t simply a pleasant incidental circumstance; it’s one of my main goals. For instance, I am very deliberately and actively trying to draw the classical music audience and the world of pop music to the theatre. In Madrigals, I present the music of electronic artist Doon Kanda together with Claudio Monteverdi’s – because I know that they both mean something for a particular audience. And both audiences are dear to me; that way I don't have to choose."

You also recently also made Spectacles, in which you yourself sing, ranging from countertenor to savage low notes. You presented this show on theatre stages as well as concert stages. Aren’t those very different worlds?

Meirhaeghe: "Why should they be? When I think of the Bourla Theatre, with its massive theatre machinery, where pieces of scenery can descend from the sky and every form of magic is possible, it reminds me of a concert by Björk or Dua Lipa. Actually, all of that theatre machinery is pure pop. On the other hand, those worlds differ mainly when it comes to money. The music industry is merciless and leaves little room for artists who colour outside the lines.”

However, most pop concert venues don’t have the same symbolic wealth as the theatre does.

Meirhaeghe: "That’s true, which is why I find it so interesting to work in the Bourla. Precisely because tradition is so strong here, there are many possibilities. I can try to break tradition within the institutional context itself, as I did with A Revue in the world of opera, but I also want to do the opposite: make today’s art scene aware of its roots. The words 'tradition' or 'repertoire' don’t have to be reactionary. I want to conduct a conversation between the past and the present, rather than coming here to burn the place down."

In the coming years, Toneelhuis will be your base of operations for very diverse work, with explicit international ambitions. There will be a 'big’ opera in 2026, but you are also planning happenings and smaller productions. The next one is even a dance solo.

Meirhaeghe: "Yes, Ode to a Love Lost will be a love story, with which I want to round off a painful personal episode – so it will simultaneously be an ending and a new beginning. I'm going to dance myself, because I can't dance, you understand. (laughs) I am working with five different choreographers and borrowing from all of their dance idioms to put together my own choreography. The epilogue will feature two performers, each of whom is in transition in their own way, mentally or physically. Because running beneath the love story is another story about the acceptance of one's own body, and about the way we look at each other."

You say yourself that you have been able to develop a lot in a short period. Are you ever afraid of getting ahead of yourself?

Meirhaeghe: "I like to go fast. That simply comes with the territory – the Flemish credo of 'take it easy' isn’t for me right now. But I do hope I remain critical enough about myself, so that I don’t start drifting. I think big, and that’s no secret. It’s often said behind my back that I’ll burn out fast, but being ambitious is a strength, not a curse. I’m young and I’ve had the privilege of learning about the large stage while working on it, which goes hand in hand with making mistakes – but mainly with having fun, so let's focus on that. I see Toneelhuis as a launching pad from which to work internationally. At the same time, the house is deeply rooted in the local world. In that sense, I'm also looking forward to the closure of the Bourla [for renovations in 2025]. It will force us all to work smaller, more flexibly, to re-establish a stronger relation with the city. That can be beneficial. Good times are coming, do you feel it?”

interview by Evelyne Coussens

Also interesting productions:

A Revue Theatre 28 June 2023 until 30 June 2023

A Revue

d e t h e a t e r m a k e r / Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe

Madrigals Theatre 4 April 2023 until 12 May 2023

Madrigals

Muziektheater Transparant / d e t h e a t e r m a k e r / Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe