Liberation Theology

Florentina Holzinger’s Debut Opera "Sancta"
by Florian Malzacher

Spike Art Magazine (June 2024)

In the foyer of the Mecklenburg State Theater, quite nunny-looking nuns accept confessions unbureaucratically, but are also available for selfies. The atmosphere is relaxed, with quite a few people from Berlin, press, and a handful of international curators mingling with Schwerin’s local opening-night subscribers. The air buzzes with the possibility of scandal. Because even if Paul Hindemith’s short opera Sancta Susana (1921) has long ceased being a sensation, it is certainly a good template for Florentina Holzinger (*1986), whose radically queer-feminist choreographies have made her the undisputed shooting star of current European theater. After all, it’s about the sexual desire of a nun – including an implied sexual act with the Savior.

And indeed, under the musical direction of the conductor Marit Strindlund, the evening begins more or less faithfully to Expressionist opera, barely more than twenty minutes long. In front of an altar, the convent nun Susanna (Cornelia Zink) slowly but surely descends into sexual ecstasy – the entire score a single crescendo – until, faced with another sister’s upraised cross and demands for chastity and obedience, she blurts out: “I am beautiful!” When further nuns rush over for her confession, she refuses with a triple “No!” “Satana!” they shout – but Susanna stands in “untouched majesty.” “So help me my Savior against yours!”

In the background, Holzinger’s crew has long since taken over the action. Where Hindemith, with Sigmund Freud’s interpretation of dreams in mind, had a single spider crawl across the altar as a symbol of repressed sexuality, naked female performers now climb up the stage’s back wall, kiss, and make love in a relief of open lust, a mountain of Venus.

The devil comes, the cross hangs overhead, everything red, with bits of fog and heavy metal – this must be hell. A crane robot holds the eternal light, or sometimes a cross; later, it serves as a wine shower and turns a Popess on her own axis. Half-naked nuns disco-roll in a half-pipe while the sisters’ choir sings “Kyrie Eleison” (Lord, have mercy). There are no symbols to decipher in Holzinger’s work, its celebration of directness completely unencrypted.

Meanwhile, Jesus himself comes stomping through the foyer, bickers ticketlessly through the door, and takes over the action. Quite a Dionysus is this savior (Annina Machaz), a dowdy old hippie who, a sheep thrown over his shoulders and in a strong Swiss accent, eggs on the audience with witty stand-ups: “I love bleeding for you.” Amid all the racket, there are also a few ur-Christian ideas, because if Jesus – stateless and without a place to stay – is not an outcast, then who is? The Messiah revolts, until he finally strangles the lamb entrusted to his care – not exactly someone you can rely on. At some point, though, even that is enough, and with a brief thank you, the time of Jesus-plaining is finally declared over. The neue Menschin (new womankind) is on the horizon.