MERYEM’S BALLAD : The Odyssey of a Guest Worker


Meryem’s Ballad is a fresh interdisciplinary artistic creation, specifically designed for the Hinterhalt Commission, a partnership between the Deutsche Oper and the Musicboard Berlin. As one of the recipients in 2022, BABELFIS, in collaboration with visual artist Mert Akbal, has created an original performance that offers a commentary on Wagner’s „The Flying Dutchman,“ a main production on the grand stage of the Deutsche Oper Berlin for the 2023/2024 season.

The Reappropriation of Female Friendship in R. Wagner’s „The Flying Dutchman“

Not long ago, during the time when Senta and Meryem (Mary) worked side by side…

Meryem’s Ballad reimagines Wagner’s depiction of Senta, a selfless female character, and her friend Mary from the libretto. In the original story, Mary makes a final attempt to persuade Senta to abandon her intense fixation on the image of the damned sailor. Meanwhile, the women continue their work, spinning wheels while waiting for the men to return.

In this performance, Senta and her friends take on the roles of factory workers in Pierburg, an automotive supplier plant in Neuss, on November 11, 1973. During a short work break, Meryem, a „guest worker“ from Turkey, listens uncomfortably as Senta sings about her upcoming marriage to a man who expects her to quit her job and become a housewife. After Senta’s ballad, Meryem questions this decision and makes a compelling case for her friend to reconsider. She tells of her own journey of emancipation, which began with leaving her homeland and continued through years of striving for equality. As Meryem narrates her past, present, and future, she reflects on the recurring themes of being both an immigrant and a woman, weaving a cyclical story through the songs of BABELFIS and the visuals by Mert Akbal.

Meryem’s Ballad emerges as a pioneering interdisciplinary creation, meticulously crafted for the Hinterhalt Commission through an exclusive collaboration between the Deutsche Oper and the Musicboard Berlin. Following its well-received premiere on the Tischlerei stage of the Deutsche Oper on November 11, 2023, as part of the event ‚extended version: The Flying Dutchman,‘ Meryem’s Ballad is now ready to unfold in various spaces.

The plot consists of the original „Senta’s Ballad“ from Richard Wagner’s „The Flying Dutchman“ and a new and free interpretation of Maria’s Ballad as Meryem’s Ballad, which responds to it. Meryem’s Ballad is divided into three acts: I. The Journey: Meryem’s journey to Germany as a guest worker from Turkey; II. The Factory: The working and living conditions, the wild strike at the Pierburg factory in 1973 in Neuss; and III. Life: Meryem’s life to the present day, with snapshots of integration and xenophobia against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification. The ballads are complemented by five modern songs that are distributed between these acts. The songs also address related themes of a post-industrial society between the individual acts, such as migrant crossings („Black Fish“), burnout and depression („The Well“), hopeless love („Cocoon“), or ecology and future („Six“).

About the People, Music, and Visuals
The lyrics of the songs were written by singer Sevda Hamzacebi.Together with Sevda Hamzacebi, her partner, musician Cem Dinler, who composed the songs, forms the indie/pop duo „babelfis“. Drawing from both Western and Eastern roots and a variety of other personal influences, the duo focuses on merging all these experiences through new forms of musical and poetic expression. The visuals for the entire piece were made by media artist Mert Akbal. The animations were created through a colorful mix of classic cartoon, 3D animation, and experiments with the new possibilities of generative artificial intelligence, claiming originality in the genre. In addition to the animations, archival materials, especially from the documentary „Pierburg – Their Fight is Our Fight“ (BRD 1974, Edith Schmidt/David Wittenberg, 49 min), which documents the Pierburg strike, were used with kind permission from the filmmakers.

In addition to Sevda Hamzacebi & Cem Dinler („babelfis“) and Mert Akbal, many other guest musicians contributed to „Meryem’s Ballad“: Serkan Emre Çiftçi (trumpet, synthesizer), Can Tüfekçioğlu (drums), Ori Davidson (bass), and the Deutsche Oper Quartet Tomoko Ishida (violin), Sarah Wieck (violin), Christiane Buchenau (viola), Benjamin Pas (cello) with Anna Schoeck (soprano for Senta’s Ballad), David Wishart (conductor, piano for Senta’s Ballad).

The ballads and songs are mainly in Turkish, with many German expressions. Supertitles were projected in German and English over the stage.

The project was realized with funding from the Musicboard Berlin, the German Opera Berlin, and the Foundation for Human Dignity and Working World.

Performance Schedule
Meryem’s Ballad is premiered on 11.11.2023 on the Tischlerei stage of the German Opera in Berlin.

Upcoming performances are planned in:

25.-26. May O. Festival – Festival for Opera. Music. Theatre. Rotterdam, Netherlands

7. June 2024 Hauptsache Frei der Freien Darstellenden Künste Hamburg, Germany