November 29 2013 at 09:51am By Diane de Beer
A scene from Act III of Dmitri Shostakovichs The Nose. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera Taken during the rehearsal on February 26, 2010 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. - For editorial use only in conjunction with the direct publicity or promotion of Shostakovichs The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera during the 2009-10 season. No other rights are granted. All rights reserved. Downloading this image constitutes agreement to these terms. - Images must receive proper credit when published, including the photographer and Metropolitan Opera. - A print copy, digital PDF or website link must be sent to email@example.com if using the image.
Walk through any of the art museums in the world and you will bump into the familiar signature works by South African grand master William Kentridge.
Less familiar to many are his roots in theatre and as a designer which he has managed to keep alive with a steady heartbeat through the years, resulting in spectacular works for local and international audiences.
The latest is an opera staged at New York’s Met and the latest in Cinema Nouveau’s fantastic live opera series. It’s the unlikely choice of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose based on a Nikolai Gogol short story that had never been staged in New York.
It is said that when it was first performed, it was done as a concert. The composer was furious because he complained that it was not music that was meant to be listened to, it was meant to be seen. Perhaps it is exactly that which makes it such a perfect fit for Kentridge.
He admits that he was attracted by the story and the visual possi- bilities and that he was as flum- moxed by the music to begin with. “The first time I listened to the music I found it incomprehensible,” he says. But once he had listened a second and a third time it changed the impact. And now he doesn’t understand why he had that reaction. “That’s the good thing about this short season, audiences can see it more than once to get the impact.”
The same is probably true of the Kentridge-designed and directed opera. He is thrilled that the filmed version is available because it means that South Africans get to see a production that was too expensive to produce locally. “I couldn’t justify the money that would have to be spent to stage it here,” he says.
He also believes that the filmed version has been extremely deftly done. “They have an amazing team working on these films,” and in this instance, the camera takes you where you have to look. He’s also tickled by the fact that with the sold-out first season of The Nose some 20 000 people could see the production while at the first live worldwide broadcast (not screened live locally at the time), 160 000 opera aficionados were able to see The Nose.
Apart from the story that intrigued him with its satirical bent, written at a time when art was being transformed, he was excited by the large scale of the work. “I had a canvas six stories high and even the theatre became part of the décor,” he explains. And when you see the production, you get it.
From the opening notes, the Kentridge vision is at work. Not an opera buff, I’m one of those who struggles with the Shostakovich score and even the story here isn’t as dense as Gogol’s short story. But Kentridge kept me smiling throughout because of the vision, the quirkiness, the deft application of colours, the imagination, the animation with which he drives the story, the vibrancy of his artistry and the sheer scope of the work.
He’s quick and generous in paying homage to his long-standing and hard-working design and production team.
“The Nose is about what constitutes a person – how singular we are and how much we are divided up against ourselves,” Kentridge explains. “It’s also about the terrors of hierarchy. In Russian society in the tsarist era, but also later, if you were of a slightly lower rank, you were in abject terror of anyone above you. And if you were of a higher rank you had a murderous contempt of anyone below you.
“It feels very familiar to growing up in South Africa,” the artist says, “where you had not just black and white as racial classifications, but also ‘coloured’, Asian, Indian, Chinese, other Asian, and many different lines. It was a strange, absurd, venal, and damaging hierarchy, and I think that’s one of the things that echo very strongly when you read Gogol.”
You could of course just wallow in the artistry, but Kentridge is someone who uses the total palette and one is aware that if you were lucky to recognise all the references – the time, the place, the people (Anna Pavlova dancing with the nose) and so much more – it would be a much richer and fascinating experience.
He is currently working on his next opera project, and with typical Kentridge originality, one that not many outside of the opera world will know. It’s Austrian composer Alban Berg’s Lulu (written in the 1930s). “I don’t have a long list of operas I want to do,” he says.
But neither will he say the words “never again”. If it has a hook and it gets attached… that’s this artist’s way. His choices are often as invigorating as his work.
There’s also a return of the 1996 Ubu and the Truth Commission with Dawid Minnaar which will be touring the world starting, he thinks, in Bogota, Colombia, playing at next year’s National Arts Festival, before travelling further. Hopefully it will end with a touring season locally. Keep fingers crossed. “It’s the same as the 1996 production and I’m fascinated to see how it will echo in present times.”
But to start with, there’s this weekend’s opera screenings. “It has translated very well from the short story to the stage,” says the artist.
Calling it a “hard pleasure”, he coaxes audiences with a “fantastic story, an astonishing cast” and what he describes as a large scale drawing.
“Opera is a messy bastard,” but he loves the interplay of what we see and what we hear.