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Jane Taylor

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Kentridge for Beginners

William Kentridge’s current production of The Nose at the New York Metropolitan Opera is an exploration of the operatic form itself. In 1827 Wagner posited that opera had degenerated into a conglomeration of bravura effects with hyperbolic set design and vocal exhibitionism. His call was for a return to the integrated experience that he termed a gesamtkunstwerk, in which aural, visual and performance idioms contribute to a dynamic whole. Clearly Kentridge’s The Nose draws on many talents within digital arts, acting, costume, and music. Yet in ways the primary collaboration is that between Kentridge and Shostakovich.

Shostakovich died in 1975. In what sense, then, is this a collaboration, not simply an interpretation? The structure of “inter-generational dialogue” with the dead recapitulates Shostakovich’s own creative processes because his work is an interpretation of the short story, “The Nose”, by Nikolai Gogol, who had died in 1852.

Why, given the success of his The Magic Flute, was Kentridge attracted to this bizarre work of Shostakovich’s youthful exuberance, rather than one of the classics of the standard opera repertoire? Perhaps there is real interpretive potential for the director in the precocious performance text, such works as are conceived by a young imagination not yet constrained by generic containment and conventional thinking. Remember, Kentridge has had a substantial history of engagement with Ubu Roi, a work of juvenilia written when Jarry was a schoolboy.

Experimental novelty within Shostakovich’s creative processes means that The Nose is a work that does not fully know what may or may not be done on stage. The director thus has considerable freedom to make a piece that is theatrically anarchic while still paying homage to its ancestors. It is radical and conservative in the strongest terms.

The Nose, then, provides Kentridge with an instrument through which he can integrate some of the tensions implicit in his works over the past two decades. Kentridge has engaged in a visual exploration of the “split self” through an iconography of doubled identity, from the early ‘Soho Eckstein’ films to recent experiments with technologies such as the stereoscope. Gogol’s bizarre tale, on which the opera is based, recounts the adventures of a state bureaucrat, Kovalyov, who wakes to discover that his nose has absconded and is wandering downtown, seducing his girlfriends, wearing his medals, and beguiling his enemies. This rupture suggests the unease of a self ill at ease with its identity.

In Shostakovich’s libretto the character of the Nose has a limited role; however Kentridge (through visual projections) makes the Nose into a more or less ever-present figure of tyranny. He is the emblem of what Foucault termed “capillary power.” ‘Power’ is irresistible precisely because dispersed across voluntary agents who collude against the freedom and humanity of ordinary citizens. Those implicated in the service of power do so out of fear of reprisal, anticipation of egregious reward, and addiction to preferment.

While exploring Soviet arts, Kentridge’s production analyses the collusive seductions of self-promotion which have become so defining of late capitalism.

This article first appeared in the 26 March print edition of the Mail & Guardian


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