Staging an opera with 70 solo parts and a surreal plot that revolves around a Russian bureaucrat's search for his missing nose is not an easy feat. So whom do you call? In the case of the Met premiere production of Shostakovich's 1930 opera The Nose the man on the other end of the line was South African artist William Kentridge, who makes his Met debut directing and designing the production.
Best known for his stop-motion short films and imaginative charcoal drawings, Kentridge brings animation, superimposed graphics, collage, and archival images and video to The Nose, which opened on March 5. He is joined by eminent Shostakovich interpreter Valery Gergiev on the podium and Tony Award-winning baritone Paulo Szot (of South Pacific fame) in the leading role. In a collaboration of two major New York institutions, the performances coincide with a career retrospective of Kentridge's work that just opened at MoMA. Works inspired by The Nose are also on view now in the Schwartz Gallery Met.
Given the opera's numerous disparate elements and characters, not to mention the absurdist plot featuring a walking, talking nose, Kentridge was the perfect person to tackle the project. He had long been a fan of Nikolai Gogol's 1836 short story on which the opera is based.
That story, in brief, focuses on a St. Petersburg civil servant, Major Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose is gone. He ventures out in pursuit and learns that the nose has assumed the role of an officer with a higher rank and, as a result, won't speak to him. The rest of the story follows the travails, both comic and sad, that Kovalyov must go through as he tries to find and reattach his nose. Along the way, readers (and audiences) are treated to a cavalcade of bureaucrats, snobs, lowlifes, and other characters of 19th-century St. Petersburg. Besides the obvious humor and satire, the story touches on issues of man's place in society, social conventions, and bureaucracy: whether in 19th-century St. Petersburg, 1920s Leningrad, or 1980s Johannesburg (where Kentridge was reared and where he famously staged many acclaimed avant-garde theater productions).
"The Nose is about what constitutes a person: how singular we are and how much we are divided up against ourselves," Kentridge says. "And it's also about the terrors of hierarchy. In Russian society in the czarist era, but also later, if you were of a slightly lower rank, you were in abject terror of anyone who was 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 continues, "where you had not just black and white as racial classifications, but also 'colored,' 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.
Despite some of these similarities, this production of Shostakovich's operatic adaptation is steeped more in the specific moods and happenings of the early Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s: a period of wonderful artistic experimentation followed by a crackdown after Stalin took power. "I'm very much looking at this opera with the hindsight we have," says Kentridge, "not only from Shostakovich's time, but also from what happened in the ten to 15 years after the opera was written, both to the composer and more specifically to the avant-garde, modernist movement in Russia at the time."
Written on the tails of his wildly successful First Symphony, Shostakovich began composing The Nose in 1927 at the age of 22, while he was still in music school. Having recently been impressed with Alban Berg's groundbreaking Wozzeck, Shostakovich experimented with everything from off-kilter folk songs to the brash and dramatic orchestral interludes we expect of the composer. There's even a three-minute instrumental interlude consisting of only percussion. All this is juxtaposed into short scenes and vignettes taken from the original story and its numerous characters: some of them jumping into the action for two musical lines, never to be heard from again.
The opera premiered on January 18, 1930, at Leningrad's Maly Operny Theater, but was pooh-poohed by cultural critics as elitist and, as a result, ran for only 16 performances. (The Nose didn't see the light of day in the Soviet Union again until 1974.) Though disheartened by his first commercial flop, Shostakovich went on to write Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a mere two years later, which really got him in trouble when he became the subject of repeated attacks in the newspaper Pravda. Historians have surmised that the bad official reviews his operas received in his early days discouraged the composer from ever writing any large-scale work of the kind again.
But the fact that The Nose hasn't been seen on the stage more often might also be due to the considerable demands it makes on the performers. "It's quite challenging for the orchestra, particularly the brass, and also for the singers," says Maestro Gergiev (who recently released a recording of the opera with the forces of the Mariinsky Theatre). Part of the challenge, besides the jagged, contrasting structure of the score and its wild melodic lines, is that the opera calls for a chamber orchestra, which means that each part is really exposed. For a singer, the challenge lies in the unusual atonal melodies and rhythms. "I've always loved singing in Russian: it's a beautiful language for singing," says Szot, who will take a break from his role as Emile de Becque in South Pacific to play Kovalyov. Having appeared in opera houses across the U.S. and Europe, he now makes his Met debut. "It's a nightmare to memorize," he says of The Nose. "You need time for your brain to get used to these intervals and rhythmic changes. It might have been simpler to make my debut as Don Giovanni or Marcello, but I love challenges!"
It's a long way from South Pacific to The Nose, but the music and images are more remarkable than any on Broadway. According to Kentridge, the projections on the screens behind and around the singers serve to contextualize the piece, as well as help explain the backstories of some of the random characters that pop up throughout the opera. Text, slogans, lists of Soviet bureaucratic hierarchies, and other assorted early Soviet propaganda will flash across the stage, along with footage depicting the nose's imagined behind-the-scenes escapades, which aren't ever really mentioned in the story or the opera.
"Some of the images are made up of old footage from various Soviet archives that are then mixed with images of the nose," says Kentridge. "Sometimes it's literally a projection of a military parade and the person riding the horse has an image of the nose superimposed on it, or another odd piece of footage of Anna Pavlova that has the nose superimposed over her head as she's dancing." Kentridge's process for making these animations with footage remains as low-tech as the technique he's used in his work all along.
Kentridge says he uses these pictures and footage and animation: as well as the traditional charcoal-drawing animations for which he is known: to expand the idea of the nose disappearing from Kovalyov's face and make the analogy toward the kinds of erasures and changes to photographs that were made in historical Soviet photographs of that period. "It's like those retouched photographs we're all so familiar with: Trotsky's in the photo, then he gets retouched out and he's disappeared," Kentridge explains. "This sense of things that seem really solid actually being very evanescent is an ongoing theme that I'm interested in."
The ideas Kentridge explores may be heady, but, as Kentridge himself points out, "A light touch dealing with big questions is key."
The Nose runs through March 25. Visit the Metropolitan Opera.