Follow that Nose!

As if you needed further testament to my current state of flakiness: I double (well, truthfully, triple) booked myself the eve I was meant to see Anna Nicole, so I had to miss it. By all accounts it was amazing, so that one is filed under “My Loss.”

But I did see The Nose! Which was totally wackadoo (I’m learning new scholarly jargon every day), especially for the Met. I was eager to see it because we had just read an article about William Kentridge for class–arguing that the political (living in South Africa in the transition from apartheid) cannot be separated from either the process or the products of his art making.

In my last post I referred to the opera as Kentridge’s The Nose, and later I wondered (because these are the things that keep me up at night) if I should have referred to it as Shostakovich’s The Nose. Since it is Shostakovich’s opera. But I think “Kentridge’s” is right. His work felt totally omnipresent and at times eclipsing of everything else involved. Which is perhaps just what you should expect when you ask a major visual artist to direct and design your opera.

The opera is based on Gogol’s 1836 short story in which a man wakes up to find his nose mysteriously gone. Later he finds it, now the size of a man, and dressed as a state councilor. The police eventually apprehend it attempting to board a train out of town. The plot makes for a really pithy short story and a slightly overlong (even at under 2 hours) opera.

Gogol’s dark whimsy conveys a sense of dislocation, fragmentation and paranoia. When the opera premiered in 1930, the Soviet state banned it until 1974—perhaps because it was now accompanied with aggressive, dissonant music.  Kentridge sets it in Soviet Russia and the production really amplifies the themes of state repression and the fear that accompanies living in such a society.

Most prominent in the design is a large screen covered in newsprint upon which Kentridge constantly projects tremendous (8 stories high!) images and stop motion animation.  The projections are at times gorgeous, at times hilarious and bizarre, and for the most part totally mesmerizing. They do make it hard to watch whatever is going on onstage though. In a conversation with the New York Times Kentridge explains that this was intentional. The production is about: “small scale individuals that emerge from an enormous society and then they disappear back into it.”  For him the “projection was an attempt to find an equivalence of the large and small scale that’s in Gogol.”

I appreciate the theory behind this, but there were times where I did just want to watch these gorgeous singers sing and react to the absurdity of what was going on around them. I think the opera felt overlong in part because the plot was stretched to its breaking point and in part because you were unable to identify with the piece’s humanity. Granted, in a production that you are conceiving as about dehumanization on some level, this makes theoretical sense, but it does tax the attention span.

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