Saturday, December 5, 2015

William Kentridge Takes New York

William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour
Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
October 23, 2015

Alban Berg’s Lulu
Metropolitan Opera
November 14, 2015

The professor is in. William Kentridge holds forth in Refuse the Hour
Photo Credit: BAM
William Kentridge is not only a monster of energy; he is an inexhaustible fount of ideas. Refuse the Hour, his experimental opera for spoken voice that was featured in this year’s Next Wave Festival at BAM, is so bursting with ideas that it was almost difficult to keep up with its highly conceptual barrage of visual inventiveness and playful intelligence. The dynamic production starred the artist himself reading a text that at times waxed poetic, at others told a story, other times preached, others still lectured, and featured dancers, singers, actors, mimes, an unconventionally orchestrated live band as well as a number of other Duchamp-inspired contraptions, including an automaton mechanized percussion section that dangled decoratively from the ceiling. Not to mention the ever-changing projections that were full of familiar Kentridge touches. 

Language and its vicissitudes take center stage.
Photo Credit: BAM
Onto three proscenium-sized screens were projected a visual collage of video, drawings, charcoal sketches and animations. The projections employed his signature charcoal sketches and animations predominantly drawn onto pages from a dictionary. And here the dictionary trope was very tightly thematically linked to the work as a whole. Many of the vignettes were about language. One particularly memorable vignette dramatized the concept of entropy through the enact of speech acts falling apart, disintegrating over time and then slowly recomposing themselves through the thought experiment of reversing time.

Lulu living in a supersaturated world.
Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met
Kentridge does something similar in his production of Alban Berg’s Lulu, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. Dressing her in a boxy canvas-white smock, she is quite literally a canvas onto which the men around her can project their desires for a good portion of the show. Like the words in the dictionary pages or in the entropy vignette in Refuse the Hour, her beauty is deconstructed, broken down into its constituent parts, quite literally represented by abstractions of her body parts. Only this time rather than playing exclusively with language, Kentridge takes up the challenging musical landscape that Lulu inhabits and seems to in part recast elements of her feminine charms into the symbols of musical notation. For example, the breast that she wears pinned onto his canvas-like smock like a tail pinned onto a donkey at a child’s birthday party is quite simply an inverted fermata sign borrowed from the musical lexicon.

Lulu deconstructed.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
And of course, Berg’s score is notoriously challenging, for the orchestra and singers as well as for the audience. There is nothing straightforward about the singspiel-esque vibe of the whole piece. Unlike Wozzeck, which eschews the limitations of his mentor Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional technique, Lulu is Berg’s great dodecaphonic masterpiece. The development of each of its characters as well as the sequence in which they appear and disappear in the score is all determined by charts organized around a predetermined sequence of twelve tones. Where Berg deconstructs his characters musically, Kentridge deconstructs them visually though the signs and symbols of the music, at least in certain details, like the abstraction of his heroine’s body parts.

Lulu's charms are irresistible.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
After seeing her in other video recordings of the opera, Marlis Petersen is on the top of her game as Lulu. In fact, I can hardly picture her being played by any of the other world class sopranos that I know. Petersen just has all the right moves. Her stage presence is magnetic, she embodies the innate Germanness of the character, she is playful, youthful, sexy, strong and yet vulnerable, out of control and riding the wave, controlling and yet acting impetuously, nonchalant and uncaring yet needy, desperate for affirmation, attention, affection, appreciation. However, I also can't help but thinking at almost every minute she is on stage that her talent isn't being somehow also at the same time wasted. She sang such a transcendent Susanna in last year’s gala production of Le nozze di Figaro that it seems like a shame not to have her embodying musically richer tapestries of sounds rather than all this cacophony.

Like a blank canvas, she's everything you want her to be.
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Who is this Lulu? She is a broken girl. Only on the verge of womanhood. She is an object of desire. She is a blank canvas onto which men of all ages, walks of life, shapes, and sizes project their fantasies. She is a commodity. At one point, she is even traded like a stock on the stock market. Shares of an entity or publicly traded company called Jungenfrau (literally Youngwoman in English) are booming in the beginning of Act III, though the Kentridge production never plays it up the way other productions do. (Since she isn’t even on stage during the buying and selling of this hot property, the link between the shares and the physical person of Lulu is only left abstract.) She is a seductress and a murderess and a lover and a muse and an infatuation and a sex kitten. But is she really a femme fatale? Not particularly. When she finds herself making fatal decisions she hardly does so maliciously of her own volition.

Dr. Schön gets worked up.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Everything falls apart for her after she loses/murders the only man whom she really loves. Does that make it some kind of cautionary tale? Violence is not the solution. Like everything else she does she seems to pull the trigger even innocently. Not aware of the consequences of such a decisive decision. The same seems to happen with the way she toys with all the men in her life. Sex is virtually meaningless to her. But she thrives on all the attention and affection she gets from them, as though she is still an unformed person, not sure of herself, incapable of loving herself first. Towards the end Schilogen says that she is trying to make a living through love, but love is her life. Just minutes later, however, we see her desperately groping for sustained attention from a father looking or at least a man old enough to be her father. "Will you come back to see me again," she says in desperation. Without Dr. Schön she is truly missing the only father figure, lover, partner, spouse she ever really had. He was her everything. There was hardly a role he didn’t play for her. Since she never had anyone else to fill those roles, without him she is truly an empty vessel – the famous blank canvas onto which men project their desires freely. Lulu herself also demands to be painted on and projected upon. She can be anything they want because she is nothing without their desires.

An assassin is born.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
At the same time however Lulu is equally incapable of returning the affection of those who really do love her. The rejected lesbian countess then ponders suicide. She is in the throes of the disease she contracted on Lulu’s behalf and is hurt that Lulu won't ever love her back. “Her heart is cold as ice,” she says but in a hopeful turn abandons the plan to take her own life and instead resolves to make one last attempt, one last plea at her heart.

Lulu with her precious portraits.
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
In a stroke of signature Kentridge genius, after Jack the Ripper stabs both Lulu and the Countess he frantically searches for a rag to wipe the blood off his blade. When he finds nothing better, he picks up one of Lulu’s portraits and wipes her blood off on it like nothing more than a mere rag. This is the fate of all commodities in this consumerist world. Art like stocks like all human capital can be worth millions one moment, reduced to scrap paper the next.

And so perhaps it's a parable about the commodification of art in the first half of the twentieth century – an opera about commodification of women who is a musical abstraction in her own right, set to the music of atonality, which was conceived as a reaction to the traditional bourgeois commodification of music. Remember the opera opens with a circus master hawking admission to his spectacle starring a woman whom he has configured as the most horrific of serpents, a sight you just can't take your eyes off, a veritable box of Pandora.

Sad but true and Lulu amounts to little more than this: a beautiful flash in the pan, a scrap of paper to be taken up and then discarded.

And the world rages on.

– Lui & Lei

No comments:

Post a Comment