Archive Features

The South African Artist William Kentridge and Shostakovich’s “The Nose”

  • A scene from the introduction to Act I Shostakovich’s “The Nose.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, 2009-2010.

    A scene from the introduction to Act I Shostakovich’s “The Nose.” Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, 2009-2010.

  • "Nose 3" by William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

  • "Nose 4" by William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist.

  • Still from

    Still from "His Majesty, the Nose." Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist, William Kentridge.

William Kentridge’s Nose for Farce

2013   |   The Economist’s Intelligent Life Magazine

For William Kentridge, a South African artist, there is much to be learned from the absurd. This makes some sense from someone who has spent a lifetime witnessing the brutality and then the aftermath of apartheid-a system of “crazy logic”, he observes. In his obliquely political drawings and films, he tends to capture the despair of functioning in a violent and uncertain world. When Peter Gelb, head of the Metropolitan Opera, invited him to design and direct a production, Kentridge immediately suggested “The Nose”. Shostakovich’s take on Gogol’s story, about a bureaucrat whose nose runs off to enjoy a higher rank and finer life than its owner, has never before been performed at the Met.
Conducted by Valery Gergiev, “The Nose” opens tonight, March 5th.

The opera offers an ideal canvas for Kentridge’s interests in the “terrors of hierarchy”, internal conflict, loss and reconciliation-themes he conveys in his startlingly evocative “drawings for projection”. The animated films he created for the opera are part of an extensive retrospective of his work now on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “William Kentridge: Five Themes” features his films, theatre models and over 130 prints, drawings and collages. Kentridge refers to his projected images as “stone-age filmmaking”. He draws a picture in charcoal, alters it and films each change until a scene is complete. This is unlike traditional animation, in which each movement is drawn on its own cell. Because he is always working from a single frame, the ghosts of previous incarnations still haunt the scene.

His stark and poignant projections usually depict life in apartheid South Africa, often through the eyes of two fictional characters: Soho Eckstein, an industrialist with a troubled conscience (who physically resembles Kentridge himself), and Felix Teitlebaum, a poet and his sensitive alter-ego. Without being didactic or judgmental, he depicts the way individuals go about their days against a backdrop of large-scale social injustice.

The landscape of his native Johannesburg, where Kentridge still lives, features prominently in his work. White and Jewish, he grew up in a family of prominent lawyers who opposed apartheid. He trained as an actor before working as a director and designer in puppetry, theatre, film and opera, becoming a rare contemporary artist to bridge such diverse spheres.

The set for “The Nose” features a huge screen upon which images from Russian newspapers and archival film footage are projected. The stage is the terrain of Kovalyov, the bureaucrat, whereas the projections chronicle the world of his nose. In one scene Anna Pavlova dances with the nose on her head. In another, the nose is seen diving and pole jumping. In this production, Kentridge uses Gogol’s story to examine the communist government’s repression of the Russian avant-garde.

Kentridge finds “a sense of endless possibility” in the score, a brilliantly acerbic, mostly non-tonal collage of folk music, popular song and colourful percussion. The opera (which has some 80 sung roles plus spoken parts and chorus) received its premiere in 1930. But it was soon denounced as “formalist” and was not performed again in the Soviet Union until 1974. Shostakovich reportedly said you can read “The Nose” as a joke, “but you can’t stage it as one”. The danger with the show, agrees Kentridge is that you say “this is ridiculous, so anything goes”. But good farce, he adds, “has to be played as terror”. When Kovalyov weeps because the newspaper won’t let him advertise for his missing nose, “it is of course completely ridiculous. But there has to be an element where you see it from his side. It’s a loss-how will he continue in the world?” In South Africa, says Kentridge, he was always aware of living in a world of bizarrely calculated divisions. In the opera, he adds, “we take another absurd division, a man from his nose, and follow that through very rigorously.”

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