The master and the maestro

Dmitri Shostakovich's comic opera The Nose, based on a Gogol story, was first produced in Russia in 1928 – in the last wave of artistic freedom before the Stalinist state crushed it. The opera satirises tsarist bureaucracy and the "terror of hierarchies", but is relevant to Russia under communism as well. 

It also resonates with apartheid South Africa, as has been pointed out by artist William Kentridge, who directed and designed the New York Metropolitan Opera's production of The Nose, a production now to be seen at Ster-Kinekor cinemas as part of its series of Met Opera transmissions. 

Kentridge uses filmed drawings and historical footage (from Soviet Russia, for instance) and also designed the costumes and set to create his version of the opera, which was staged in late October in New York. 

The Nose is Kentridge's third opera production, after Il Ritorno d'Ulisse, with the Handspring Puppet Company (1998), and The Magic Flute (2005). He is now working on a production of Alban Berg's Lulu, due to hit the stage in 2015.

Have you always been an opera fan?
Oh yes.

Do you listen to music while you work?
I do. I often listen to music badly – as a barrier to cut out other sounds. If I'm working on an opera, obviously, I listen to parts of it for the work. But an aria can last three minutes and the drawings will take a day. If I'm just drawing, I'm more likely to be listening to Tom Waits or Haydn.

Tinkly-piano Tom Waits or clanging-dustbin-lids Tom Waits?
Any Tom Waits.

You're also working on something related to Schubert's Winterreise, you said, so you're listening to that.
There's something about the rhythm of Schubert's piano music, the sort of walking pace, that's very good for work. It also has a kind of narrative impulse in it. The Winterreise are about someone on a journey, so there's a walking rhythm, fast or slow.

Your opera work also generates a lot of tangential or related work, doesn't it?
It's a two-year project or a three-year project, arriving at an opera, so there are a lot of side projects that grow from it. Working on The Nose became an excuse for looking at Russian art from 1910 to 1930, and doing Lulu now is an excuse to relook at German expressionism.

Is it different, for you, to be working on a 20th-century opera?
There's a lot of space in the music for essays on the work itself to be brought in, so to speak. There are a lot of musical interludes, which become occasions for films to be projected in the space.

I've been thinking about the role of the coffee pot in your work. In one of your early films, a coffee pot goes to the moon … 
And there's a coffee-pot sculpture, yes, and last year I did an etching called Self-portrait as a Coffee Pot. [He later shows me a coffee pot that has become part of an experimental musical instrument; it doesn't seem to have worked.] The funny thing is that I like coffee in different forms, but the one coffee I really don't like is coffee made in the moka pots. So any of those I get given are used in sculptures and so forth. They get pressed into service in the studio.

You always seem to appear wearing a white shirt and black pants. Do you ever wake up one morning and feel you'd like to wear a black shirt and white pants, say?
No. [Laughs.] But sometimes I wear a blue shirt.

The Nose shows at Ster-Kinekor Cinema Nouveau theatres from November 30, for a limited season

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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