Whitehot Magazine

April 2010, William Kentridge: The Nose; Five Themes

A scene from Act II of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose.”
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, 2009-2010 season


The Nose
The Metropolitan Opera  
Lincoln Center
New York, NY
March 11th, 2010  
William Kentridge: Five Themes
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. 
New York, NY
February 24 through May 17, 2010

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Nose, in which visual artist William Kentridge makes his directorial debut, is a visually stimulating but thoroughly confusing opera. Originally an extremely sparse short story written in 1836 by Nikolai Gogol, it was dramatized as an opera in 1930 by a twenty-something Dmitri Shostakovich. Set amidst Czarist Russia and later reset in a Stalinist Leningrad, The Nose has been reinterpreted once again in the 21st century. Though no one likes to argue the benefits of artistic purism, and while each revival of The Nose has added new elements to the outlandish original, the additions have not been to each medium’s benefit. Presented by the MET as an interdisciplinary extravaganza (including a coinciding Kentridge exhibition entitled Five Themes, showing at MOMA) and a perfect vehicle for Kentridge’s artistic diversity, the opera feels like an unwitting, or unwilling, collaboration between Gogol, Shostakovich, and finally Kentridge. Like an overworked painting, The Nose has such a confusing final surface that it is almost impossible to grasp the original intention. It is difficult to decide if Kentridge has tried to save a dull opera from itself, or created visuals so overwhelmingly satisfying that he has robbed his predecessors of their genius.

“The starting point,” Kentridge explains, “was reading the Gogol short story. It struck a chord for the way in which it took the absurd seriously.” Gogol’s story describes how the protagonist, the Collegiate Assessor Kovalev, awakes one morning to find his nose missing. In describing Kovalev’s nightmarish day, Gogol weaves us carefully through the many absurdities of Russian life. Gogol’s writing is dry, concise, and darkly metaphorical. At heart The Nose is deeply critical of bureaucracy, titles, ranks, and the desire to meet the social standards of appearance. Like an Aesop’s fable, the story apologizes for its own ridiculousness but is nonetheless strewn with warnings, “nothing lasts long in this world, even joy grows less lively the next moment,” and disillusionment, “farce really does occur in this world, and, sometimes, farce altogether without an element of probability.”

Kentridge, elaborating on the story, has created an additional character for his staging of the opera: that of Kovalev’s nose itself. “The stage belongs to Kovalev, while the screen is the domain of The Nose,” Kentridge states. Unsurprisingly, the Nose is the most humorous, engaging, and accessible character in the opera. Appearing mostly in two-dimensional projections, the Nose showboats around town on horseback chasing after women, liberated from the societal restrictions the others characters are confined within. The Nose is a character created by hindsight through historical and metaphorical imagery, and he represents our collective impression of Russia under dictators. While Kovalev, sung by Paulo Szot is his own MET debut, was Gogol’s protagonist, the Nose is Kentridge’s inspiration, and the two characters fight for attention throughout the opera. Living the duller of the two lives, it is no wonder that Szot’s Kovalev appears to be the lesser character: whiny, cowardly, and spoilt. When the Nose is finally caught and assassinated executioner-style by an official in uniform, in a delightfully potent sequence of animation, it feels as though the most moving moments of the opera, and the most significant character, are gone.

William Kentridge, Still from His Majesty, the Nose from the installation I am not me, the horse is not mine, 2008

Eight-channel video projection, DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min

Collection of the artist. copyright 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist

As Kentridge’s characterizations battle with Gogol’s story, he likewise overshadows Shostakovich’s opera. To Shostakovich, The Nose was a story begging to be dramatized, and he expanded events and conversations to score and stage his opera. What Shostakovich inevitably lost, like Kentridge a century later, was the grounding simplicity of Gogol’s critical fantasy, giving us instead an operatic world of fantastic chaos. His great gift to The Nose, however, is its musical score, from which Kentridge benefits greatly. While the opera’s libretto is less than engaging, the music has the kind of personality and specificity that is imbued in Kentridge’s imagery. Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic for the New York Times states of the score, “The Nose is the work of a young man eager to show off.” Conducted by Valery Gergiev, the complicated and often discordant score is the one underlying constant in this uneven opera. Calling for a chamber orchestra it is reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, where different instruments, based on their emotive tone, represent individual characters. In Shostakovich’s score the instruments also represent emotions, actions, and events. The music wonderfully dramatizes the added artwork, where banners of text read like cinematic slogans or silent film explanations, and inanimate objects in bits of stop-action animation come awkwardly but magically to life. On this point, if on no other, Kentridge and Shostakovich do one another justice.

Kentridge’s direction of The Nose is infiltrated by his own artwork: his charcoal-drawn animations, his projections and short films, his excerpts and text-based collages, his newsprint sets standing eight feet tall. Tommasini, critical of Kentridge, rightly states that he “unleashed his imagination” upon Shostakovich’s opera, stating that, “directors have to remember that there is something inherently dramatic about singing.” Employing different techniques Kentridge does successfully animate the entire stage, top to bottom. His projections interact with the actors themselves, creating a world where two-dimensional images exist in the same environment as the performers, almost like props. A real balcony and singer suddenly become a projected one, or a projected horse carries away a real set. Though theatrical groups like Pilobolus have been interested in the connection between the two-dimensional and real performers, in the The Nose Kentridge creates a compelling tension between the concrete reality of the opera, and yet another layer of absurdity. At times, however, these playful moments feel too campy and stilted, becoming comic relief to an already comic opera. The strongest artworks are the simplest projections, and Kentridge’s short segments of film, dispersed throughout, are complete and independently meaningful. These segments, however, raise the question, does the artwork Kentridge created for The Nose ultimately benefit from, or even need, the opera?

A scene from Act I of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Nose”
Vladimir Ognovenko as the barber, Ivan Yakovlevich, and Claudia Waite as Praskovya Osipovna.
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera, 2009-2010 season

It is a difficult question, but the current Kentridge retrospective on view at MOMA, Five Themes, may provide the answer. The exhibition entitled I am not me, the horse is not mine, a Russian statement to “deny guilt” under Stalin, features many of the films made for The Nose. Presented as works in progress, these short animations have a Gogol-like element of disturbing absurdity. In one reel, the silhouette of a Kentridge-like figure wearing an oversized nose mask, climbs a short ladder to the topmost rung only to tumble down again. This sequence is repeated again and again, echoing a dada-like futility of purpose. Projected alongside is an edited transcript from the trail of Nikolai Bukharin, the famous Bolshevik revolutionary who was tried and executed during the Great Purge. In yet another segment from the opera, The Nose, mounted on horseback, spurs his horse awkwardly up a pedestal. As the horse climbs, falls to its knees, struggles up, falls and struggles, we watch in slow motion as the animal attains the pose we so proudly associate with heroic figures of leadership. Metaphorically, the implications are endless, and we wonder what exactly is being revered. Clearly inspired by the The Nose, and strongly referencing Russian history, these artworks have a directness that is not present in the opera.

While the “cross-fertilization” for interdisciplinary artists like Kentridge seems full of potential, its necessary to realize that too many different mediums—literature, music, opera, theater, film, visual art—pressed together by the force of interest alone will not always create the best end result for any of them. As Kentridge himself says, “First you improvise to discover what will be wonderful, then you work hard to find the grammar that will make it happen.” His production of the The Nose, however, never finds its proper prose. 

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


William Kentridge, Still from Commissariat for Enlightenment from the installation I am not me, the horse is not mine. 2008
Eight-channel video projection, DVCAM and HDV transferred to video, 6:01 min
Collection of the artist. copyright 2010 William Kentridge. Photo: John Hodgkiss, courtesy the artist

Alissa Guzman

Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.

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