Shostakovich’s The Nose at Aix

A conversation between William Kentridge and Denise Wendel

Denise Wendel: Your first opera production, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse by Monteverdi, was a collaboration with the Handspring Puppet Company (1), produced 1998 in with Bernard Foccroulle and the KunstenFestivaldesArts in Brussels. This was followed by a further collaboration featuring The Magic Flute at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2005. How did you come to choose Shostakovich’s opera The Nose for this new co-production with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Festival of Aix en Provence?

William Kentridge: I first came across Gogol’s short story The Nose in an airport bookshop in a year when I decided that I needed to catch up on the classics that I had never read before. Then came the period several years later, when I was looking for another opera to do. Bernard had been a co-producer of Ulisse and was also at the origin of the choice of The Magic Flute (which had started out as Tannhäuser). We were looking for a new opera and when the Shostakovich came up I was interested because of Gogol’s short story.

DW: What was it in a story that revolves around a Russian bureaucrat who wakes one morning to find his nose is missing that appealed to you?

WK: My interest is in the way that the story takes the absurd seriously. This has a strong appeal for me because if one takes the absurd seriously and not just as rubbish or nonsense you come to discover that the way in which the world is structured is not one of logic and Cartesian rationality but one where there are ruptures to that clarity and clear logic and that seems to me to be much closer to how the world actually operates.

DW: At the end of the story the narrator says that if we reflect upon it such things do happen in the world, rarely, but they do happen.

WK: Yes. There is a paragraph at the end, where the moral usually lies in a classic fable, where he says that he never should have written the story because it does not help the state and is of no use to anyone. He says that the only thing to recommend it is that it is true. So everything is turned on its head, with clear logic reversing the non-logic of the story.

DW: In many of Gogol’s Petersburg tales, the unaccountable is the point of departure, like Kovalyov’s nose in the Barber’s loaf of bread.

WK: In The Nose you have the character of Kovalyov literally shattered, dismembered, losing his nose and then being reconstituted. It is a way of thinking of a story as collage. This is why the novel was so completely vital for the Russian avant-garde.

Gogol’s stories had huge stature in Russian literature; Chekov said that for him The Nose was the greatest short story ever written. Essentially Gogol’s unconcern for meaning liberated the limits that the imagination could take, the way that you can take reality and twist it around and excise parts of it and use that as raw material to tell a story.

DW: Was it this randomness in Gogol’s story that appealed to Shostakovich?

WK: I think that for Shostakovich there was an attraction in the fact that there is a lot of space in the story – which allowed him to introduce fragments of text from other writers into the libretto, and also gave him great freedom to experiment with his compositional techniques. He could not have done this with the long trajectory of a single character that one must follow with the great psychological depth of a Chekov text, for example. With Gogol you can take the absurdity, use it and turn it around so it becomes raw material to compose with. It is not about great psychological depth; it is about things that happen and through those things the story gets told and you eventually discover the psychology of the protagonist. I think that for the young composer Gogol’s story was very attractive.

DW: For an opera that deals with the absurd, what struck me after seeing the première of the first run of this production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York was the absolute clarity of your production.

WK: I had seen a production of The Nose in Saint Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre which was musically very good. But in the second half when it gets loud and exciting I noticed huge reams of audience falling asleep in defensive sleeping against chaos. There and then it occurred to me that rule number one for doing this piece, was that we had to be able to follow the story – know where we are physically at each change of scene, who is the person singing, what is his character, what is being sung. For that you have to take the narrative as seriously as a tragedy. This approach is not only true for Shostakovich, but for many Mozart operas. Our goal with The Nose, like for The Magic Flute, is to make the second act even more coherent than the first.

DW: How do you get to the visual aspect, do you begin with the music, does the music suggest form to you?

WK: Not automatically, there are things like the Gallop (Scene 4), or the percussion interlude with an easy energy that one can engage in directly. But the first thing I did was the drawings – the paper cut-out nose on top of my legs walking backwards and forwards in the studio, and then watching that while playing different pieces of music, was where I began. Later we started finding the archival footage, so the elements started coming together quite early, without knowing whether they were going to fit into the opera. The horse projection at the very end of the opera came early, but I certainly did not know where we were going to use it. Then with the last 30 seconds of the opera, as the music fades away, you need something that pulls the production back into focus, and there the horse came in as the last image, slowly wandering across the stage.

One of the early stages of our preparation was trying to find the shape of the Nose. A Johannesburg sculptor worked for months fashioning different prototypes of noses and fairly early on it had its basic shape. Then there were small sculptures that were made in clay and papier-mâché. At first we made a very smooth one, then we made a very angular one, which is the one that we finally used. Then when working with the miniature Nose we tried putting it on a pair of dividers and pliers as legs, and it became a character of the Nose. Some of them have been cast in bronze, so there are a few sculptures of the Nose.

I then became interested in table top equestrian statues, because it seemed like an important thing for the Nose to see himself as a civic monument, in reference to the equestrian monument in St Petersburg, and to this thing about people reaching a civic apotheosis when they are on a horse.

I began a series of small-scale, found objects horse sculptures out of twigs and wax, which got cast. Then some larger wooden sculptures were made. They started off as two dimensional black torn shapes of horses in paper, which became three dimensional table top equestrian sculptures, and later they were the basis of a large scale tapestries of the Nose on his horse going through different European countries. So it existed as tapestries, as bronzes, as etchings that I was using to think through different adventures and different iterations of the Nose, while working on the opera project.

DW: There are many performance works as well that have resulted from your preparatory research for Shostakovich’s opera, which now have lives of their own like I am not me, the horse is not mine, a lecture/performance with projection, made initially for the Sydney Biennale in June 2008, and there is an installation of 8 projections of the same name. There is also Telegrams from the Nose, a performance piece with a large chamber ensemble. How did these works result or feed into the preparation of the opera?

WK: When I did The Magic Flute I did Black Box/Chambre Noire afterwards, which in the form of a miniature theatre, was a way of examining other themes that had come up while preparing the opera, but in the end did not fit into it.

I thought of a similar kind of project with The Nose, not making another miniature theatre, but rather taking the video and film material that would not fit into the opera as a sort of broader essay on the topic. Then came the idea of doing The Nose, because it is such a gigantic scale opera, in a chamber music version, transcribed for a smaller ensemble opera with five musicians, six singers. The Ictus Ensemble of contemporary music who had wanted to do a project for a long time suggested that the composer François Sarhan would be a great transcriber for the Shostakovich. Unfortunately we did not get the permission from the family to change a single note of the opera. But I kept on working with François on the idea of a miniature scale chamber performance with text and images. The texts used then went outwards from Gogol to Daniil Kharms, the Russian writer who died of starvation in a Leningrad prison in 1941. This became a larger concept which overlapped with The Nose in a piece called Telegrams from the Nose.

In I am not me, the horse is not mine I began to work on the lecture/performance as a form. I had tried different subjects for the lecture. Initially it was about the Italian massacre of Ethiopians with the use of chemical weapons in 1935. Then I came to the conclusion that it could also work as a discussion about The Nose. It was in this piece that I used the transcripts of the show trial of Nicolai Bukharin, a close lieutenant of Lenin’s who was executed in 1938 under the Stalinist purge. These would not have fitted into the opera at all, but in this context became a sort of post-history of the absurd in the Soviet Union.

DW: Do these fragments of trials during the Stalinist purge refer to Shostakovich’s own difficulties with Stalin’s regime?

WK: In a way those clips were the starting point of the whole project before I’d come across the Gogol or Shostakovich. I came across those when thinking about the context of comedy or tragedy. How does one find an artistic form to refer to human disasters and great catastrophes? The classic tragedy focuses on the individual, individualizes the question of causes, the weakness of the central protagonist; is he a good or bad man. With these huge social upheavals like the Stalinist purge, it is not really about, ‘was this person a good communist or a bad one?’ Yes, there is Stalin but the question of whether he was crazy or not, does not help you so much. There is something about the broadness of comedy and the way that it does not rely on a sense of individual strengths and weaknesses that makes it closer to these larger machinations.

In reading some of these texts of the politburo trials there is a sense of language losing its hold on reality, and even though it is extremely bleak there is this terrible black humor. In the text of these excerpts there is a floundering for the language that communism had jettisoned: “I need to know are you lying or are you being strategic are you being sincere; I am trying to be sincere.”

Regarding Shostakovich, I was interested in a portrayal that depicts him neither as the victim of totalitarianism nor as the willing accomplice, but rather as occupying a space where he was both threatened by it and strategic in how he operated with it while understanding the contradictory position he maintained. It was also very important to make clear Shostakovich’s wish to believe in the progressive aspect of the revolution, and how indispensable that belief was for the work to happen. So it was not as if once the Ministry of Culture would get off his back he could get down to writing real music.

DW: From very moment of its creation in 1930, The Nose received exaggerated criticism – “anarchist hand-grenade,” “formalist” – by the Stalinist censors.

WK: Yes. But in 1930 the golden era of the Russian avant-garde was already in decline. With the new Stalinist principles of Social Realism, there was the question as to what music was easily assimilated and easily understood – and so anything that was not tonal enough in a major scale, or that did not profess confidence in the future, was condemned. Then later on in life if he would end a composition with a few big major chords he was redeemed.

But doing a production of The Nose today with the hindsight of the Stalinist era of the 40’s and 50’s, is the same process for me as looking at The Magic Flute with hindsight of two hundred years of experience afterwards. In the same way that The Magic Flute is a good way of reexamining the Enlightenment and its limitations, hindsight should allow us to think of Shostakovich neither as party hack, someone who follows party doctrine, nor as a secret dissident, and those are the two ways that he is generally portrayed.

One should rather see this work as a celebration of the possibilities unleashed by the 1917 revolution, which was an immense patriotic moment, but without denying all of the raw edges built into the structure of that moment as well.

DW: Or the later occurrences like the trial and execution of great Marxist intellectuals like Nicolai Bukharin.

WK: What interested me in the Bukharin trial transcripts is how the actual text is very close to absurd. Not Chekov, but something out of the theatre of the absurd, with a series of seeming non-sequiturs, a dark comedy in Bukharin’s inability to make himself understood. At one point he says “state every single accusation against me and I will repudiate them one after the other” to which the interrogator answered that that proved his guilt because he was acting like a bourgeois lawyer. The very fact of him being able to defend himself proved him guilty.

When he was in prison waiting to be executed he wrote some 30 letters to Stalin begging him to say whether he really thought that he was guilty. And if he is not guilty and just needed to be sacrificed he desperately wanted to know before he died what Stalin really thought. Here language begins to float above the absurd like in the language of Dada – and like Dada it seems to be about the non-meaning of language. But in Bukharin’s case it is not the non-meaning of language because it is a very accurate account.

DW: Dada’s use of the absurd was a way of denouncing the absurdity of the 1st World War. Can art be a way of coming to terms with a cataclysm of this proportion?

WK: I think that it is too much to ask from art. There are for many people particular books or songs or films which are essential to the way that they constitute themselves, the stories that they tell about themselves, their understanding of themselves and their understanding of the world, but it is usually because there is an echo in these books of something that is already in them that gets reinforced, solidified and becomes part of who they are. In that sense I have a complete belief in arts vital role but not in the sense of it being a great mover of politics in and of itself.

DW: But art can expose injustice.

WK: It can make people more aware of something that they already had a sense of. I am not so much interested in the possibility of bringing new information that people have not already had but more in the subtle ways in which having that information changes your outlook. For example in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Battle of Algiers, there are many facts about the war in Algeria that if you didn’t know before would be explained in the film. But what you get out of it is not the benefit of new knowledge of the injustices of the French army in Algeria, or the specific techniques of armed rebellion and repression of the Algerian Revolution, but a rather a sense of the possibility for transformation that this film suggests. The possibility of political action, the possibility of transforming society and this awareness can give people a sense of agency to understand how the world is made, rather than just being subjected to it.

DW: In the projections used in the opera, as well as in many of your works, there are constant references to constructivist visual language, like that of Rodchenko, Tatlin and El Lissiztsky.

WK: My interest in the Russian avant-garde goes back to 35 years ago. I did a piece, a big drawing, in the early 80’s called Comrade Mauser where you have images of Rodchenko and Mayakovsky. For years I had thought that I wanted to do something with a Russian theme, and The Nose was a project that everything could be mapped onto . By the time it was decided to do the opera, there was a wealth of material from 35 years ago sitting around in the studio or on my bookshelf or on my table. Then during the two years of making the opera there began a lot of sifting and drawing, editing and seeing which images were relevant.

DW: Like the El Lissitzky stairs which is a motif that appears again and again in the opera, in “I am not me, the horse is not mine” and in the etchings.

WK: The initial idea comes from a film I had seen called The life and death of a Hollywood Extra, an avant-garde American film from the 1930’s about an extra trying to make it in Hollywood. He walks up a flight of stairs and he rolls down, and it cuts back to him at the bottom of the stairs and trying walk back up, and falling again, an endless Sisyphean situation. So I went around Johannesburg trying to find a good flight of stairs to film a scene. Which of course I could not find anywhere, and we ended up using the staircase in the studio. Though a default position, it turned out to be the right thing to use because of the reference to the El Lissitzky’s design for “The Lenin Podium”(2). At a certain point I lose track of what’s gone through the opera, what has its own life as an etching, or a performance piece or a sculpture or a tapestry.

DW: Like the Nose who goes off on his own journey.

WK: Yes. What happens is that once you lose that control of the initial idea, there is much greater space for images to suggest themselves in one form and then to be appropriated in another. The advantage is that because you are the artist, you cannot be accused of plagiarizing yourself if a particular image has been seen in this film and the identical image is there in the form of a sculpture. It is the acknowledgment of the migration of thought and images and understanding, how in the translation from one form to another different views are shown of the same thing, and suddenly you see things in a fresh way.

DW: How do you coordinate and balance the multitude of images in the projections with the décor and actors on stage?

WK: The basic principle of this production is that the stage belongs to Kovalyov and his life, and the projections belong to the Nose. The Nose is mainly a video projection that sometimes comes down from the screen onto the stage as a three dimensional object, but primarily he is a projection. His is a world on a different scale, different speeds – with the projection you have a huge amount of freedom. You can put a horse together with pieces of paper and pull a house out across the stage. The task was always to find the relationship between what was projected on the screen and what was happening on stage.

DW: What happens when the singers arrive?

WK: We discovered after the first rehearsals that we had made far too much video material, enough to keep an audience occupied the whole time – but that once the singers were there, we just wanted to watch the singers. So during the rehearsal period more and more material was excised in order to leave room for the singers.

The scene with the doctor (Act 3, Scene 2) was to be accompanied by a projection of a dialogue between medical instruments because in the text nothing much happens in the scene at all. But then the doctor, a fabulous actor, Gennady Bezzubenkov, brought so much to each moment that the dialogue of the medical instruments was cut out in one blow, months and months of work savagely cut out.

In the newspaper office (scene 5), with all the different characters and the twelve singers who make up the newspaper staff perched up on the bookshelves, there are projections of newspaper headlines and advertisements, all of the things that go into the production of newspapers, around them. The original video work was kind of complete thing where you could watch the projections while listening to the music. But once the singers arrived it had to be radically simplified and pared down.

DW: Work-shopping projects first in your studio in Johannesburg seems to be an essential preliminary stage for many of your works?

WK: About a year before the première, we had two workshops in Johannesburg with twenty actors and singers, working with a recording in a dance studio with mock-ups of some of the scenery. This led to many of the ideas used in the present staging. It is in these conditions that you come up with ideas. For example the Barber, when he is shaving Kovalyov – if he is not worried about what he is singing, he is free to do things like climb right on top of him and literally cut his throat on the barber’s chair – and that piece of staging remained. And then there are things like the interlude with the big shadow policeman doing that beautiful dance – that was a South African stage manager whom I asked to improvise an imagined Russian dance. So at the Met instead of getting a dancer we used that projection, which is like a shadow dance instead of a live performer.

DW: You have done remarkable dramatic work with singers. Are they sometimes difficult beasts to contend with?

WK: They are difficult beasts. But to be fair, it really depends on the singer, some will come in with a very clear idea of what they want to do, or they have been told how to do it, and there is something reassuring about receiving clear instructions. But for singers to understand that my way of working is “finding a performance” rather than saying, now you must cross the stage here, and turn on this bar of music etc., is sometimes difficult. What I say to them is rather: I don’t have a clue, we will discover it as we go along. Let’s just start and we will see what you are doing, and we will take it from there.”

Some singers are completely happy with that, like Gennady Bezzubenkov (who will also be in the Aix production), who has four million ideas at once that are all good. Then there are other singers who will have four million ideas all of which are bad. Just to try to get them to stop using them can take a lot of work.

I am not for any school of method acting. I think that so much of the psychology of the performance is to be found in the music, and in that way I work from a different angle from many people. Rather than beginning with psychology, I begin with movement or tension.

DW: You went to Paris for a period of time in the beginning of the 1980’s to join the class of Jacques Lecoq at the Ecole Internationale de Théâtre where you studied mime and theatre. Do you still use the methods of Lecoq?

WK: All the time! Lecoq is just the opposite of psychological method acting. It is a way of arriving at meaning that has nothing to do with psychology or motivation. Lecoq exercises deal with very concrete metaphors that anyone can understand. For example, the actor is asked to identify with a physical object like a piece of clay and learning to know what clay feels like – you cut into it, you can push into it and it doesn’t bounce back, it stays – searching the dynamics of clay. Then from there, there is a transfer of these sensations into the actor’s dramatic work. You can define a whole character just by giving someone these tools and encouraging them to remain true to that material. So as you work and things fall away or become confused, the sensation remains and you can go back to it, and suddenly here is an echo the softness, the memory of the clay, and you find the character immediately.

DW: Old singing masters also used physical metaphors to help singers to grasp the idea of vocal support like that of a great rooted tree, an image that Lecoq used as well for the “identifications” exercises.

WK: Lecoq can be very helpful to singers because they have such a difficult task with trying to sing sometimes very complex music, like Shostakovich, being concerned with vocal production and acting all at the same time. Learning to use the Lecoq exercises can be a very rich investment for them, as it can be for performers of all disciplines, puppetry but also film-making and drawing.

DW: Was it the multi-disciplinary aspect of Lecoq’s teaching that encouraged you to move to Paris to join his class?

WK: I was at a stage in my life when I did not know what I wanted to do and I had a choice of three things; if I was going to continue to study art then I should go to a formal art school like the Slade School or the Central School of Art in London, if I was going to study film-making there was the New York Film School, if I was to pursue theatre and wanted a school that worked with improvisation, then there was Jacques Lecoq.

I had also wanted to get out of the English speaking world at that point. In preparation, I did intensive courses before the school year started and ended up speaking very fluent but wrong and basic French with great aplomb. Today, I am quite happy to give a press conference in French, murdering the language left, right and center. That year, 1981-1982 in Paris, was the most productive year of teaching that I ever received.

DW: But what happened to your own hopes of becoming an actor?

WK: Good actors are chameleon-like in that they can embrace very different characters, so that each time that you see them on stage they are completely transformed. Whereas I had a sense that whatever I was going to do, it would always be the same performance. I think that I was fortunate to discover at a theatre school that I was such a bad actor. I was reduced to being an artist, and I made my peace with it.

DW: You appear to approach your art very much as an actor approaches a role. In “Artist in the Studio”(3) you speak of the hours spent in the walking pacing back and forth in the studio. This way of resourcing energy resembles the meditative work of the actor preparing for a role.

WK: The studio does feel like that – the preparing to go on the stage Before you start drawing there is a lot of gathering of the different parts of oneself before finally making the mark. The horse piece, I am not me, the horse is not mine, has that same feeling of pacing about.

DW: Perhaps you are still an actor.

WK: It seems that it is becoming more so now, with the lecture/performances and things that have more that element. There are a series of drawings projections called “drawing lessons”, which are triple projections of myself on the screen, in conversation with myself either verbally or non- verbally. It is a declaration in the middle of a moment, just me playing with the camera. I am not sure, but yes, it is drawing as a stage performance.

Now there is a dance piece that I am working on with me dancing or rather me standing still while a dancer dances. I just turn slowly – I don’t try to dance – it is more about me not dancing.

DW: What might be your future projects for opera?

WK: People ask me what kind of opera would I like to do and the truth is I do not know. I can only see operas that would be a disaster for me to do. Keeping with Shostakovich there is Lady Macbeth from Msensk, but which needs a straight theatrical director. It is true that to begin with the sure value of a Gogol or a Shostakovich is an added assurance of success, rather than constructing a story. But perhaps I need to collaborate with a living composer to have something completely new. But for that there needs to be a kind of collision between an idea of form and music.

DW: You mentioned Tannhäuser. Have you ever considered other works of Wagner?

WK: The problem is that I don’t know what to do with the length unless you do what Bill Viola did with Tristan with shooting everything at 1/ 50th of the speed. I love Tristan but what do you project on the screen? Endless water ? With Tristan I’d just want to switch off the lights and tell everybody to listen. I also love some of the music in Tannhäuser, but goodness knows what you do with all the bits in between. I could imagine the Venusburg and then after that….. The slow growing of the aria that just goes on and on.

For me to choose an opera it can’t just be a distant relationship to the material and text. With The Magic Flute and The Nose I was completely involved with the dramatic material. I need to be in sympathy with the thematic material and intrigued by it to take it on a project.

  1. Handspring Puppet Company was founded in 1981 by four graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa. Two of the co-founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, continue to run the company. Considered one of the greatest puppetry companies in the world, Handspring has collaborated with William Kentridge since 1992.
  2. In 1920, El Lizzitsky made various designs for a podium or rostrum for an orator. He worked on the best design and added to it the photograph of Lenin speaking to the masses. This rostrum became known the world over as the Lenin Podium.
  3. Parcours d’Atelier (artist in the studio) from William Kentridge: Five Themes, exhibition catalogue, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009, p.13.