With an opera of his own, William Kentridge looks into the future
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With an opera of his own, William Kentridge looks into the future
The South African artist William Kentridge works in his London studio on Feb. 25, 2022. Kentridge developed a piece about how difficult it is to see around the next corner — ironically, the work anticipated the uncertainties of pandemic life. Alex Ingram/The New York Times.

by Andrew Dickson

LONDON.- Billions of us have spent the past two or so years trying to divine the future. Will I get COVID-19? How bad will it be? When will the coronavirus pandemic end? Will it ever end? Reliable answers have been scant; even if we’ve been cushioned from the worst effects, many people have been camping in a sort of existential waiting room, living in near-permanent uncertainty.

Appropriate timing, then, that the Barbican arts center in London is about to stage a chamber opera, by South African artist William Kentridge, about how difficult it is to see around the next corner. Titled “Waiting for the Sibyl,” it retells the myth of a Greek prophetess whom mortals once pestered with exactly these sort of exasperating questions.

That prophetess, the Cumaean Sibyl, was said to have spit out her written answers on oak leaves, but there was a catch: If the wind scattered the leaves, she would not help put them in the correct order, leaving her clients none the wiser. The opera is a reminder that humans have been trying to get a jump on what’s coming next for perhaps as long as we’ve existed — and that maybe we’d be better served by living in the present instead.

In a recent interview in London, Kentridge said that, ironically, he hadn’t seen the piece’s relevance coming: He had begun work on “Waiting for the Sibyl” more than two years before the pandemic.

“Those questions of mortality, fate, who are we in this world, have been the bread and butter of artists for millennia,” he said. “But that’s been brought right to the forefront now.”

Commissioned by the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in Italy and debuted there in September 2019, the roughly 40-minute piece consists of short, fragmentary scenes without dialogue. At first, it seems as cryptic as anything produced by a Greek oracle. A cast of nine singers and dancers enact moments from the legend. In one, a performer writhes in stuttering flashes of light in front of a screen displaying messages like, “I have brought NEWS” and “THE MOMENT HAS GONE.” Later, the cast dances while surrounded by scraps of prophecies on leaves of paper.

The prophecies themselves are wry: “Resist the THIRD MARTINI,” “DISCARD LAST YEAR’S SOCKS.” But the parallels with our pandemic experience are often eerie. “FRESH GRAVES are everywhere,” reads one. Another is even more plangent: “My turn is when?”

Making the opera had been an intricate process, Kentridge explained. The work was compiled from odd phrases he’d seen in books of English, Russian and Hebrew poetry and from a 1916 book of proverbs compiled by South African writer Solomon Plaatje, which he made into a libretto of sorts.

These scraps of text were then workshopped with the singers alongside composers Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd. Together, they translated the phrases into African languages including Zulu, Setswana and Sesotho, and Xhosa, and developed an improvised musical score.

Sometimes, the music refers to traditions such as call-and-response isicathamiya choral singing; elsewhere it is deliberately jumbled. To draw all of this together, Kentridge created art work — drawings, ink washes, sculptures, palimpsests of old letters and reference books — which he turned into animated projections and stage designs.

Like so many of his works, the result is a “collage,” Kentridge said. While he has designed and directed operas before — notably a madcap spin on Shostakovich’s “The Nose” (2010) and a brutally monochrome version of Berg’s “Wozzeck” (2017) — being able to create his own universe was liberating, he added.

“A libretto is a straitjacket: You put it on willingly, but nonetheless it is a restriction,” he said. “This is a totally different experience.”

Mahlangu said that, for himself and the singers, the Greek source material seemed remote at first. Yet as they developed the piece, it began to resonate with African mythologies and storytelling traditions. “Many people in South Africa believe that when people die, they don’t actually die,” he said. “They continue to look after the living. There is a sibyl in each and every one.”

He added that this story of prediction and counter-prediction also resonated with the volatile politics of contemporary South Africa, which became even more turbulent amid the pandemic, as the country’s unemployment rate climbed to a dizzying 35%. “Here we are constantly in the state of wonder and worry,” Mahlangu said: “‘What is the next step? Where will we be?’”

Now 66, Kentridge is unusual — almost unique — among contemporary artists in having achieved as much acceptance in theaters and opera houses as in museums and contemporary art spaces. He began his career in the mid-1970s as a Johannesburg-based illustrator and printmaker, but his practice has expanded to include whimsical short films, elaborate installations and majestic pieces of public art.

Often his subjects reference classical literature or art history; almost always they reflect on South Africa’s bitter legacy, as in his new animated film “City Deep” (2020), a response to Johannesburg’s contentious history. A documentary on the making of the movie will be screened at the Barbican alongside “Waiting for the Sibyl.”

In an era of conceptual and digital art, Kentridge has remained defiantly figurative and analog: His hulking charcoal drawings, loose sketches in Indian ink and flickering projections are immediately recognizable. Even when working on collaborative projects, the bulk of his time is spent laboring alone with ink, or charcoal, and paper, the artist said. “The physicality is essential. It’s the medium through which the thinking happens.”

Much as he enjoys making gallery-based shows, he loves the challenge of theatrical commissions, he added. “The opera house says, ‘We’ll give you a canvas, 17 meters wide, 11 meters high. And we’ll give you another 18 meters of depth,’” he said. “And I get to make an hour-and-a-half drawing in the space.”

With opera houses and concert halls closed, he hunkered down in Johannesburg and made a series of nine films about his studio practice, which are now being edited. He has also been preparing a career retrospective at the Royal Academy in London (set to open in September after pandemic-related delays), and making an animated film response to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10, which will be performed live at the Lucerne festival, in Switzerland, in June.

“There are always a few too many projects,” he said with a laugh. “But I can’t blame anyone but myself.”

Re-encountering “Waiting for the Sibyl” in light of the coronavirus had been salutary, he added: Though the opera was partly about the limits of human knowledge, partly about mortality itself, it also contained seeds of hope.

“In the long run, none of us are going to get out of this alive, but while we are here, we can acknowledge that,” he said. “We can still work wisely and optimistically. Comfort must be taken where it can be found.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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