I met with Berlin-based South African director Kobie van Rensburg to talk about Umculo and The Songmakers’ Guild’s new production, Schande (Shame). As a former operatic tenor whose singing career was curtailed by cancer, he found a second career as an opera director. He is surprisingly not the least bit bitter about the loss of his singing voice, and still brims with passion for his job.
Kobie van Rensburg: The basic premise in Schande (Shame) is that it’s a shame that things like violence against women, rape and murder are still tolerated in our society. This, along with all the economic baggage, makes for a very bad cocktail we are seeing on the Cape Flats. It’s one of the most dangerous places on earth, and it’s harrowing to hear the stories of the everyday experiences of the kids in our workshops. We as artists have a duty to address these things in our society.
What I find interesting is how well Schubert’s world view and his own experience can be adapted and made applicable. He himself died from syphilis.
Rudolph Maré: Very young, too.
K: Yes, and in his time there were also the Napoleonic Wars all over Europe, which left enormous destruction. People’s live were constantly disrupted. We have an oil painting idea of how it was then, but in reality it was rough.
R: The poetry — a lot of Schubert’s songs were based on incredibly morbid poems, especially Goethe’s. Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the maiden), for instance. Even Erlkönig (Earl King).
K: We are doing Erlkönig as a paedophile who molests a child.
R: He is rather a paedophile of a character, yes!
K: “Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt fasst er mich an! Erlkönig hat mir ein leids getan!” (”My father, my father, he is touching me! The Earl King has hurt me!”)
Superficially, the story of Der Tod und das Mädchen may deliver some sort of final verdict on the boundary between life and death, but it remains a very real experience accompanied by great trauma.
We have an episode in Schande that deals with rape. We took Schubert’s Ave Maria and changed the text slightly. We changed “ein Jungrau” (a virgin) to “eine Jung’frau” (a young lady). After she is raped, she sings, “Mary, why did you promise to protect us, and yet allow these things happen to us?” So, with a small change, it’s easy to make the subtext that is so rich in the music applicable to such an emotional or traumatic event.
Modern art song performances
For me it’s also a great shame — another shame — that the art song is not experiencing a growth period. We are trying to do something about it, because to me it is one of the greatest art treasures in our world, and it’s actually so accessible. But due to the language barrier, and due to the bad reputation that classical music generally has, also in Europe, quite often even famous art song interpreters won’t attract full halls.
You have to put a lot into a song recital to memorise the text. It’s already a big and complex task when you perform in a language you don’t speak well. It’s truly a great challenge for someone to perform a long song cycle. But then you also have to jump over the next hurdle of communicating effectively with your audience. What’s the use of singing in German when they don’t understand a word you are saying?
R: I’m intrigued by your use of projections of the text and other things. I’m especially interested in how you take the art song – in its purest form essentially storytelling, without costumes and acting – and reinterpret it dramatically. In this case not with the poet or composer’s interpretation, but with your own message. Tell me more about your staging.
K: Perhaps I should say that, with the concept as a whole, I took the effort to treat the music with great respect. I didn’t make my story first and then look for music that fits in with it. Maybe that’s one way to do it, but my approach was different. For each singer I looked for songs that would suit their nature and skills, and after choosing the songs, I tried to craft a narrative thread. It was never meant to be one continuous story, but rather several episodes that relate to and complement each other. They deal with different societal aspects in the Cape Flats and other communities. These episodes are often woven very closely together. Sometimes the same character experiences two episodes, but often a performer would break from one character in one episode, and immediately appear as another a moment later.
R: Like in Erlkönig, where there are three characters and a narrator?
K: Yes. And in the next moment the son in Erlkönig is the beloved of the person who was the Earl King, for instance.
With the projections I have the ability to change that visual world very quickly, but the dramatic feeling stems solely from the music. I looked in the scores for what the subtext was that Schubert and his poets tried to communicate to their audiences. Take Schubert’s Ave Maria as an example. Everyone knows it as a very solemn prayer. If you look at the text, though, you would soon realise that the third verse is very bitter. In the context of Ellen’s songs, of which this is number three in the cycle of six, you would see that it deals with a very bitter story, and in the tonality that Schubert chose, you would hear that ambiguity.
About 10 years ago, when I directed Orfeo, and even when I was still singing, and performed the part for the first time, I started noticing that the audience don’t understand the text, even when using surtitles. It would typically only be two lines that one can display. But if a poem has four or five lines that function as a coherent unit, you can’t display it that way, because you only have two lines available. And in Orfeo the poetry’s structure is an important aspect of the communicative dramaturgy. Then I tried to see what would happen if I made typographical animation, and project it onto the stage set. And the people loved it. I did both Figaro and Don Giovanni in such a way that, when there was an enormous amount of text, the text would fight with each other and fall to the ground.
Normally I would animate the text, but since we have Xhosa and English surtitles at the same time, I chose not to for this project. After my first few animation experiments I saw that if I animate this amount of text, the audience would be distracted from what they should actually be concentrating on. But even though it’s not animated, the text still appears dramatically close to the faces of the singers. You can look at someone’s face and read the text at the same time.
There would also be a bit of movement, but very little, because our space isn’t really a theatre, and it also doesn’t really have theatrical lighting. That’s also a very important limitation. Because we will be performing the show in townships where there also isn’t any lighting, I tried to design a concept where all the lighting elements are done solely through the video projection. And that is a big challenge. But, like you said, a lot of the songs are very sombre, so a dark environment with only a little bit of projection light actually fits in very well graphically with the pieces we perform.
As an artist it is important not to stagnate, but to develop continuously. You have to take the passage of time into account. I believe that a contemporary Liederabend (song evening) must make use of multimedia technology, because we are surrounded by it in our daily lives. If I want to be relevant in what I present as an artist, I need to take note of these things. This is an opportunity for me to experiment with giving the audience an experience that addresses them on more than one level.