We are Still Lost in the Stars
In Washington, DC, a town where its major newspaper--The Washington Post--headlined "It's still apartheid", a story about continuing racial strife in South Africa, Washington National Opera, the night before--February 12, 2016--opened the profoundly moving production from Cape Town Opera of Lost in the Stars, a musical based on Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Paton's novel was published in 1948. Kurt Weill, a Jew who fled Nazi Germany, in collaboration with Maxwell Anderson, who wrote the book and lyrics, premiered Lost in the Stars on Broadway in 1949.
In 2011, WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello helped co-produce the Cape Town Opera production directed by Tazewell Thompson. It was the first time, Lost in the Stars had ever been produced in South Africa. In 2012, the production debuted at The Glimmerglass Festival.
To the Dresser's way of thinking, Lost in the Stars, typical of work by Kurt Weill, is music theater and plays somewhere in between Broadway musical and opera. The Dresser, extremely taken by the talent engaged for this production, preferred the musical numbers that played to the operatic side. Outstanding performances included those by bass-baritone Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo, soprano Lauren Michelle as Irina, tenor Sean Panikkar as The Leader, and boy soprano Caleb McLaughlin as Alex, the son of Kumalo's sister. Overall the choral numbers are substantial and advance the action of the storyline.
Acts 1 opens with The Leader vocally painting the details of Stephen Kumalo's home town. Tenor Sean Panikkar sings passionately and operatically: "There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling and they're lovely beyond any singing of it."
The next number sets up who Stephen Kumalo--a man of optimism and love. Owens performance lends gravitas to these lines:
How many miles to the heart of a child?
Thousands of mile, thousands of miles.
When he lay on your breast, he looked up and smiled
across tens of thousands, thousands of miles.
Each lives alone in a world of dark,
Crossing the skies in a lonely arc,
Save when love leaps out like a leaping spark
over thousands, thousands of miles. ...
The Leader also opens Act 2 with these haunting, poetic lines of "The Wild Justice." Again Panikkar stands out with his performance.
Have you fished for a fixed star with the lines of its light?
Have you dipped the moon from the sea with the cup of night?
Have you caught the rain's bow in a pool and shut it in?
Go, hunt the wild justice down to walk with men.
The story of Lost in the Stars centers on the black African father Stephen Kumalo, a minister working for better race relations between blacks and whites, who travels from his hometown Ndotsheni to Johannesburg to find both his sister and his son Absalom. The son hoping to better the life possible in a small town has gotten into trouble more than once, but this time he has crossed the line of no return--he has killed a white man and one who had championed black lives. The father is devastated and, like King David mourning his third son Absalom, Kumalo wishes he could die in his son's place. Kumalo's brother John urges Absalom to lie, but he refuses, wishing to follow what his father has taught him. The distraught father visits James Jarvis, the father of the man killed to ask him to petition the court for mercy. Jarvis, who had an argument with his son about championing black people, cannot understand how Kumalo would have the audacity to ask such a thing. The only good that Kumalo can do is to marry his son to the son's lover Irina who is pregnant with their child and take Irina home to Absalom's mother. Once Kumalo is home, he tells his congregants he can no longer lead them because he has lost his faith and so he is lost in the stars:
But I've been walking through the night, and the day
Till my eyes get weary and my head turns grey
And sometimes it seems maybe God's gone away
Forgetting the promise that we've heard him say
And we're lost out here in the stars.
Little stars, big stars
Blowing through the night
And we're lost out here in the stars.
Little stars, big stars
Blowing through the night.
And we're lost out here in the stars...
True to the formula of the musical, redemption ends the story--James Jarvis visits Kumalo in his rundown church saying the minister must not abandon his people and that he (Jarvis) will provide the funds to fix the church. Jarvis also says he will attend Kumalo's church and devote the rest of his life to the race relations work his son Edward embraced.
The Dresser had a wide range of reactions to Lost in the Stars, a show that runs two hours and forty minutes, including a twenty minute intermission. She found parts of Act 1 boring but was thoroughly engaged in Act 2 even though she finds the song "Lost in the Stars" old school and sentimental (and, yes, she knows this song has been recorded but such stars as Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, and Lotta Lenya). However, part of her fascination with Act 2 involves the lost in the stars theme of which director Tazewell Thompson seemed to echo Thornton Wilder's play Our Town by putting Kumalo's congregants back to the audience, seated in chairs under a night sky filled with stars. By the end of the show tears rolled down the Dresser's face, convincing her of the importance of this work.
Thompson also staged the dance and movement numbers with flair. Among the many memorable scenes are the shooting of Edward Jarvis done in realistic light and then replayed in strobe light, the newspaper scene where the white side of town reads about the murder, Irina's laundry scene done behind a gauzy scrim, and the front of the curtains "preaching" by Alex, Kumalo's nephew (he sings about "Big Mole").
Conductor John DeMain keeps the various musical numbers moving along seamlessly without allowing the exotic instruments like harp and accordion to dominate. Set and costumes by Michael Mitchell are understated.
Donna Denizé's poem "Bards Still Sing" offers a moment of affirmative reflection that plays against the racial and financial tension of Lost in the Stars. Still, it is sad to realize that poverty and prejudice continues in our world, both in South Africa and here in the United States. Therefore, Lost in the Stars continues to be relevant to American audiences.
BARDS STILL SING
Beneath tattered rags a bard still plays
to sing morning's rising in tenderly lays,
but if only for beauty the gods did sing,
then what of this age and its terrible ring?
When flutes are grown silent, the harp out of tune,
and the weak or the violent fill the house--every room.
from Broken like Job
copyright © 2005 Donna Denizé
Photos by Karli Cadel