Lost in the Stars Returns to Its Roots in South Africa

“Though it is a story of the ages wrestling issues of biblical dimensions, Lost in the Stars is a simple story of the human heart – one of heartbreak and intolerance as well as truth, reconciliation, compassion, and finally, moral transformation." – Tazewell Thompson

This summer (July 22 – August 25, 2012), the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., joins forces with Cape Town Opera to present Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s 1949 “musical tragedy” Lost in the Stars, based on Alan Paton’s classic anti-apartheid novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, who led a November 2011 production in Cape Town, and conducted by John DeMain, the Glimmerglass production features Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo. Thompson wrote a moving account of his experience working in South Africa on the Weill-Anderson musical; here we share an excerpt:

On closing night I leave the hotel and set out for the Artscape orchestra rehearsal room to give my pre-opera talk. The winds are back. Actually, they had never left from the night before. All night long the windows of my suite had rattled and I could see the whipped-up ocean waters tossing barges and boats about, bending down the trees, and raising whirlwinds of debris everywhere. As I venture forth this evening, I am really fighting the winds, more ferocious even than last night, so powerful that I am thrown to the pavement even while holding onto the bent sidewalk poles, constructed and placed for just such displays of natural temperament. These gale force winds are welcomed by Cape Town residents from late November through early February. They are known as Cape Doctor Winds because the locals believe they blow away pollution, sins, and pestilence, cleaning the air for the rest of the year. You find a wide variety of plants, trees and vegetation in the city due to the seeds hurled by the winds from all parts of Cape Town that have pollinated and rooted throughout the downtown area. They say many a hopeful lover will tear up sheets of paper bearing the name of their intended written over and over and toss them into the winds, hoping one will blow into the window or doorstep of the one they long for. There is no love or help for me tonight as I brave the relentless, terrifying velocity of the winds that are behaving like a gigantic trapped tiger caught in the bowl of the city between Table Mountain and the South Atlantic Ocean. 

Eventually, I reach my destination; clothes all askew, with bruises and scratches on my face and arms. The house is packed and overflowing with patrons, many sitting on the steps leading down to the orchestra pit. In the center of the house there are rows and rows of young black teenagers dressed in white; the girls in white dresses with white wraps around their heads and the boys in white shirts and black ties. I ask them who they are during intermission; they tell me they are a group of fifty-five Anglican students from one of the townships. Many of them carry paperbacks of Cry, the Beloved Country in their hands; the book is part of their curriculum. They all listened to a recording of Lost in the Stars in preparation for this evening’s performance. While they are excited to meet someone from “New York City, America,” they are more thrilled to meet a black man in charge of directing the production onstage. Throughout all the weeks of rehearsal, I could never get the company to call me Tazewell, or Taz; it was always Mr. Thompson, Sir, or Mr. Director! So formal in their culture and so proud of my position as a black man director, their first.

This final performance is especially rich, full-throated and powerful. The scenes and songs are connecting in a way that seems even more meaningful tonight. There are the same reactions (bigger than ever) to lines about never returning from Johannesburg and John Kumalo’s disdain for his brother’s religious collar. The pain and humiliation of a father seeing his son in jail accused of murdering a white is extremely palpable in the house; the shebeen scene with Gloria’s song, “Who’ll Buy,” has the audience clapping and finger-snapping to the rhythm of the song; the title song receives an amazing round of cheers and applause as our corrugated curtain comes in for the intermission. The crowd loves Irina all through the show. Her unfortunate plight touches them in a deeply emotional way—it really hits home. Her two songs receive long ovations.

Act Two: The Leader’s song, “The Wild Justice,” draws new reactions from the house: whispers and sounds of disgruntlement, lots of head-shaking. Kumalo’s operatic “Soliloquy” is robust and searing. However, the most incredible moment of all three nights happens during the trial scene. When Absalom Kumalo receives his death sentence, there are screams and anguished cries from the audience; a few patrons stand up and jeer at the announcement. As Absalom is led off to his cell, a woman waves her white handkerchief in the air and makes a tearful sound in her native language.

I have had so many wonderful and fulfilling experiences in my career; travels across the country and overseas, exploring the human condition through the great works composed and written for the stage. It will be a very long time, if ever, that something will come along to top my time in Cape Town, rehearsing and directing the poet-playwright Maxwell Anderson and the genius Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars in South Africa. I thank The Kurt Weill Foundation, The Sterling Clark Foundation, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Francesca Zambello for helping to make this all possible, for bringing me home to the land of my ancestors and connecting me to a people and culture that is my own. And the winds come at night to bring me back and remind me.

I rejoice that the theater exists as a means for writers like Anderson, together with composers like Weill, to work together with actors, singers and other artists and connect themselves to our world, pierce through its density, to show to our fellow humans something of its mystery and violence and prejudices and terror and pity and capacity to change. -Tazewell Thompson, Director

For the full text, see the Kurt Weill Newsletter 30.1.

Click here for more information on the Glimmerglass production.




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