William Kentridge’s production of South African opera, Sybil, dazzles in its US premiere in Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Kyle Shepherd, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Waiting for the Sybil: Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Xolisile Bongwana, Ayanda Nhlangothi, Zandile Hlatshwayo, Siphiwe Nkabinde, S’busiso Shozi (voices), Kyle Shepherd (piano). Cal Performances, Zellerbach Auditorium, University of California Berkeley, 19.3.2023. (HS)

Singers (right) contemplate a cryptic prophecy by the Sybil, danced by Teresa Phuti Mojela © Catharyn Hayne

Director – William Kentridge
Editor/compositor – Žana Marović
Costumes – Greta Goiris
Sets – Sabine Theunissen
Lighting – Urs Schönebaum
Sound engineer – Gavan Eckhart
Cinematography – Duško Marović
Dancers – Thulani Chauke, Teresa Phuti Mojela, Thandazile ‘Sonia’ Radebe

William Kentridge, the unconventional South African visual artist and celebrated opera director whose work has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera, La Scala and the Salzburg Festival, has conjured up a stunning piece with ‘Waiting for the Sybil’.

It debuted at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma in 2019 but is not a typical opera, nor is it strictly a theater piece. At less than an hour running time, the work achieved what a memorable opera can. It grabbed our emotions with music at its core – soulful tunes and ensembles that made the most of the human voice – and framed it all with staging that added depth and meaning.

As the Beckett-referenced title might suggest, there is no real plot, but the eight discrete scenes get us thinking, and it is endlessly entertaining. Each scene – essentially a series of tableaux – teems with activity, much of it from Kentridge’s own unique form of animation. He draws images with charcoal, smudging off small bits at a time to create individual frames from the original image, which form moving pictures that morph before our eyes when they are projected behind the cast.

Colorful, zany-shaped costumes by Greta Goiris add to the picture, and four dancers deliver enough kinetic energy to lift an audience off its seats. The title character is a dancer (an athletic Teresa Phuti Mojela), gyrating in place on a platform so that her shadow can mingle on the scrim with Kentridge’s charcoal trees and Calder-like rotating mobiles.

In Greek myth, Sybil was a seer who fielded questions that people wrote on leaves. She wrote her responses on separate leaves, only to let the wind blow them into chaos so nobody knew if the leaf picked up was meant for them or someone else. Ambiguity, after all, is universal. We really can’t know what is going to happen to us, and we swing between joy and despair. It’s the human condition.

As for the music, the six singers’ solos and ensembles rely on South African musical forms such as the Zulu choral style made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and a distinctly South African gospel form. Nhlanhla Mahlangu, responsible for all the choral music, sang the lead in more than one of the pieces in a velvety, somewhat raspy tenor. Music director Kyle Shepherd evoked a range of styles in his captivating piano solos, some of which reminded me of South African jazz trumpeter and composer Hugh Masakela.

In the opening scene, the Sybil danced as an assistant removed sheets of paper from a folder and dropped them on the floor. Projections of the phrases printed on those sheets (‘Why should I hesitate?’ ‘Who will remember me?’) touched on human fears and worries, some of them laugh-out-loud funny, others meant to be ambiguous.

Interludes accompanied by Shepherd’s piano solos featured Kentridge’s moving charcoal drawings projected onto the front curtain. The first suggested a tree slowly rotating until it looked like an old-fashioned manual typewriter, and that led to a frenetic scene in which the music grew lively to the beat of an actual typewriter’s clacking. Dancers in the Sybil’s mailroom hefted boxes of incoming messages, and workers flung pieces of paper willy-nilly. Hymn-like phrases in an opera voice clashed with guttural sounds in response.

Another scene, set to slow gospel music on piano, played on the old stage joke of a worried man amid chairs that move surreptitiously and collapse unexpectedly. In this context, it reflected a shared sense that things are spinning out of our control. To a rousing Zulu chorus, all the characters frantically dig through waves of the Sybil’s responses, their shadows creating patterns on the scrim.

The piece ends with a soulful ballad, a solo for soprano in the Zulu mode against soft harmonies, suggesting that we are all in this life together and can lean on each other. It was hard to resist a catch in the throat at this moving, universal finish.

As an opener, Shepherd and the four male singers connected their music to ‘The Moment Has Gone’, a deftly edited 20-minute film showing the artist at work on his charcoal animation. It is brilliant in setting up what we will see in the opera.

Harvey Steiman

Leave a Comment