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“A light touch dealing with big questions is key,” says artist William Kentridge, and his imaginative new production of The Nose, opening on March 5, should illustrate his point. Shostakovich’s 1930 opera, based on an absurdist short story by Gogol, is the perfect vehicle for Kentridge’s genre-crossing sensibility, which will also be on display in an exhibition of new works tied to the production in the Arnold and Marie Schwartz Gallery Met. “Ad Hoc: Works for The Nose” is on view starting February 26.

“I always wanted to do something related to Russia in the 1920s, during the revolutionary period and its aftermath,” Kentridge says of his production, “because of my long interest in the history of modernism and in the convoluted relation of art-making to politics. The Nose gives us a chance to look at all of those things. And then, it’s a fantastically wild and interesting piece of music.”

Kentridge’s fascination with The Nose, both the opera and the short story, led him on a series of creative “sideways explorations,” in which he made drawings, animated films, paper cutouts, and other pieces that may or may not make it into the actual production. The Gallery Met exhibition will feature a large number of charcoal drawings, including one of Shostakovich himself, and 125 paper-and-wood costume cutouts, among other pieces. At the same time, the Museum of Modern Art is mounting a retrospective of Kentridge’s work, which will show the full breadth of the artist’s output.

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“How often does an artist have a major exhibition at MoMA and, simultaneously, direct and design a new production at the Metropolitan Opera?” says Gallery Met director Dodie Kazanjian. “Kentridge is one of the world’s most versatile artists, a master of filmmaking, theater, spectacle, and the graphic arts. He is truly without parallel in today’s proliferating art world.”

Kentridge’s art can also be seen on the façade of the opera house, where an enormous banner (above) heralds the production. The piece features newsprint, Soviet propaganda, paper cutouts and drawing, all incorporated into one wonderfully eccentric and powerful collage. Asked about his multidisciplinary approach, the artist quips, “I do everything but paint, which is what artists are supposed to do!” —Matt Dobkin

“Ad Hoc: Works for
The Nose” opens on February 26 and runs through the end of the Met season. Gallery Met, located in the south lobby, is open Monday through Friday, 6pm till the end of the last intermission, and Saturdays from noon through the last intermission. Admission is free. For more William Kentridge events, visit metopera.org.

This feature was first published online in January 2010 and in the Met's Playbill in February 2010.