On The Nose

In the world of Shostakovich’s The Nose, as conceived by William Kentridge, body parts vanish and turn up as public officials, Anna Pavlova dances with a giant nose on her head, and life is ruled by what the director calls “an absurd logic.” The production had its Met premiere during the 2009–10 season. By Matt Dobkin

“On the twenty-fifth day of March, an extraordinarily strange incident occurred in Petersburg.” So begins Nikolai Gogol’s 1837 short story “The Nose”—and “extraordinarily strange” doesn’t begin to convey the character of this absurdist masterpiece. A few paragraphs in, a man cuts into a loaf of bread and finds a nose tucked inside, which he promptly tosses off a bridge. A page later, a civil servant awakes to discover that his own nose has gone missing. He encounters the detached appendage in a church later that day and learns that the nose wants nothing to do with him—he is now of a higher bureaucratic rank. The rest of the tale follows Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov as he tries to track down his AWOL olfactory organ. The story and its playful, anything-is-possible ethos were ideally suited to the imaginative gifts of genre-crossing South African artist William Kentridge, whose inspired production opened at the Met in 2010—with Tony Award–winning baritone Paulo Szot as the nose-bereft Kovalyov.

“Chekhov described ‘The Nose’ as the greatest short story ever written,” says Kentridge, who made his Met debut with this production. “Both the story and the opera are about what constitute a person— how singular are we and how much are we divided against ourselves? It’s also about the terrors of hierarchy—how in Russian society of the czarist era, you were in abject terror of anyone who was above you, and if you were a higher rank, you had a murderous contempt for anyone below you.”

It’s not surprising that the story appealed to a 22-year-old Dmitri Shostakovich, who adapted it for his first opera during the early years of Stalin’s Soviet leadership (it premiered in 1930). “Shostakovich wrote the opera when he was just out of music school,” Kentridge says. “So any kind of experiment was possible. There’s a mixture of anarchy and the absurd, which seemed to be the right language for looking at the period of history when the opera was written, where all logics were so awry, where language itself had ceased to make sense, and the most absurd, convoluted logics were the most accurate way of describing a society.”

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In a sense, all of Kentridge’s work had been preparation for this enormously ambitious theatrical undertaking. The artist cut his teeth in the 1970s as a founding member, actor, designer, and director with the Junction Avenue Theater Company in Johannesburg. It was there that he first developed his multimedia approach to theater, combining drawing, film, and live performance to address the South African political system. Later, he turned to puppetry, and even mime, all the while developing his skills as a draftsman and animator. These talents would be put to use most memorably in a series of animated films centered largely on Felix Teitlebaum and Soho Eckstein, two Kentridge-invented characters who live in apartheid-era South Africa (and who represent different sides of the artist himself).

Kentridge made his first major foray into opera in 2005 with a production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which was first seen in Brussels, later touring the world with a stop in New York. The New York Times described the staging as “an exuberant dialogue between drawing and music.” This same integrated approach to the musical and visual elements are in effect in The Nose, for which Kentridge created a series of vivid animated films that are seen over the course of the opera. “The premise of the production is that the set and scenery exist as a huge screen for projection,” explains the artist, who designed the sets with Sabine Theunissen. “The general principle that goes through Gogol and Russian writing is of the smallness of the individual against the mightiness of the state. The central metaphor around that in the production is that the singers are sometimes extremely clearly seen, with the focus and the lights just on them, and then they’re kind of obliterated inside a huge projection.”

These filmic elements, Kentridge says, “are very lo-tech. In some sequences, it’s a torn piece of paper representing the nose, which is filmed and advanced one frame and re-filmed. So the filmmaking is very hands-on.” Kentridge employed the same techniques with charcoal drawings in his animated films (shooting still images, making erasures and additions, then shooting again), most famously the Felix and Soho series. These hand-drawn elements were also incorporated in the production. It’s all perfectly natural for Kentridge, who saw direct parallels between drawing and directing.

An early set-and-projection model

“The way I work as a director has to be the way I work as a draftsman making drawings,” he says “When you’re making a drawing, in the process of making the drawing, you discover the drawing you are making, rather than knowing the drawing in your head entirely and simply carrying out some pre-programmed plan.”

Kentridge doesn’t see Shostakovich’s opera as a blank canvas or piece of clay to manipulate to his own experimental, filmic ends: He tells the story in all its eccentric glory and allows Shostakovich’s jaggedly beautiful score to shine. But the structure of Shostakovich’s opera affords plenty of opportunities for Kentridge to play. The score features several instrumental interludes (many of which show Shostakovich at his most youthfully exuberant and bold, including one consisting entirely of percussion) in which the onstage action pauses. Kentridge sees these as opportunities for what he calls “sideways explorations”—stretches when he can imagine what the nose has been up to while Kovalyov feverishly searches for it.

“For me they are extraordinary moments that aren’t directly there in the story but relate to it,” he says. “If the opera is the story of Kovalyov trying to find his nose, then the projects I’m doing for those orchestral interludes are the history of the nose itself—the nose in love, the nose wanting to be a politburo member, being arrested, being beaten. We need the nose to dance—there’s an old piece of footage of Anna Pavlova with the nose superimposed on it. We look at all these other things that could be happening when the nose is not on stage.”

Costume designs by Greta Goiris

“When I discovered this opera, it felt the perfect fit,” he says, “because musically I’ve always loved Shostakovich and thematically I’m very interested in the end of Russian modernism. You have extraordinary things done by Russian photographers, photo montages, Russian cinema. The animation is made up of Soviet archival footage, and in the 1920s, the period in which the opera was written, the visual world was so dominated by text as image. So the scenery and a lot of the projections use blocks of text, and screens are painted with a kind of collage of newspapers.” The text-based imagery, which was featured on Greta Goiris’s costumes as well, evokes the sophisticated propaganda of Stalin-era Russia.

Shostakovich himself had a vexed relationship with the Soviet authorities. A child prodigy on the piano, he rose quickly through the ranks of the Petrograd Conservatory, and his first major composition, the First Symphony in 1926, was well received. The Nose, however, was not: “Once the opera was done it was very quickly suppressed in the Soviet Union,” Kentridge points out, “and it took another 30 years from its first performance to its second.” Over the course of his lengthy and productive career, Shostakovich continually grappled with government disapproval.

For the singers, Shostakovich’s rhythmic intricacies and melodic surprises provide notable challenges. “I have always loved singing in Russian,” says Szot. “It’s a beautiful language for singing. And The Nose is a great story with fantastic music. Shostakovich’s music is very interesting to listen to but very complicated to play. You need time for your brain to get used to these intervals, the rhythmic changes.”

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If Shostakovich’s style-hopping, patchwork artistry is well-suited to Gogol’s absurdist story, so is Kentridge’s, whose background informed his approach to the production and to his work in general. “My belief in what one can learn from the absurd is very much related to growing up in South Africa, where you had the apartheid system, which is about evil, but also about a crazy logic, an absurd logic,” he explains. “Taking the absurd very seriously, learning for the absurd is, for me, the key to the opera.

“There’s a big question if tragedy or comedy is a way of dealing with huge social cataclysms,” he continues. “Gogol’s answer and Shostakovich’s answer is very much that, through the strange mixture of the brutal comic, we get closest to the actual logic of the world.”


Matt Dobkin is the Met’s Creative Director, Marketing and Strategy.