When someone says opera, you might think of corsetted ladies hitting high notes, epic romances played out over multiple hours, Shakespearian plotlines that end in death or disaster. You might not think of surrealistic landscapes, Dadaesque vocals or absurdist scenarios. Having left the Artscape theatre with my mind twisted and released by the utter weirdness that is Postcard From Morocco, I feel like we’ve been given a glimpse of the psychotic side of opera.
Director Alan Swerdlow notes that Postcard from Morocco – which still remains popular in the United States – was written at the height of the Vietnam war when the American psyche was being torn between support of the government’s inhumanitarian cause and taking the hippie road. Narcotics abounded, and the feel of Postcard From Morocco often is one of opium-laced delusion, conversations without meaning that never go anywhere, and dreamscapes that could either exist inside or outside a character’s imagination. Even the cast reads like a story: The Lady With Hand Mirror (Maudee Montierre/Noluvuyiso Mpofu), The Lady With Cake Box (Goisemang Lehobye/Litho Nqai), The Lady With Hat Box (Vasti Knoesen). On the men’s side, each character too is identified by a physical item, and their illusory identities are built on these precious objects.
The setting for this very quirky opera is a train station in the middle of a hot North African desert. The air is heavy. The movements sluggish. Heat fatigue has set in. A group of eight strangers starts interacting, prodding each other for information, peddling their wares. Each tries to outdo the other in perceived importance, before they slump back into the heat and give up, give over to the next mindless rant. Be warned: the words will not cast any light on the story: in fact, for anyone one looking for a meaning to the story, trying to follow these sluggish dialogues can turn this otherwise amazing production into a unique form of slow torture. The Lady With The Hand Mirror travels her amazing voice up and down steps of incredible notes, but all whilst singing about the advantages of having a hand mirror. Her arias explore everything from checking for marmalade on one’s cheek to looking over one’s shoulder for strangers. Then follows The Man With Old Luggage (Esewu Nobela/Makudupanyana Senaoana) who ropes some more passengers into repetitive songs about whether their imaginary ship would be built from ice or fire. And one after another, extended solos of absolute nonsense follow. All the time while waiting, waiting, waiting for a train that never comes.
This is not an opera for first-timers. But, if you are a seasoned opera goer, you will be able to appreciate the excellent production behind it. The small eight-piece orchestra goes all the way to rock this opera by Dominick Argento. They flex their musical muscles between Wagner-influenced classical music, unmelodic mashups to complement the absurdist dialogue, Arabian blues and cabaret. Another interesting touch is that the cast interacts with the orchestra, slipping them little notes to change the style of the music as it suits the characters. Focusing on stage design, costumes, acting and technique Postcar From Morocco is yet another production of which Cape Town Opera can be justly proud. And perhaps if the dialogue was in Italian and no surtitles were provided, it might deserve a standing ovation opera. But, alas no.
Afterwards, as many patrons headed hastily for the doors presumably to go and soak their frazzled nerves in wine, I racked my own bruised brain for some meaning inside all the incomprehensibility. The opera ends on a bit of a plot twist, just to make it all more confusing. In the director’s note, Alan Swerdlow provides some sustenance: “One individual – Mr Owen (Thobela Ntshanyana/Amogelang Lebethe) – is the truly creative character, even though he claims his tools of his trade are dried up. It is the artist alone, through his imagination or creative powers, who finds a way out, an escape from the shared situation in which everyone else is trapped. He is the single character who finds escape from prosaic uncertainty and banality.”
Perhaps there is an enlightening message in this very peculiar opera. But you must be prepared to wait for it.
Postcard From Morocco, in collaboration with the UCT Opera School, runs at the Artscape, Cape Town, from 19 to 23 November 2014.