WNO’s ‘Lost in the Stars’: South Africa as social metaphor

WNO’s ‘Lost in the Stars’: South Africa as social metaphor

Impressive but occasionally stiff new production of 1949 Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson classic fuses Broadway with opera while exploring racial issues that remain relevant today.

Eric Owens as Stephen Kumalo and Wynn Harmon as James Jarvis. (Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO.)

WASHINGTON, February 14, 2016 – For better or worse, Washington National Opera artistic director Francesca Zambello has most certainly been carrying out her promise to more prominently feature “American opera” each season at the Kennedy Center.

Cases in point: the entirety of WNO’s 206 spring season slate of operas includes not only the company’s upcoming “American” Ring Cycle, but also Kurt Weill’s infrequently performed crossover classic, “Lost in the Stars.” The latter opened last Friday and is currently on stage at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a very abbreviated run.

Composer Kurt Weill in 1942 with singer/actress wife Lotte Lenya. Modern audiences may remember Lenya for her villainess role in the 1964 James Bond film "From Russia With Love." (Image from Kurt Weill entry in Wikipedia)
Composer Kurt Weill in 1942 with singer/actress wife Lotte Lenya.  (Image via Kurt Weill entry in Wikipedia)

With lyrics penned by prolific American writer-journalist-lyricist Maxwell Anderson, Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” (1949) is based on South African writer-activist Alan Paton’s (1903-1988) popular but controversial anti-apartheid novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country.” Both works focus on the problem of South African racism, though the Weill-Anderson treatment was clearly intended to serve as a metaphor for America’s own long-festering racial issues.

WNO’s current Tazewell Thompson production originally debuted in Cape Town, South Africa with the Cape Town Opera. In 2012, Francesca Zambello introduced that production to American opera audiences by bringing it to the summertime Glimmerglass Festival where she also serves as artistic and general director. Those performances scored a success, with star Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone Eric Owens singing the key role of Minister Stephen Kumalo. When Mr. Owens was available to reprise his role, it seemed logical to schedule Washington as this production’s next venue.

Like Paton’s novel, “Lost in the Stars” traces the grim, tragic journeys of Stephen Kumalo (Mr. Owens), a black, rural South African Anglican priest whose young son Absalom (Manu Kumasi) has traveled to the big city of Johannesburg to find work, after which he seems to have vanished. Against the misgivings of his wife, Kumalo travels to the tumultuous South African capital to find out what happened.

After numerous false leads, Kumalo discovers to his horror that Absalom is indeed alive. But, running with bad company, Stephen also learns that Absalom is in prison awaiting trial for murder. It seems that nervously fired his gun during an attempted robbery at the home of Arthur Jarvis (Paul Scanlan), a prominent white man, killing the owner.

Making matters worse, the deceased young man had publicly supported greater freedom for blacks, alienating his own racist father, James (Wynn Harmon), who also happens to be the rich, white overlord largely in charge of Stephen Kumalo’s rural village. Confessing to his crime, Absalom is sentenced to hang. The opera concludes with an uncomfortable reconciliation between the two older men, both of whom have lost their sons in this senseless tragedy.

“Lost in the Stars” is a fine, crossover American Broadway show/opera that, along with so many others, deserves to be seen and judged by a new generation. An amalgam of singing, dancing and spoken dialog, it is operatic in intent and complexity yet imbued with a good bit of popular Broadway-style songs and attitude.

Cheryl Freeman as Linda, doing a cabaret number in WNO's "Lost in the Stars." (Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO.)
Cheryl Freeman as Linda, doing a cabaret number in WNO’s “Lost in the Stars.” (Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO.)

WNO’s current production comes across on stage as a bit too solemn and serious at times. Yes, its subject matter is tragic. But Shakespeare did tragedy and social criticism, too. Yet he never failed to toss in a few comic interludes to lift the gloom before diving back into tragedy again. That kind of genius pacing is generally lacking here, save, perhaps, for a cabaret number that seems somewhat tacked on, though it’s thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.

On the whole, however, the music in this production is very, very good classic Weill, well understood and crisply interpreted by WNO’s orchestra under the steady baton of John DeMain. The singing and acting in this production is equally distinguished, deftly blending singing and non-singing roles into a harmonious whole.

Heading up this production’s large-ish cast is the serious talent of Eric Owens, who captures the steadfast morality and all-too-human doubts of this opera’s central character, Stephen Kumalo.

Sean Panikkar as The Leader and The Ensemble of Lost in the Stars. (Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO.)
Sean Panikkar as The Leader and The Ensemble of Lost in the Stars. (Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO.)

A real surprise is young lyric soprano Lauren Michelle, whose portrayal of Absalom’s mistress/wife Irina on opening night was as touching as it was elegant.

As originally conceived, “Lost in the Stars” was meant to emphasize the songs and opinions of its “Everyman” style chorus. In its final, more soloist-oriented version the chorus remains very important to the emotional outlines of this story.

The WNO chorus was almost picture perfect on opening night, adding to the effectiveness of its choral “Leader,” an unnamed character who’s used at times to break the fourth wall and comment on the ongoing proceedings.

Weill gave the “Leader” gets some lovely music to sing. Happily, tenor Sean Panikkar handles this slightly odd role with unexpected brilliance, adding clearly operatic flourishes to this crossover production.

WNO’s cast also includes several key spoken roles to complement the singers. Among them, Wynn Harmon’s James Jarvis and Manu Kumasi’s Absalom are particularly effective in these difficult but key roles.

Eric Owens stars in WNO's "Lost in the Stars." (Photo credit: Karli Cadel)
Eric Owens stars in WNO’s “Lost in the Stars.” Caleb McLaughlin (R) does his own mini-star turn as Alex. (Photo credit: Karli Cadel for WNO)

A special hat tip to young Caleb McLaughlin, who portrays the pre-teen Alex. In one of this show’s welcome lighter moments, Mr. McLaughlin helps us sit back and enjoy his astonishingly polished theatrical and musical skills as he sings and dances his way through the humorous number, “Big Mole.”

While WNO’s “Lost in the Stars” exhibits conceptual problems here and there, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s filled with wonderful and quite distinctive music for the most part. It also deals seriously with what remains a worldwide social problem that is as much an issue in 2016 as it was in 1949.

If you want to take a chance and get out of your Puccini rut, this one is certainly worth your time and attention. But it’s not going to be here long. So if you’re interested, it’s a good idea to get your tickets today before they’re gone.

Rating: *** (4 out of 4 stars)

“Lost in the Stars,” continues at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater February 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 (matinee), and 20 (evening). Tickets range from $79-255. Call the Kennedy Center Box office at either 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or visit the Kennedy Center’s online ticket site via this link.

Net up: Beginning April 30, 2016—WNO’s long awaited, first-ever complete Ring Cycle is coming up to conclude the season with a splash. Stay tuned for details right here at CDN.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17