Apartheid Onstage: Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’


People who go to Washington National Opera to see Kurt Weill’s last work, “Lost in the Stars” — Feb. 12 through Feb. 20 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater — are in for some surprises.

If you’re a traditional opera fan, be forewarned: “Lost in the Stars” is hardly your standard soprano-comes-to-tragic-end story.
If you know Kurt Weill’s music only through his collaborations with the iconoclastic Bertolt Brecht, well, don’t expect to come to the cabaret.

And if you remember director Tazewell Thompson only from his directing at Arena Stage back in the day, you, too, have another thing coming.

“Lost in the Stars” had not been done much until recent years. Thompson has probably directed it more than anybody; he is familiar with it on a deeply rooted and intimate level.

Very much a hands-on director, Thompson talked with The Georgetowner on the first day of rehearsal. “I directed ‘Lost in the Stars’ in Cape Town, South Africa, and Francesca [Zambello, WNO artistic director] saw it and wanted to do it,” he explained. Eventually, he directed it at the Glimmerglass Festival, where Zambello is artistic and general director, and the production was a great success.

“And here we are again,” he said.

Here they were. Cast members — all of them — were milling about. Zambello arrived to greet everyone. People were staring at monitors and at the set, an overarching one meant to represent the housing prevalent in South African townships during the bitter days of apartheid.

Then came the words that have the potency of magic in almost every theatrical endeavor, be it opera or theater: “Places, please.”

“‘Lost in the Stars’ straddles both worlds,” said Thompson. “It has beautiful, beautiful music, the music is stunning. It includes what I call ‘Broadway legit,’ blues, jazz, elements of gospel and African tom-tom music. So, yes, it’s not typical opera, certainly. And there is spoken dialogue and it’s entirely in English.” He continued: “But, then, I straddle both worlds, too. I had all these years at Arena, which was a gift and a blessing, being able to work with Zelda Fichandler, and Doug Wager and Molly [Smith, Arena artistic director], and I still do.”

“Lost in the Stars” was the gifted Weill’s last work, and once again he departed from his previous work — not only in style and music, but also in the passionate subject: life in apartheid South Africa and a father’s struggle to regain his son. “It’s big, but it’s also intimate, and the Eisenhower is perfect for that,” said Thompson.

The great and rising bass-baritone Eric Owens stars as Stephen Kumalo, a minister who travels from his small village to Johannesburg to find and reach out to his trouble son, who has killed the son of a white neighbor.

The opera is based on “Cry the Beloved Country” by famed novelist Alan Paton. Like the playwright Athol Fugard after him, Paton wrote often about his country’s troubled race relations, with a white minority ruling a black majority.

“That production in Cape Town resonated,” Thompson said. “People were hearing and seeing their own history in the form of opera, although I would say this is a hybrid.”

Last year, Owens starred in the title role of “The Flying Dutchman” for WNO and in “Macbeth” at Glimmerglass. He will be a major part of WNO’s Ring Cycle this spring.

“This is so familiar to me, doing ‘Lost in the Stars.’” Thompson said. “But it’s fresh every time. Because if it resonated for South African audiences, it surely resonates now, as we have seen all across the country in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, the campus protests and so on.”

Thompson is comfortable moving back and forth between opera and plays: “I like to think I bring an operatic sensibility to theater and the discipline and experience of dealing with actors that adds to the richness of opera.”

Thompson recently directed the spectacularly powerful and ambitious WNO production of “Appomattox.” Several years ago, he directed “Mary T. & Lizzy K.,” a sharply observed play he wrote about Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, her friend and seamstress.

Weill was famous, of course for working with the keenly political playwright Bertolt Brecht in Berlin on “Three Penny Opera” and “Happy End,” among other plays, during and after the boisterous Weimar Republic, a period which saw the rise of Hitler. But “Lost in the Stars” has a different tone, partly due to the libretto by lyrical American playwright Maxwell Anderson. “There was a man who understood the place of poetry in the American imagination. We can’t afford to lose that,” said Thompson.

Weill, who was married twice to cabaret legend Lotte Lenya, died at the age of 50. Of Weill, Anderson said that “Kurt managed to make thousands of beautiful things during the short and troubled time he had.”

“Lost in the Stars” contains more than a few of those thousands of beautiful things.

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