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Great Expectation: Times Square Rhode show

24 November 2015 - 02:15 By Sean O'Toole

Earlier this month, shortly after the autumn sun had set over Times Square in New York, a woman walked onto a stage mapped out with 250 pieces of paper featuring a design by South African artist Robin Rhode and started singing in German. "Through the wood?" soprano Carole Sidney Louis began in her best singing voice, shortly adding, "I'm frightened."Accompanying Louis, the sole performer in Rhode's adaptation of Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg's short opera Erwartung (Expectation), were 20 musicians huddled beneath a giant poster on 42nd Street announcing a live broadcast of U2's upcoming concert in Paris (later cancelled due to the November 13 terror attacks)."I see a light!" sang Louis in German. She wore a flowing red-and-black dress made from fabric traditionally used by sangomas.Schönberg wrote his one-act monodrama in 1909, eight years after moving to Berlin. It is a musically difficult and psychologically discomfiting work that charts the tremulous state of its lone protagonist as she searches for a lost lover. The atonal opera has been described by one scholar as "the purest embodiment of the expressionist aesthetic in music," a statement that is revealing about Rhode too.German expressionism has exercised a decisive influence on generations of South African artists, from painter Irma Stern through to William Kentridge - and now Rhode.Berlin-based Rhode, who came to international prominence a decade ago with sequential photographs depicting himself comically interacting with various wall drawings, stumbled on Schönberg while researching a new sculpture piece.It was a meeting with RoseLee Goldberg - the Durban-born Wits graduate who founded Performa, a biennial festival of performance art held every other November in New York - that gave his work-in-progress thoughts ambition."My eyes nearly popped out," recalled Rhode of Goldberg's offer for him to use Times Square as his stage. "An urban forest: it was conceptually perfect."Rhode's capability to pull it off was never in doubt. In 2009 he successfully collaborated with Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes on a production of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition at New York's Lincoln Centre. But that production, which featured a video of a costumed figure engaging wall drawings, was hosted in a concert venue for a paying audience. By contrast, Times Square is populated with costumed hustlers and abundant tourists.Rhode's adaptation, which played to a mixed art and tourist audience and might travel to Austria in 2018, took numerous liberties with Schönberg's opera, partly in a bid to make this austere work more pliable. Did Rhode succeed? There was wild applause afterwards, but also the indifference of young men buried in their smartphones, unmoved by the cryptic lamentations of a woman singing in a strange tongue...

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