Pigeonholing William Kentridge has become no easier in the three years since he visited New York in connection with his production of "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" ("Ulysses' Homecoming"), the opera by Monteverdi. "I wish there were a proper English word for the kind of artist I am," he told me then. "Not draftsman. That's someone who does technical drawings of buildings and bridges. Mainly I draw, and sometimes I film the drawings or make a theater production. But the process is still like drawing. It's working from the center outward. If somebody asks me, 'How would you do X?,' I haven't got a clue. The answer comes from the physical activity of hand on paper. You keep at it, and some new thought emerges."
Mr. Kentridge lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was born in 1955. Besides receiving degrees in politics and African studies and fine arts, he trained in Paris at the international theater school of the celebrated mime Jacque Lecoq.
All those disparate influences show up in his work. In charcoal and pastel, his drawings reveal a brisk, even brusque hand, as well as the born satirist's eye for the inadvertently revealing gesture. An overriding theme not only of his works on paper but also of animations, mixed-media installations, and stage shows that have made his name from Berlin to São Paulo, Tokyo to Istanbul, is a mythic struggle. In this corner, there's the overbearing Soho Eckstine, rapacious corporate tycoon. And over in the other corner, it's Felix Teitlebaum, a scruffy artist seething with social resentment. Eckstine savages the earth, extracting riches, cutting deals, expanding his evil empire. Teitlebaum pours his energies into more creaturely and immediate gratifications, notably fantasies of debauchery with Eckstine's wife, a veritable Rubens. Each man is a thorn in the other's side -- and both, as anyone who has seen Mr. Kentridge in the flesh can hardly fail to notice, are self-portraits. Psychologically and politically, his art is a minefield.
His taste in music is eclectic; his understanding of it, deep. For years now, he has been circling "The Magic Flute," Mozart's celestial setting of Emanuel Schickaneder's fairy-tale libretto, where Masonic ritual meets vaudeville. At the time Mr. Kentridge's Monteverdi was playing at Lincoln Center, the Marian Goodman Gallery was showing his video "Learning the Flute," set to the overture of Mozart's opera. And while the modern-dress "Ulysses" connected quite plainly with the universe of Eckstine and Teitlebaum, "Learning the Flute" was the frolic of an artist on sabbatical from his demons. Projected on a blackboard, the imagery spilled forth like the doodles of some schoolmaster-wizard explicating a universe of signs and symbols.
The full-scale production that seemed a foregone conclusion was in fact in the works at the adventurous Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, in a four-way partnership with companies in Naples, Italy, as well as the French cities of Lille and Caen. Already presented with changing musical forces in Naples and Tel Aviv, the show receives its American premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (April 9, 10, 13, and 14). A South African edition follows, cast with local singers.
The original conductor for the Kentridge "Flute" was the acclaimed early-music specialist René Jacobs, who took fleet tempi and added some novel keyboard flourishes in the pit -- standard practice in Mozart's Italian operas (which have no spoken dialogue), hitherto unheard-of in the German operas (which do). Happily, though Mr. Jacobs was unavailable for the New York engagement, his associate Piers Maxim is on hand to preserve the unique musical inflections, as are the orchestra and many singers from the Brussels cast. As for grooming the newcomers as characters in the story, Mr. Kentridge is doing the honors himself.
Constant projections make the show as seamless as a movie; integrating the live action with the hand-drawn starbursts, dancing rhino, ticking metronomes and scrolling landscapes is not always easy. "The reality between the stage and the screen is very delicate," Mr. Kentridge says. "I'm still redrawing sections, solving things I thought I had solved that aren't right," he said recently from his studio in Johannesburg. "As a general principle, the singer never has to follow the screen. When there's interaction between the person and the projection, the agency should always seem to come from the singer." Success depends on the operator cuing the projections. "She plays the video like a musical instrument," the artist says.
For "Ulysses," which was written in 1640 on themes from antiquity, Mr. Kentridge chose 20th-century medicine as his controlling metaphor, with the gods as physicians hovering over the war-weary hero's hospital bed. For "The Magic Flute," which dates to 1791, his inspiration is the invention of photography. The artist's basic palette is black and white; costumes and lighting add subtle color, with an occasional sharp accent in the makeup (check out the lipstick on the duplicitous Queen of the Night: firecracker red). Photographic equipment takes on a magic significance, both as the means of capturing and projecting an image. At times, the stage itself seems inside of an antique box camera.
Quixotic as it may seem, the choice is far from arbitrary. As conceived, "The Magic Flute" celebrates the triumph of light over darkness, but the classical Enlightenment dichotomy no longer wields quite the force it once did. "Photography," Mr. Kentridge remarks, "is emblematic of the absolute need for darkness and light to make sense of the world."
He has kept Schickaneder's chiefly Egyptian setting (there are repeated references to the deities Isis and Osiris), but in keeping with the photographic framework, the action has been moved forward to the 19th century. Only the captain-of-industry business suits of Sarastro, the high priest, and his brotherhood allude overtly to Mr. Kentridge's personal iconography: benign cousins from the tribe of Eckstine. The wicked Monostatos, who stalks the virginal princess Pamina, is no longer the blackamoor Schickaneder had in mind, but an Arab in a fez.
"Yes," Mr. Kentridge confirms, "the priests connect with my other work a bit. But this isn't a colonial polemic. Apart from the allegory of light and darkness, I wanted the show to be fun, not about conservative men laying down the law. How do you do a 'Flute' that isn't dumbed down for kids, but is still fun? 'The Magic Flute' is a road opera, about a journey. I remember that when I was a boy I loved the snake that chases the prince at the beginning and the animals he sets to dancing with the music of the flute. That's all in the first act. Then in the second act, you had to hold your breath and listen to the priests sing. In the second act it's hard, a lot of the time, to know where you are. I wanted to try to make the whole story a clear narrative, keeping the fantastic elements which are there from the beginning, but give the other parts the same interest." The resulting show has Mr. Kentridge's fingerprints all over it, yet never betrays Mozart's generosity and sweet temper.
Now that this arc is complete, it's time for Mr. Kentridge to start getting serious about his next adventure in opera. And what will it be? Dmitri Shostakovich's youthful corker "The Nose," at the Metropolitan Opera in 2010, conducted by Valery Gergiev, the company's commander in chief of the long-neglected Russian repertoire. As in the short story by Nikolai Gogol, a minor official looks in the mirror one morning and finds something missing from the middle of his face. Before his life is set right again, the rebellious body part cuts quite a swath through St. Petersburg society, impersonating a top-ranking state councilor.
Shostakovich came up when the Met began sounding out Mr. Kentridge about a possible project -- not that the choice of repertoire is vast. Shostakovich's second opera was the lurid take on sex and murder "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" -- a smash hit until Stalin shut it down with extreme prejudice, effectively terminating the composer's operatic career. Worse, Shostakovich had reason to fear for his life.
Scathing social critic that he is, you can imagine an impresario offering Mr. Kentridge "Lady Macbeth," but he cannot imagine accepting. The phantasmagorical, (pre-)Freudian free-for-all of "The Nose," on the other hand, feels made to order for his anarchic, corrosive, absurdist, somehow tragic sense of humor. "The story is very funny, and the opera is very strange," Mr. Kentridge says. "Just the kind of thing I want to do."