In Times Square, Robin Rhode Stages an Anxious Call to Address Racial Disparities
Billed as a “30-second anxiety attack extended musically into a 30-minute opera” in paraphrasis of its original composer, Arnold Schönberg, Erwartung drew crowds from the art world to an oval stage on Broadway between 42nd and 43rd Streets. It also drew many more uninitiated onlookers to the exterior of the seating area to snap a photo or, in at least the case of one portly man, stand with mouth agape. A reimagining of Schönberg’s 1909 opera by artist Robin Rhode for Performa 15, the piece featured a single soprano (the renowned Carole Sidney Louis, her face painted a stark white) projecting above a sizable orchestra conducted by Maestro Arturo Tamayo.
It was the first time an opera had ever been staged in Times Square, a location that updates the backdrop of Schönberg’s original piece. The libretto sets Erwartung in a dark forest, illuminated only by moonlight. In Rhode’s rendition, metal and glass skyscrapers fill in for trees, ultra-HD billboards serving as so many moons. The stage—many layers of poster-sized prints of sketches Rhode made after Schönberg’s original plans for the mise-en-scene, plastered to the ground—was set sparsely. A pair of mannequin arms could be seen at stage left (the “harlot” about whom the Woman’s jealousy boils), a bench made from concrete bricks at right, and a solo brick at center serving as stand-in for a log, which, at the end of the second of four scenes, the Woman mistakes for her lover’s body.
Performing Schönberg, whose atonal and athematic compositions have often been ascribed to the anxieties of the age of industrial capitalism, within the world’s greatest emblem of the cognitive-cultural economy of our moment is nothing short of brilliant. (Rhode says that touch was the suggestion of Performa director RoseLee Goldberg.) But precarious labor is just one knock-on effect of the core anxiety Rhode is out to finger: specifically, the racial politics of post-apartheid South Africa, the Berlin-based artist’s home country.
The unnamed Woman stands in for any number of her South African sisters (and others around the globe facing similarly stacked decks) who are caught up in an endemic system of migrant labor within the mineral-rich country. The system sees primarily their husbands, but in some cases the women too, travel to mines for great stretches of the year, putting their lives on hold, the danger of the work such that, like for Schönberg’s Frau, it is unclear if they will ever be reunited. So too could the Woman and Man be Winnie and Nelson Mandela, suggested Rhode after Saturday’s performance, Winnie having spent the 27 years of her husband’s imprisonment unsure if they would reunite.
Erwartung’s first three scenes are but the hand-tingling, tight-chested foreshocks of scene four’s full blown panic attack, which consumes well more than half the opera’s length. The Man, played by Moses Leo, who wears a black stocking over his face throughout the performance, rises from beneath a pile of Rhode’s drawings and begins to circle the stage in a halting, almost robotic gait, as both spectre of the Woman’s desire (and rage) and a reminder of the racial context in which Rhode’s rendition takes place.
Both Woman and Man wear patterns associated with sangomas, traditional South African healers who are driven to their cause by an initial psychosis or illness. The red, black, and white costumes (which coincidentally mirrored the color scheme of a number of advertisements playing on loop on the screen-moons suspended above the stage) feature a chicken motif, itself a reference to sangoma rituals using chicken blood to bond the healers to their ancestors.
Thus, a redemptive thread runs ever-more-prominently through the performance as Louis’s laments swell, her words increasingly staccato blips of memories racing past so frantically that they are inaccessible to the audience. But it’s a thread cut short. Schönberg-cum-Rhode’s opera ends with the Man returned to his papery grave and the Woman, arm outstretched, howling “ich suchte…” (“I looked for…”). In its original formulation, this ultimate lament could be read as a final note in a funeral march for agency. But in Rhode’s interpretation, and in this most public of settings, it reads much more as a collective call to cohesive action. It’s a mandate for both those of us seated for 30 minutes of emotional torment, and the countless others looking on for 30 seconds of spectacle, to look for and, together, find a solution.
Performa 15 takes place November 1–22 at various locations across New York City.