Dramatic mirror image in apartheid South Africa

ean Panikkar as the leader with the ensemble of Lost in the Stars.  Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO
Sean Panikkar as the leader with the ensemble of Lost in the Stars.
Photo by Karli Cadel for WNO

Lost in the Stars is a profound examination of the human condition in apartheid South Africa, based on Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country. The opera, presented last month by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center, is a poetic portrayal of the people of South Africa, their gentle character in conflict with modern sensibilities, worker abuse in the mines and economic inequality leading to hopelessness.

The theme of mutual forgiveness for murder and racism is presented in a religious context. While some might argue this is naive, I found it convincing and moving in this story.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens, is formidable as Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest in search of his son, Absolom, who has the same name as King David’s rebellious son.

Owens possesses one of the greatest voices on the operatic stage today, and sang effortlessly with grace and beauty of tone, masterfully creating a fine, noble and gentle character.


His acting was superb and understated. In his portrayal of a pastor to his flock and father to his son, one sees the affirmation of Alan Paton’s portrait of the people of South Africa symbolized in this character, and one recognizes the prescient foundation for a societal reconciliation through this powerful story.

The opera’s composer, Kurt Weill, was born in 1900 into an observant Jewish household in Germany. His father was a cantor, and Weill’s earliest compositions were for the synagogue.

Later he wrote The Three Penny Opera with libretto by Bertolt Brecht and, following that success, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

Alan Paton’s novel Cry the Beloved Country was partly written while he attended a conference on penal reform in 1946, held in Washington.

Two fathers and two sons create a dramatic mirror image. James Jarvis, prejudiced and rigid in upholding the separation of races, has a contentious relationship with his son, Arthur, who is an advocate for change.

The protagonist, Kumalo, is a steady, even-tempered man in search of his rebellious son, Absolom.
Absolom is convinced that working in the mines only makes others richer and that there is no decent way out of his circumstance. In addition he has a pregnant girlfriend, Irina (Lauren Michelle).

Easily persuaded by his cousin and another man, they decide to rob Arthur Jarvis (Paul Scanlan), and during the crime, Absolom, out of fright, shoots and kills Arthur.

Lost in the Stars is influenced by Gershwin, and was written around the same time as Carousel and South Pacific, and it pre-dates West Side Story, all works which present a serious theme and mood, testing an audience for an evening’s entertainment. In this sense it is more operatic and less commercial. It confronts the post-World War II audience with themes of race and prejudice.

Director Tazwell Thompson has succeeded in creating multiple layers of strength with the solid chorus ensemble led by Sean Panikkar, who sang well while cutting a youthful and heroic figure. The cast of fine actors was memorable, singing exquisitely, with great feeling and pathos.

Grammy and Tony Award-winning conductor John Demain led a thoughtful, well-paced and balanced performance of a score which makes extensive use of harp, percussion and accordion, and is scored without first or second violins. This choice makes for a less European sound with the addition of alto and tenor sax.

The set and costume design by Michael Mitchell together with lighting design by Robert Wierzel gave a refreshing individual focus to every member of the ensemble.

If there is any structural flaw in the drama it is that it is difficult to accept both Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis coming to terms with their sons’ death during the span of time allowed for a stage work.

This leaves us with the question: Is this reconciliation possible?

This opera made for a stimulating evening at the Washington National Opera, thanks to the courage of Francesca Zambello, artistic director, with 38 singers making their WNO debut. We need more works like this for the future of opera and musical theater.

Arnold Saltzman is composer of opera and symphonies, and is a rabbi-cantor.

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