Lost in the Stars is that most hybrid of works: German ex-pat Kurt Weill’s interpretation of South African Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country for an all-American audience. What’s more, its form is hybrid: Weill doesn’t give us a high-brow opera, but an emphatically populist one about the moral struggle of an ordinary man and the contemporary political struggles of a people. First played in New York in 1949, it is one of that unique body of American works from the period 1942 to 1958 known as ‘Broadway Operas’.

Eric Owens (Stephen Kumalo) and Wynn Harmon (James Jarvis) © Karli Cadel
Eric Owens (Stephen Kumalo) and Wynn Harmon (James Jarvis)
© Karli Cadel

As such, its very essence lies in its deft juxtaposition of a variety of idioms: the high-flown operatic, the tunefully-popular, and even, the exotically tribal (Weill listened to Zulu recordings to evoke the spirit of the place.) Any production has to be assessed on how well it achieves this interplay of diverse elements. Tazewell Thompson’s production of Lost in the Stars – a production that has already run in Cape Town and the Glimmerglass Festival – is a triumphant synthesis of all three elements, not least in the cast who represent the worlds of opera, musical and theater, according to whether they have singing or speaking roles or both. 

In the role of the Reverend Stephen Kumalo, we had Eric Owens, all glowing bass-baritone. His story is one of painful moral transformation: from the bumbling, beholden, good-willed and unworldly minister to one who acquires a greatness through suffering and struggle, as he comes to terms with the murderous crime and execution of his only son. Owens caught every turn. His title area had much of Broadway about it, with backdrop stars and a ‘wow’ finish, but surely Broadway-meets-Blaise Pascal. For Kumalo, thrown into agonizing moral crisis between wanting to save his son, Absolom (Manu Kumasi) from punishment and respecting his son’s courageously truthful self-incrimination, is suddenly feeling the existential terror of being lost in the infinite, and we are, thereby, made to feel it too. Contrast that with the more purely Broadway –‘feel good’ - song about his home in the country hills that he sings to his nephew, and the plaintive duets with his aggressively cynical  and morally pragmatic brother, played by Kevin McAllister.

Sean Panikkar (The Leader) and Ensemble © Karli Cadel
Sean Panikkar (The Leader) and Ensemble
© Karli Cadel

The Leader – functioning as a kind of Greek chorus –was powerfully sung by Sean Panikkar: to him fell the task of grander, biblical commentary on the suffering of a whole people. “Cry the beloved country! Cry, the lost son, the lost tribe”. His intensity and pace drew us from scene to scene, wringing the emotions, and keeping the momentum whip-sharp. Lauren Michelle, as the helpless Irina, girlfriend and later wife of Kumalo’s unfortunate son, spun some lovely lyrical soprano passages, although her acting was somewhat cliched. Cheryl Freeman, a Broadway woman herself, had the uninhibited rawness of the cabaret singer, Linda: she was not meant, after all, to be operatic, although she could have been even louder. The young Caleb McLaughlin had plenty of chutzpah in his role as nephew Alex.

The choruses, as reflective of black and white binaries as the society they represented, were superbly staged and choreographed. Blacks standing whilst whites sat, blacks ‘crawling’ out from underneath the corrugated backdrop whilst whites walked, the drab clothes of poverty alongside the prim tailoring and bright florals of white privilege – all this was detailed to telling perfection and managed with a refinement of touch. And yet, at no stage did it feel heavy or preachy. The ‘Gold’ Chorus was an all-dancing, all-singing number, showing that those who lived under oppression could also abandon themselves to pure fun. Dramatically and musically, the Fear Chorus lay the crux of the work, as both black and white people expressed their fears of each other and newspapers cracked like whips to the repetitious panic of jarring music.

Cheryl Freeman (Linda) © Karli Cadel
Cheryl Freeman (Linda)
© Karli Cadel

A black man shoots a white man dead. It’s hardly the news story of the moment in the US. On the contrary. But there were ways in which this opera, in a discreetly powerful way, spoke out in recognition of the suffering caused by all racial violence, and in a still more powerful way, about reconciliation. As bells tolled his son’s death by hanging, Owens fell forward, stage front, deprived at last of song, and only able to emit that raw, inarticulate cry of a human animal in unbearable pain. Wordlessly embraced by the erstwhile white racialist, father of his son’s victim, actor Wynn Harmon, this was superb theatre. Except that it wasn’t theatre. Or not merely. When they came on stage for curtain calls, both men were all but holding back tears. And when you get a glimpse of that sort of transcendence in performers, you know you’ve come close to what art is, and what, life. 

*****