A work in progress, ‘Hottentot’ opera sifts the rhythms of racism

hottentotImagine the first time you heard opera, whether on a recording or at a live show. If you think of 19th-century Europe, grand costumes and lyrical love stories folding out in flowing Italian, Phillip Miller’s new age opera, Hottentot Venus, would probably come as a surprise. The piece, shown Friday night at MASS MoCA as part of a workshop production, is a work in progress depicting the story of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman paraded around Europe in the early 19th century as a sort of side show because of her abnormally large butt. While her unusual physique is now attributed to steatopygia, a condition associated with the Khoikhoi, Europeans at the time exhibited her as an anthropological wonder, a less-than-human novelty.

What was composer Phillip Miller’s attitude approaching the story of Saartjie’s exploitation and all the political and ethical implications of her life? Mainly fear, he admitted in a Q & A forum following the production. Inspired by Rachel Holmes’ book The Life and Times of Saartjie Baartman, Miller said that on a theatrical level, the material “cries out for an opera,” while “on a personal and political level” he was interested in exploring “how we relate to one another [in] a story we haven’t yet resolved for ourselves.”

Indeed, the story of Saartjie Baartman remains unresolved, leaving no lack of room for interpretation and artistic shaping to emphasize specific aspects of both her life and the issues of cultural and sexual diminution inherent in her story and the larger context of colonialism. Wisely, Miller expressed his desire to create a representation of Saartjie that would not limit the audience’s interpretation of her story. “[It] would be a betrayal of her if I fabricated a [single] story of her . . . complex character,” Miller said.

Those parts where Miller followed his own guidelines worked best. The seventh scene portrays Saartjie in the middle of the circling, taunting “men of arts and sciences,” who pull at her skirt and chant a chorus of “take it off.” While soprano Pretty Yende did not disrobe, the explicit language and mounting tension created by the encircling men allowed the audience to feel Saartjie’s humiliation. However, what was left to the imagination made the scene all the more powerful. Thus when the backdrop screen began to project nude drawings of the real Saartjie, the images felt like a weak effort to compensate for what could not be depicted on stage, and acted more as a distraction than as an explanation.

In terms of music, Miller and director Talvin Wilks faced the challenge of constructing a unique voice for Saartjie and setting a musical atmosphere appropriate to her time and life. Little evidence remains of what she herself sang as a cabaret musician, but Miller said Friday night that he hoped to incorporate the “sounds of her life . . . accordion, percussion, [in a] cabaret feel.” The experimental character of the contemporary operatic setting lends itself well to the disturbingly detached surreality of those scenes involving Saartjie’s body “examinations.” Yet the orchestration seemed too one-dimensional and failed to evoke a sense of the “strongly syncopated, very African rhythms” Miller said he aimed for. The piece would benefit from more authentic ethnic instrumentation, which would add contrast and dynamic.

The realization of the music was a collaborative effort by Miller and Wilks, the four soloists, Williams College Chamber Choir and Opus Zero Band, an extension of the Williams Symphonic Winds. Over the past week, the groups and soloists came together not only to realize Miller’s music, but also to become a part of the evolving project. Expressing his gratitude to Steven Bodner and Brad Wells, directors of Opus Zero and Chamber Choir, respectively, Wilks told the audience that they were able to include an additional scene that had been improvised the day before the performance because of the musicians’ flexibility and creativity.
Among the soloists, Pretty Yende stood out for her incredible soprano and expressive representation of the opera’s subject, Saartjie. Her sung monologue in the 11th scene, at once chilling and moving, gave the audience a strong sense of her violation, while in the court scene she aptly presented the ambiguity of her character’s attitude towards and understanding of her situation.

Where is the project headed? Hopefully to South Africa, said Miller, who thinks that the show may be even more shocking to a South African audience, who would understand much more of the vulgar Afrikaans language incorporated in the piece. While Friday night’s performance was, according to Miller, “fragments [put together] to get a sense of a particular arc,” it showed promise of a successful artistic representation of an important story and the issues of identity, exploitation and racism surrounding it.