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A Classic Operatic Work, Performed in Times Square
New York Times

By Kat Herriman

For the Performa 15 biennale, the South African artist Robin Rhode has chosen a demanding venue to stage a performance: in the thick of Times Square. This Saturday and Sunday, Rhode will reinterpret the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg’s operatic monodrama “Erwartung” in the middle of the bustling tourist hub — a project that represents an unexpectedly classical twist in the artist’s practice, which spans sculpture, video, drawing and the occasional performance.


“I came to the realization that some of my most enriching projects have come out of collaborations. Schönberg used to collaborate with Wassily Kandinsky,” explains Rhode, who came across the composer while researching operas to accompany his sculptures. “My entrance into the piece was through Kandinsky, but then I became invested in the story.”


Schönberg’s composition, which uses the voice of a single soprano to tell the tragic tale of a woman searching for her companion in an impossibly dark forest, appealed to Rhode for its rawness and simplicity. “In expressionist theater, they are all about universal experiences,” Rhode says. “The entire piece is about the psychosis of longing and desire. It’s about loss on a fundamental level.” The famously atonal score posed a technical challenge for Rhode, who needed to cut down the traditionally large orchestra to a more manageable pit while simultaneously navigating the acoustics of Times Square. “When you have these parameters, my role is to inject something interesting within those confines,” Rhode says. “I always think that limitations bring out the best solutions.”


With his collaborators, the soprano Carole Sidney Louis and the conductor Arturo Tamayo, handling the musical side of things, Rhode focused on the set and costume design. The inspiration for his production design comes from Schönberg’s initial concept for the show, which was an oval stage the composer cut from cardboard. For his iteration, Rhode has created a series of posters that are layered on the ground to form a striking elliptical platform. The costumes draw upon Rhode’s fascination with the culture of sangomas, South African spiritual healers who wear colorful garments striped with symbols of sacrifice and ritual. The traditional sangoma colors of red, white and black draw attention to Louis and her silent stage partner.


The artist made very few alterations to Schönberg’s original composition, with one big exception: the addition of a new character, known only as The Man. Played by Moses Leo, this male figure acts as a ghostly metronome, circling the stage at a slow but steady pace, while Louis’s character sings and searches in anguish. “When you are competing with the craziness of Times Square, you need to bring a real sense of physicality. I wanted to add a body to the stage so the audience really felt this sense of separation,” says Rhode. “I think stumbling across this performance has the potential to be very powerful. It’s the things we don’t expect that can have the most impact on us.”


“Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung” will be performed for free this Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 7 and 8, at 5 p.m. in Times Square between 42nd and 43rd streets, 15.performa-arts.org.