NEW YORK — When Peter Sellars staged an anti-American, antiwar text by Antonin Artaud two years ago in Vienna, he had turned on the television and not liked what he saw: The U.S. had invaded Afghanistan. He still doesn't, as was clear from the startling American premiere of the work, "For an End to the Judgment of God," presented as a deranged Pentagon press conference at REDCAT last fall.
Now, Sellars has switched off the TV, but not the angst. It's still there, still eating away. Indeed, it could hardly be worse. Kafka's in the kitchen, and he won't come out.
Sellars' latest cri de coeur is "Kafka Fragments," an hourlong setting of aphoristic lines from the writer's letters and diaries composed for soprano and violin by the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Kurtag. Sellars has staged it for Dawn Upshaw, who sings while performing simple household tasks. The violinist, Geoff Nuttall from the St. Lawrence String Quartet, becomes the spooky spirit of Kafka.
The production had three performances in Carnegie Hall's modern, midsized Zankel Hall this week. It is bound to have many more around the world in coming years, when the scheduling of its busy artists can be worked out; its stage requirements are modest and it can easily tour. And it needs many more performances, for the simple reason that it provides something useful for our survival.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"Kafka" composer -- A review of "Kafka Fragments" in Saturday's Calendar section said composer Gyorgy Kurtag was about 50 when he wrote the piece. He turned 60 while writing it.
"Kafka Fragments" reveals the hidden places where light shines within the darkest recesses of our souls. The light is not easy to find. Nor is this an easy work to perform, witness or absorb. But the rewards are enormous. That was apparent at the final performance Thursday night, which received a distinctively communal standing ovation -- teary-eyed, thankful, embracing. And if that sounds too touchy-feely, consider this: The hall was packed with unsentimental New Yorkers, many of them hard-core members of the music business who, rumor has it, are required to have their tear ducts surgically removed.
Written in the mid-'80s, Kurtag's score comes as close as seems possible to capturing Kafka's essence in music. It is Kafkaesque not in the sense of conveying an aura of overpowering paranoia but rather in exploring deeply a single measly individual's place in the wider world.
Kafka saw himself as very small, a worthless worm. But he could squirm spectacularly, and his squirming was existential. "In the struggle between yourself and the world," he wrote, "side with the world."
That is one of the 40 fragments Kurtag uses. It lasts less than a minute. The composer, around 50 when he wrote this work (he was born two years after Kafka died), is a miniaturist with an uncanny ability to condense intense emotion into neurotically small numbers of notes. He leaves as much unsaid as Kafka did.
It is usually the listener's job to unpack the work, to let these terse, tense musical phrases unfurl as they enter the ear and make for the brain.
Sellars, in this lucid production, and Upshaw, in her searing performance, become the expert unpackers.
The singer, barefoot and dressed in T-shirt, flannel shirt and bluejeans, begins with broom in hand, sweeping, while the music sways back and forth. The opening text speaks of alienation: "The good march in step. Unaware of them, the others dance around them the dance of time."
Buddhists claim spiritual value in washing, ironing, cooking, cleaning; enlightenment can come in the process of doing one's duty. That's what happens here. But before Upshaw can sweep away her anguish, quiet desperation turns violent, even suicidal.
Behind the soprano, Nuttall, also barefoot and wearing a Kafka T-shirt and torn black jeans, hovers. Musically, the violin line accompanies the soprano, but it also terrorizes her. As Kafka's spirit, Nuttall serves as both angel and devil. He echoes her melancholy. He becomes the prison guard of her kitchen cell. He supports her doubts, musically eases the way when she ties a rope around her neck and pulls. But in the end, he becomes her spiritual guide.
The light that finally emerges from so intense an internal struggle comes from both within the soprano and without. On a screen behind the stage, there are occasional projections of black-and-white photographs by David Michalek that connect the musical fragments to suffering in the world and also to the beauty of the world.
The beauty matters. Despite all its pent-up agitation, Kurtag's score contains almost shockingly beautiful music, and in the realization of it, both performers produce moments of pure, dazzling radiance. And there is humor, Kafka's secret weapon. It may be pitch black, but it is humor nonetheless, and Kafka's ability to see irony in his despondency means that, on some level, he is enjoying himself. Humor opens the door to beauty. Beauty opens the door to life.
Upshaw's extraordinary performance captured all this through telling theatrical details and through a larger sense of a character evolving, undergoing a spiritual transformation. It was a new peak for an always searching artist, and further indication that she has become one of the most consequential performers of our time. Nuttall's contribution was nearly as impressive.
Sellars has said he will eventually pair "Kafka Fragments" with "For an End to the Judgment of God." Whether the TV is on or off hardly matters. We need to find our way in the disturbing world out there and the disturbing world inside. This helps.