– Katibu di Shon, opera, seen on the Opening Night, July 1st 2013 at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam –
By Jairo Lobo
When I go watch a performance, I like to use the degree to which it manages to trigger my emotional involvement as an indicator of how I should position my professional analysis of the piece. I call it my Chicken Skin Meter. ‘Chicken skin’ being the Dutch equivalent of goose bumps. Another famous Dutch saying is: ‘the monkey comes out of the sleeve’, which is an expression used when an inevitable truth finds a way to come out, even when the odds are against it. That is exactly what Tania Kross, Carel de Haseth and Randal Corsen did when they created Katibu di Shon, the first opera ever written in Papiamentu, the native language of Curaçao. This opera is in many ways ‘the monkey that came out of the sleeve’. It is a testimony of the power of a language spoken by less than half a million people worldwide, in conveying emotions in an art form that is considered by many to be the greatest of all the performing arts, due to the almost impossible combination of talent, diligence and craftsmanship it requires to fully master it: the opera.
Katibu di Shon tells the story of a friendship between slave owner Wilmu and his slave Luis and their shared love for a slave by the name of Anita. The two men were born on the same day and they grew up as though they were brothers. Anita loves both men, but chooses for Luis. Their love triangle ultimately leads to a confrontation between the two men and they both deflect their anger and frustration on Anita, who becomes the catalyst in this conflict. This story of impossible love is set against the backdrop of the Great Slave Revolt of Curaçao on August 17th, 1795.
Being a ‘Yu di Kòrsou’, a child of Curaçao, from the moment the ensemble of the National Opera and Concert Choir came onto the stage and sang the first notes of the composition by Randal Corsen, my ‘chicken skin meter’ went off the charts. Hearing twenty professional classical voices sing words in a language native to me but foreign to them, in a style that is alien to the common cultural frame of reference associated with this language, has something magical to it that is difficult to explain. Opera is known for being a powerful and emotional form of theatre that will usually touch you, even if you don’t understand all the words. With Katibu di Shon, for the first time, I did not only feel the power of the music, but I actually understood every single word. I believe I got a brief feel of what an Italian must be experiencing when he witnesses Verdi’s La Traviata performed in his native language. In my view, Papiamentu lends itself perfectly to be sung in opera, due to its melodic nature and the decisive use of vowels in short and clearly enunciated syllables. While some would think that Papiamentu could never be a language for the opera, one can’t help but recognize that it does an outstanding job at it. In no way inferior to Italian or French, Papiamentu seems to feel very much at home as the newcomer among the great Roman languages of the opera.
The fact that the entire ensemble is made up of white singers enacting black slaves makes that paradox even more noticeable. This unintended dramatic symbolism is so strong that it could hardly be created if you would try to do it intentionally. The neutral colored costumes they are wearing and the black & white visual imagery, both designed by Jolanta Pawlak, create a calm and solemn atmosphere, drawing all the attention to the colorful composition by Randal Corsen. Adding further to the dramatic contrast of the opera, the composition is surprisingly light and uplifting for the painful theme of the piece. This is to a great extent thanks to the use of traditional local rhythms and melodic styles, which Corsen brilliantly intertwines in a strong classical composition to allow the actors ample room to perform their craft, but also enough grasp of the local musical elements to convey emotions that probably come close to what our ancestors must have felt. The local styles, such as the waltz, dansa and even a hint of tambú, make this opera one of the most engaging I have seen. Every time I drifted off in thought, suddenly there would be ‘a little musical present’ that drew me right back into the show. Who would have thought that the tambú, slave music that was expressly forbidden in the sophisticated salons of the Dutch elite in the eighteenth century, would ever find its way into an opera, performed amidst the gold-plated ornaments and chandeliers of the prestigious Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam.
The libretto by Carel de Haseth, based on his own novel by the same name, is simple yet effective. The story starts off rather flat, with the dialogues being seemingly over illustrative, yet as the opera progresses, that element does become somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with added poetic verses, mainly in the monologues of the lead characters. Just before the top of the tension arch of the show, the choir of slaves gives a vivacious reflection on their fate, in a beautiful metaphorical comparison that de Haseth makes to the relentless waves of the ocean crashing against the rocky shore of the island. I’m not sure if it is entirely true to the spirit of that time and I have a hard time believing this much reflective ability and poetic eloquence of the slaves in the midst of a bloody revolt, but then again, I secretly think that is just my own shortcoming, influenced by my rather conservative western education.
Of the three lead actors, Tania Kross clearly feels most at home in the language, adding perfect nuances, not only to the longer lines she delivers, but even to individual words and the intonation of syllables, giving a unique personal touch to her interpretation of the strong and loyal Anita. Considering the amount of time the cast had to master the language, Peter Brathwaite’s performance of slave Luis was outstanding. If not for some slight nuance discrepancies in the language, I would have believed he was a Curaçao native. Jeroen de Vaal is the least convincing of the three. In the role of slave owner ‘shon’ Wilmu he lacks the typical composure of superiority when he rapes Anita who is waiting for Luis in the dark, but also the power of command and persuasion when he tries to beat down the revolt of his slaves. I believe this is owed in part to the clear fragile timbre of his tenor voice, which oddly enough is also the element that actually carries the opera to its climax in the most touching scene of all. When the revolt is beaten down and Luis is arrested and sentenced to death, Wilmu visits him in prison, as he awaits his execution. The two men stand head to head in an impossible confrontation, when they literally collapse next to each other, leaning up against the rugged rock face of the island, reminiscing their childhood. Slave and master, side by side like two little boys, partners in crime and with a brotherly love that should overcome all odds. And perhaps in a way, in the dramatic denouement at the end, it actually does.