The Brainchild and Labor of Love of Tania Kross, Carel de Haseth and Randal Corsen
‘KATIBU DI SHON’ IS AN UNMISTAKABLE ENRICHMENT OF OUR CULTURAL HERITAGE
– Katibu di Shon, opera, seen on the Opening Night, July 1st 2013 at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam –
By Jairo Lobo
July 1st 2013 marked 150 years of the abolition of slavery in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and what better way to celebrate than with the world premiere of the first opera ever to be written and performed in Papiamentu — a language born out of Dutch slavery –spoken by less than half a million people worldwide. Katibu di Shon (Slave and Master) is an 8-year labor of love of yu di Kòrsou Mezzo-soprano Tania Kross, writer Carel de Haseth and composer Randal Corsen… and the purest testament to Papiamentu’s ability to convey our deepest and most complex emotions. It’s as if our ancestors had the opera stage in mind when they decided to incorporate rhythm and decisive use of vowels – in short and clearly enunciated syllables – in their new language.
The opera script by Carel de Haseth (based on his novel by the same name, written in 1988) is simple yet effective. Katibu di Shon tells the story of a friendship between slave owner Wilmu and his slave Luis and their shared love for a slave: Anita. The two men were born on the same day and they grew up as brothers. Anita loves both men. But has to choose one. Their love triangle ultimately leads to a confrontation and they both deflect their anger and frustration onto Anita… The burst of emotion, the struggle for power and love, is set against the backdrop of the Great Slave Revolt of Curaçao on August 17th, 1795.
As a Yu di Kòrsou (a child of Curaçao), I got goosebumps the minute the ensemble of the National Opera and Concert Choir came up on stage and sang the first notes of the composition by Randal Corsen. 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 a magical element and is difficult to put into words. Opera is known for being a powerful and emotional form of theater that moves its audience, even if they 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… what an Italian experiences during Verdi’s La Traviata.
The fact that the entire ensemble is made up of white singers enacting black slaves fuels the cultural paradox. 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 considering its painful theme… thanks to Corsen’s use of traditional local rhythms and melodic styles (the waltz, danza and even a hint of tambú) brilliantly intertwined 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. Every time I drifted off in thought, there would be ‘a little musical present’ to draw me right back in. Who would have thought that the tambú, slave music that was expressly forbidden by Dutch elite until the mid-20th century, would ever find its way into an opera, performed amid the gold-plated ornaments and chandeliers of the prestigious Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam?
As the opera progresses, the dialogue becomes 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.
Of the three lead actors, Tania Kross clearly feels most at home in the language, adding perfect nuances, not only to the longer lines, 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 short 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. 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 about their shared 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.
As an operatic aside, Tania Kross and Carel de Haseth hail from the same plantation in Curaçao: Kross’ forefathers and mothers were slaves and de Haseth’s were masters.
Dutch speakers, here’s Tania Fraai’s “Making of Katibu di Shon” featuring interviews with Tania Kross, Carel de Haseth, Randal Corsen: