BILL T. JONES has his work cut out for him. And he knows it. As
an innovative and energetic choreographer and director, his name
heads the list of top avant-garde artists working in the United
States. Mr. Jones has signed on to a formidable project: directing
a 1949 musical tragedy based on Alan Paton's Pulitzer Prize-winning
book, "Cry, the Beloved Country," for the Boston Lyric Opera. The
production opens Jan. 17.
Interviewed at the start of rehearsals for "Lost in the Stars
the name composer Kurt Weill gave to his adaptation of the Paton
novel - Jones says the challenges kept him awake at night. But if
anyone could spark excitement into this "odd but beguiling
creation," as he calls the musical, he would be the person.
There's no getting around the irony underlying this musical:
"Lost in the Stars" is a dramatization by a European composer
(Weill) of a novel by a white South African (Paton) about the
experience of a fictional black African preacher (Stephen Kumalo).
And now, the entire weight of Paton's story rests with Jones, an
African-American director, whose staging will be scrutinized for
political messages and musical deviations.
Another catch is that the music, at least on one of the
recordings, sounds like a cross between "Porgy and Bess" and
Weill's better-known "The Threepenny Opera." It doesn't sound the
slightest bit like what we now expect of African music. The reason,
of course, is that Weill took his inspiration from what he knew
best:European cabaret songs and American folk tunes.
"It doesn't sound like South Africa. It sounds like Weill. And I
wrestled with that a great deal," Jones says with a wide smile.
(The seriousness of the conversation was frequently offset by his
deep and good-natured laughs.) m looking at it as a good piece of
musical theater, written by a European from a certain class," he
But what about his own sensibilities in regard to Paton's book,
and Weill's adaptation? How does he reconcile his own view of the
world with theirs?
"I'm not a person of the '50s. What it means to be black,
progressive, and political in the '90s is to look back on the '50s
and see what's not there. Who's telling the history in Alan Paton's
book and in this play? Have I grown enough as an artist that I can
go back into someone else's world and keep myself in some way
detached, or is that dangerous?"
What concerns Jones is that many people of color feel themselves
shut out from the very theatrical and musical traditions he's been
enlisted to promote.
"In Minneapolis a young black girl asked me, 'Why do they always
tell us about Romeo and Juliet, and Shakespeare? Why don't you do
something more hip?' She was saying something important. Opera for
me is a battleground where cultures are in collision. Opera
traditionally doesn't belong to a lot of people. It still has its
pedigree written all over it.
"We need about another 50 to 60 years of listening and getting
good composers who take seriously what those Europeans said about
opera coming from the vernacular. What composer out there right now
is going to write the tunes that these kids will hear in a way that
an Italian would have recognized in 1700 his culture in those
To encourage a connection between school children and "Lost in
the Stars," the Boston Lyric Opera joined up with an educational
organization that brings special events into classrooms via live
two-way television. …