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The Return of Ulysses
( IL Ritorno d'Ulisse )

week 16    by Andries Loots

Standard Bank National Arts Festival

The Return of Ulysses is the first staging of an opera by innovative director, animated film-maker and visual artist William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company. In this rendition of Monteverdi's work as a chamber piece - in collaboration with musical director and conductor Phillipe Pierlot, Flemish musicians and opera singers from Europe - Ulysses is no longer in Ithaca. Lying in a Johannesburg hospital, he is a frail man hanging on to life and remembering the epic of the Greek Hero in his dreams. Received with critical acclaim in Belgium, Germany and Spain, this opera has its South African premiere at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahmstown which will run from the 29 June to the 11 July 1999.

ulysses The story of Ulysses is an ancient and epic one. In Homer's Odyssey, it is a twenty-year journey through space, time and experience, caused by conflict with the gods, and permeated by a longing for home. After many trials, Ulysses is finally forgiven in a form of psychic interrogation or awakening, and can return to Ithaca were he must win back his wife, Penelope, through competition with her suitors before revealing his true identity.
In 1995 William was asked to do a shortened 90-minute version of Monteverdi's opera, Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria. It was decided that they would use puppets, singers and animation. As in their previous productions the audience would be moving constantly between an engagement with the fictional personae of the puppets and awareness of the theatrical machinery - the manipulators of the puppets are visible on stage all the time. This is echoed by the operatic form in which attention shifts between the fictional characters and the actual singers.
Kentridge's Il Ritorno d'Ulisses is set in the late 20th century world of contemporary South Africa. Throughout the narrative, Ulisses, lies not, like in the original on the beach of Ithaca, but in a Johannesburg hospital bed. He longs for his return home, for a journey that may not have begun. Hanging onto life, in his feverish state of dreams and visions he remembers the stories of the Greek hero, Ulisses. His mind is flooded with images, ranging from those of the classical Greece to the Italian 17th century, to the present day. He is both in the story, and watching it from his bed, ' doubled ' by two puppets.
Ullisse's home, depicted in the animated drawings forming the backdrop to the opera, resembles the building in one of his other animations, " Weighing.... And wanting " It evokes the modernist dream of functional and rational architecture, implying that Ulisse's yearning also expresses a melancholic sense of distance (in time and space) from modernism.

Through the animation and the set design of this opera, associations are constantly set up between the South African theater of life where brutal and inhuman acts were committed in the name of rationalism, and the anatomy theater of modern medicine, as it has been represented since the 16th century.
By removing the last two words from the original opera title - " in Patria " (to the homeland) - Kentridge raises the question: to what place is Ulisses returning? Is there a real homeland in our diasporic, post-colonial global landscape?

This is not the first time an opera has been written and or based on the South African perspective and it would also not be the last time but this was done by a genius whom has breached the borders and boundaries of the arts and has proven that an artist can be a master in various fields inside his field. Every year there is a highlight at this festival, this year what ever you do don't miss this momentous occasion!

Drawing used in the animation for the opera

Drawing used in the animation for the opera