Lost in the Stars isn’t a traditional opera. It’s more like a hybrid between a play, a musical, and an opera.
The opera is an adaptation of Alan Paton’s 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country, with music by Kurt Weill and book and lyrics are by Maxwell Anderson. There’s a lot of dialogue and at times it feels as though the relationship between the music and dialogue gets convoluted.
The narrative of Lost in the Stars has cultural implications that seem to stand the test of time. The story takes place in apartheid South Africa, starting in the rural town of Ndotsheni. Main character Stephen Kumalo is a priest introduced in a modest home with his wife, expressing his concern over his sister Gertrude and his son Absalom (Manu Kumasi) who are both in Johannesburg. Concerned about their son, Stephen sets to Johannesburg to look for him. Upon leaving he’s greeted by his white friend Arthur Jarvis (Paul Scalan). Our introduction to Arthur’s father, however, ushers in the prevalent theme of this story because of his disapproval of his son’s friendship with a black man. We are then introduced to Absalom, foreshadowed by his family’s concern, has involved himself with the ‘wrong’ crowd. Much to Absalom’s discontent, he is pressured into bringing a gun into the robbery of Arthur Jarvis’ home. Absalom’s reluctance to have the gun makes him uneasy, so much so that when the group is startled by Arthur, Absalom accidentally fires his gun at Arthur and kills him.
Absalom’s involvement in the crime further separates him from his pregnant girlfriend, Irina (Lauren Michelle), who is essentially entirely reliant on Absalom. By this time in the show we have seen performances by Stephen, Absalom, and Irina but it was Irina’s solo that is the most memorable. Absalom’s refusal to plead innocent during the murder trial of Arthur Jarvis leads him to prison where his father finds him with a heavy heart. Stephen knows the fate of his son and in an effort to save his life he turns to James Jarvis (Wynn Harmon) to release the charges pressed against Absalom, who had already admitted his guilt.
Lost in the Stars’ reaches its pinnacle at this point. The death of Arthur and the hanging of Absalom leave Stephen Kumalo and James Jarvis experiencing immense pain. The hostility James once held against Stephen has now diminished as both men are overcome with the same grief. They embrace each other in a way that communicates mutual forgiveness.
The narrative of Lost in the Stars seems to be both its greatest strength and weakness. Its story is a paradigm of a greater historical and societal problem which essentially explains its reliance on dialogue to push the story forward. The musical pieces were not as memorable as they should and could have been. It often seemed as though they were interrupting the dialogue rather than enhancing it. Lost in the Stars is worth seeing for its story and the emotions that it has the ability to evoke within its audience.
Lost in the Stars is playing through Feb. 20 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $79-$265.