Roger Ballen plumbs into the psychological depths of a familiar fairytale as Hänsel und Gretel’s designer

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Referred to as Ballenesque, this aesthetic is rooted in symbolic representations of chaos, internal animal impulses, violence, mental anguish, entrapment, decay and poverty. (Supplied)
Referred to as Ballenesque, this aesthetic is rooted in symbolic representations of chaos, internal animal impulses, violence, mental anguish, entrapment, decay and poverty. (Supplied)
  • In his first live theatre collaboration, photographer Roger Ballen will plumb the psychological depths of a familiar fairy tale. 
  • Working alongside Ballen are director Alessandro Talevi and the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra.
  • The opera will make its premier at Artscape in April 2021. 


Roger Ballen is a globally renowned artist with a photographic canon that  spans 54 years. While there has always been an element of theatre in his work, 2021 is the first year to see Ballen’s working making its theatre production debut 

In a partnership with his creative collaborator of 14 years, Marguerite Rossouw, Ballen will design and implement a visual aesthetic for the German opera  Hänsel und Gretel. Put together by post-Wagnerian composer Engelbert Humperdinck,  the Cape Town Opera iteration of Hänsel und Gretel is directed by Alessandro Talevi and features the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra

Having never worked on an opera before, Ballen says:

“Not being involved, not being part of the opera world, can be very useful – to step in from the outside, enables the creation of something totally different.”
 

Infiltrating the pop-culture space through a collaboration with Die Antwoord for their 2012 music video I Fink U Freeky, Ballen sees this live theatre infiltration as a natural progression. 

The opportunity is as a result of the Cape Town Opera’s artistic director Matthew Wild encountered the Norval Foundation’s chief curator Owen Martin. Recalling this Wild says, “We got to talking about South African artists we’d love to see making work for the stage; Roger Ballen topped my list.” 

South African-born and Italy-based, the opera’s director, Talevi is known for his provocative style. On liaising with Talevi to create the aesthetic, Ballen said “We want to create almost a new aesthetic out of an old aesthetic.”

Referred to as Ballenesque, this aesthetic is rooted in symbolic representations of chaos, internal animal impulses, violence, mental anguish, entrapment, decay and poverty.  Developed over a number of decades, Ballenesque is achieved through staged scenes that Ballen refers to as “visual theatre that straddles the space between fantasy and reality, documentary and fiction.” 

On stage the set will see Ballens’ trademark drawings combined with short video vignettes to make the opera’s backdrop. Through this, the opera’s psychological dimensions will be intensified. The result will pick at Freudian anxieties that director Talevi refers to as a grown-up experience that won’t pussyfoot around the narrative’s darker side. “The Ballenesque is, I think, going to cut nicely through the more saccharine moments in the music to reveal the inner meaning of the fairy tale in a way that will surprise people.”

On localising the opera, Ballen says there’s no point in trying to make the opera feel like southern Germany as a South African artist. “What would be the point? I don’t identify with that.”

Although this iteration is far from the standard family friendly take, it will not be without humour. With the intention to make people gasp, Talevi says “It’s dark, but also naughty”.

Audiences can look forward to Cape Town Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel’s Artscape premiere in April 2021.

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