An African opera
by Hans Huyssen and Ilija Trojanow

Who are we in the mirror of the other?

The Blind One, the Tired One, the Sad One, Death and Eternal Change are on display. They are African masks in a museum – mere objects for the curator, but very much alive for others, such as the Griot, who visits the exhibition. They so vividly stir his imagination, that he recollects their history and – by touching them one by one – dispels the curse that had cast them into lifeless figures. With their powers thus regained, the masks decide to escape and seek a way home, thereby also reaffirming the Griot in his quest to reclaim and raise his voice as messenger and guardian.

The masks¹ odyssey through an anonymous Western capital, as well as the assumed museum theft, cause severe disturbances which end with their renewed confinement ­ this time in a real prison. Apprehended as suspicious foreign subjects, the looming threat of deportation by an ironic twist of fate promises their longed-for homeward journey. However, the curator adamantly objects to this, as he fights to reclaim his most precious artefacts. But then Phakade, the trickster, unexpectedly intervenes, calling on forces that shift the focus of the debate to an altogether different level, finally clearing the way for a more appropriate perception of who the masks really are…

Conceived as a dense operatic spectacle, MASQUE is scored for three different instrumental groups – a conventional classical, traditional African and a European Baroque ensemble, and displays a cast of European and African singers, a storyteller as well as a group of masked dancers. This groundbreaking South African work takes a new stance on dealing with the challenges of cross-cultural art forms. Far from presenting yet another arbitrary melee, it takes a decisive step towards understanding and relating both differences and similarities of African and European music.