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Thrones, masks and Ethiopia: a guide to understanding 'Oedipus Rex' at the L.A. Philharmonic

April 16, 2009 |  4:34 pm

Jemot  

Chances are you've never seen a staging of Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex" quite like the one that's opening tonight (April 16) at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

As was first reported by Culture Monster last year, stage director Peter Sellars is bringing on board the Ethiopian artist Elias Sime, whose folk-inspired thrones and masks will serve as the principal props for the tragic oratorio. With Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting -- in his final final performances as music director of the L.A. Philharmonic -- the atmosphere is sure to be charged and emotional.

But hold on a minute: Oedipus in Ethiopia? The last time we checked, he was from a town called Thebes, not the rocky deserts of eastern Africa.

Granted, when you hire someone like Sellars to direct, anything is possible. Times music critic Mark Swed will have his review of the production tomorrow but in the meantime, Culture Monster offers this Cliff's Notes explanation of the ancient symbolism behind this staging. And who better to serve as our guide than Sime himself?

Keep reading to learn more ...

Enat Earlier this week, Sime told Culture Monster that there will be seven thrones on stage to represent the seven main characters of the mythic drama. The artist had constructed the thrones for another project, but when Sellars visited him in Addis Ababa last year, the director thought they would be ideal for "Oedipus Rex."

Made of material native to Ethiopia -- the skulls of cows, cowry shells, an ibex horn, gnarled wood and leather -- the thrones are ancient and modern, supernatural and yet totally of this world.

Audiences should pay special attention to the thrones' feet -- after all, "Oedipus" means "swollen foot." Sellars has assigned thrones to certain characters based on the symbolic significance of the feet positions. For the character of Jocasta -- who is Oedipus' wife and mother -- you can see that her throne has two feet facing forward in the front, which represents her authoritative role as a queen, while the two hind feet are open at an angle to symbolize sex and birth.

(Jocasta's throne was inspired by the Ethiopian goddess Jemot, whose domain included female fertility and thunder.)

Sime also created masks that will sit on special stands. The artist carved the seven masks in one-and-a-half months and designed each one to reflect an aspect of the characters. For Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus, the mask will be top-heavy with curves and twists to represent the burden she carries of being the product of an incestuous marriage.

Creon, the ruler of Thebes, will carry a mask decorated with chameleons to signify the shifty nature of his character. For Tiresias, the blind hermaphroditic seer, the mask will feature two snakes as a reference to the episode in his life when magical serpents caused him to change gender.

Sime first worked with Sellars in 2006 for the New Crowned Hope festival in Vienna, a celebration of Mozart's 250th anniversary.

There's a lot more symbolism to be found in Sellars' "Oedipus Rex" staging, but that should give you an adequate taste of what's in store for you. (The evening's performance also includes Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms," which will also make use of the thrones. The concert series runs through Sunday.)

You can read (and hear) more about the production from a recent talk given by Sellars and Salonen at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, where a solo exhibition of Sime's work closes on Saturday.

And be sure to check back with Culture Monster for Swed's review as well as more photos from Disney Hall.

-- David Ng

(A special thanks to art scholar Meskerem Assegued for translating.)

Photos: (top) "Jemot," a sculpture by Elias Sime; (bottom) "Enat," also by Sime. Credit: Santa Monica Museum of Art.

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