Morphing up to scratch | Ruben Zahra on Kafka’s Insect

Composer Ruben Zahra speaks to TEODOR RELJIC about his upcoming production Kafka’s Insect, a multi-disciplinary take on Franz Kafka’s classic 1915 novella The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into an insect upon waking up one morning

Kafka’s Insect adapts Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis through an interdisciplinary lens at the Valletta Campus Theatre
Kafka’s Insect adapts Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis through an interdisciplinary lens at the Valletta Campus Theatre

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis is, of course, one of the defining works of 20th century literature. What led you to undertake this multi-disciplinary adaptation of the literary classic, and did you find its sizable cultural legacy at all intimidating?

I was in search of a narrative that can be expressed with vintage lens videography and a soundtrack of contemporary piano combined with analog synthesizers. I wanted a 20th century classic that people could form a connection with. Initially I was considering adapting a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe.

I finally chose The Metamorphosis because I’ve been intrigued by this novella since my teenage years, and it proved to be the perfect candidate for my vision.

The significant cultural legacy of The Metamorphosis can be intimidating, but in a good way. Working with a literary classic raises the benchmark because you want to do it justice.

What can audiences expect from this production, especially those who may be familiar with Kafka’s original novella?

The audience will experience ‘The Metamorphosis’ as a cycle of video-art scenes, accompanied by a live piano score and modular analog synthesizers. In this project, the narrative is presented through those sections in the story that portray ‘sound’ – such as the prodding of feet as the furniture is shuffled out of Gregor’s room by Mrs Samsa and his sister, a medicinal glass vial shattering on the floor, apples tossed at Gregor, and so on. The video becomes an ‘instrument’ creating a ‘dialogue’ between the live music recital and the soundscape of the projected video.

There is no dialogue in the entire video, so all those who have read the novella will appreciate the performance even more because they won’t have to worry about the linear narrative. While editing the video I decided to add text inserts, similarly to silent movies, to help the audience connect the dots between the scenes.

Ruben Zahra
Ruben Zahra

With this mix of different influences and disciplines at play, how would you say this production follows on from your previous work?

With each of my projects I like to tackle new challenges and different aesthetics. Over the past few years I have been developing my own method of applying video-art to music and Kafka’s Insect was an opportunity to fully explore this technique. My last performance, ‘Min Hi?’ portrayed a series of grotesque scenes in a theatrical setting. Kafka’s Insect is a very different project but there is definitely a bizarre element in the narrative as well as grotesque aesthetics of the insect – represented through digitally animated vignettes portraying Gregor’s psychological struggle between man and insect.

What do you make of the performing arts scene in Malta?

The main problem I see with the local performing arts scene is that most artists do not promote their work beyond the national territory. This secluded platform has an impact on the quality of the work which hardly ever reaches the benchmark for international touring. I currently have four projects touring internationally. Hopefully Kafka’s Insect will be the fifth production in my portfolio targeting international festivals and theatres.

What’s next for you?

I share my time between composing, producing new work and touring. I have three new projects in the pipeline which will premier consecutively in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Last year the city of Bad Ischl reached out for a new children’s opera as part of the European Capital of Culture 2024 in Austria, so I am looking forward to this collaboration.

The Malta International Arts Festival is another important strand. I enjoy curating the programme as artistic director together with my programming team and the support of Festivals Malta. Working as a freelance composer and producer is always a challenge and a struggle… but I like the energy. It’s not just work – it’s a lifestyle.

Kafka’s Insect is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and will be held at the Valletta Campus Theatre on March 21 and 22 at 8pm. Bookings: www.ticketline.com

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