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Soirée à la girafe - when a Grande Dame makes her debut in Europe's high society

A larger-than-life theatrical song recital inspired by the arrival of the first giraffe in Europe

‘A levée had collected round this “illustrious stranger,” which seemed as anxious to attract her notice, as that which fills the royal bedroom of Charles the Tenth, to catch the good omen of his morning smile, while the premier valet de chambre of the old peerage presents his shirt, or offers his handkerchief: and the giraffe, as if aware of the wishes of her court, repeatedly stepped forward, bowed her long neck, and put forth her head between the bars of her ruelle, to receive the homage of her courtiers.’  – Sydney, Lady Morgan

With her long neck, graceful legs and obsidian eyes, the giraffe is a creature blessed by nature, hence she is beloved by many. Her remarkable physique gives her an extraterrestrial air. It’s hard to imagine how it must have been, seeing a gentle giant for the first time. Yet, it’s only two centuries ago the first giraffe made her entrance in Europe. Her name, Zarafa.

The viceroy of Egypt was responsible for her grand entree into society. Pandadiplomacy avant la lettre! The giraffe was a gift meant to express goodwill between Egypt and the principal powers of Europe. Zarafa was welcomed by Charles X of France who fed the animal rose petals in greeting. Other giraffes followed her footsteps. Like this George IV (the United Kingdom) and Franz – the emperor of Austria – welcomed their giraffe with all the royal splendour one could imagine.

The history of Europe’s first giraffes is larger than life. They were not only a zoological spectacle but gave rise to a performative and material culture of giraffeness in a variety of forms, everything became à la girafe: from hairstyles to clothing to theater, dance and music.

Henri Herz for example composed Galoppe à la girafe. In Les adieux de la girafe (Castellacci, Luigi) a giraffe mourns her departure from Egypt. In Voyage de la girafe a dazzling violin pays tribute to her turbulent journey across the Mediterranean Sea. In the satiric play Die Giraffe in Wien, Adolph Baüerle critiques the materialism and slavish fashion-following of those Viennese who so avidly consumed the giraffes’s image.

In Soirée à la girafe their giraffecompositions, form the show’s spine around which the narrative evolves. A mezzo-soprano, pianist, a violinist and a harpist contextualise the musical resurrection of the giraffe by sharing testimonials of her contemporaries. On the first musical notes her shadow comes to life…

Concept & Stage Directions: Pim Dinghs / Costume Design: Aurélia Martin / Producer: Krystian Lada

Pianist: Pedro Beriso // Mezzo-soprano: Raehann Bryce-Davis

The Airport Society // World premiere: May 2019