Taking Center Stage

Looking for new ways to interpret familiar works—and attract new audiences to see them—opera companies are hiring artists to transform classic productions into multimedia spectacles.

A maquette for William Kentridge’s production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, which debuts at the Metropolitan Opera in New York next month.


William Kentridge is getting ready to unleash a nose onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Not just any nose, but a “generic Jewish Lithuanian nose of which I have one,” he says, acknowledging the humor and surrealism of his next undertaking: directing and designing a production of Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, in which a nose declares independence from its owner’s face. The opera will premiere on March 5. Among Kentridge’s contributions are animations of the nose climbing up a stepladder, plunging into the ocean, and dancing. Some of these will be on view in the retrospective of his work opening on the 24th of this month at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Composed in 1927 and based on an 1836 short story by Nikolai Gogol, the opera seems tailor–made for Kentridge, a South African artist known for hand–drawn animations that mix the personal lives of imaginary characters with the political events taking place at the end of apartheid. “There is this absolute terror of hierarchy in the story,” he says. The production will incorporate the political and cultural climate of Russia at the time the opera was composed and afterward, with references to Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International as well as to Stalin’s reign of terror a decade later. The biggest challenge is “keeping control of what you are doing,” Kentridge says. “Not being so transformed by the scale of the Met and the number of people involved that the production loses the initial impulse of mine to do the work.”

Kentridge, who has participated in theater productions since the beginning of his artistic career, including as an actor, comes from a long lineage of visual artists working in stage design. An exhibition last year at MoMA, “Stage Pictures: Drawing for Performance,” traced the development of this practice over the past century, featuring design sketches by such artists as Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Marc Chagall. In addition to his early work in dance and theater, Chagall painted the ceiling of the Paris National Opera, created murals for the Metropolitan Opera, and designed the sets for the Met’s 1967 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. David Hockney designed sets for another Magic Flute at the Met, in 1991. (Julie Taymor directed yet another revival, in 2004.)

Two artists in the exhibition were pioneers in expanding the role of visual artists in opera. Hockney earned acclaim for creating not only the set design but also the costumes for the 1975 production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, at the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England. The artist took inspiration from a series of Hogarth prints, turning the stage and actors into fully realized representations of the engravings. One year later Robert Wilson directed Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration with composer Philip Glass that debuted at the Avignon Festival in France. The four–and–a–half–hour–long opera, which has been revived at the Met and other venues around the world, established Wilson as a leader of experimental theater. “The word ‘opera’ in the Latin sense ‘opus’ means ‘work’; it is all–inclusive. It is philosophy, science, sociology, politics, music, architecture, painting, light, sculpture, literature, and poetry,” says Wilson.

Employing abstract sets and stylized gestures and movements, Wilson has staged numerous classical operas in the past 20 years. Among his productions: Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, which opened at the Hamburg State Opera in 1991, Wagner’s Lohengrin, which premiered at the Met in 1998, and Charles Gounod’s Faust, which debuted at the Polish National Opera in 2008. Last September he staged Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo at La Scala with a set based loosely on the Titian painting Venus with Cupid and an Organist (ca. 1548—49). He is scheduled to open a production of Katya Kabanová, composed by Leoš Janáček, this June in Prague.

Wilson’s approach is methodical. “I map out the work with light and movement and stage set. In other words, a visual book. After that I add in music and text. When adding in the music and text, I adjust the visual book to the audio book.”

Contemporary artists have followed the lead of Hockney and Wilson, expanding their art practices into opera and, in so doing, helping to transform what is perhaps the most conservative of stage arts from costume drama into multimedia experience. In turn, opera companies, in search of innovation and new audiences, have become increasingly open to accommodating visual artists. The change is striking, considering that opera audiences can be fiercely loyal to traditional presentations of standard operas, as the Met witnessed last fall when a new staging of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, replacing Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved 1985 production, was met with boos from audiences and critics.

“Every new production we put on is an opportunity, hopefully, to move the art form forward,” says Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met. Gelb does not expect Kentridge’s take on The Nose to garner the kind of reaction the new Toscadid. “This opera is rarely performed and is not a sacred cow,” he says, noting that Kentridge will bring in a new audience of his own, one already appreciative of his work.

Gelb wanted to work with Kentridge after seeing his production of The Magic Flute, which the artist designed and directed for La Monnaie in Brussels in 2005. Kentridge incorporated animations into the scenery—projecting them on top of a table, for instance—and used them to represent a character’s thoughts, projecting them above individual performers. The Magic Flute was Kentridge’s third opera credit: with the Handspring Puppet Company, he directed a production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, at La Monnaie in 1998, and an original opera, Zeno at 4am, in 2001 at the Kunsten Festival des Arts in Brussels.

According to Gelb, it was Kentridge’s idea to take on The Nose, a challenging work never before performed at the Met. (Gelb secured the preeminent Russian conductor Valery Gergiev for the production before committing to it.) The Met scheduled the premiere to coincide with the retrospective at MoMA. “It is more than an opera,” Gelb says of the project. “It is going to be the largest indoor art installation in New York.”

As big as it is, the scale of Kentridge’s The Nose is unlikely to compete with that of Am Anfang (In the Beginning), an opera developed by German painter and sculptor Anselm Kiefer in conjunction with composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann. For the production of the work staged at the Paris National Opera’s Bastille Opera last July, Kiefer insisted on using not only the front of the stage, but also the entirety of the proscenium, creating an art installation eight times the size of a usual presentation in the theater.

The production, which explored themes of exile and return, destruction and rebuilding, was packed with biblical references, including recitations from Isaiah and Jeremiah. The set looked like postapocalyptic ruins, referring to the ancient Middle East, the bombed–out remnants of postwar Germany, and present–day Baghdad. Kiefer sees working with the stage as an extension of his studio practice. “I always believed that installations were the most interesting aspect of my work and that the paintings were just something of an addition,” he says. The artist had previously been involved with the 2003 production of Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, but this was his first time directing. “The stage was not an unusual challenge,” Kiefer says. “The challenge was directing the actors and actresses, because I had never done this before.”

Chinese visual and performance artist Zhang Huan had had little exposure to Western opera before becoming a first–time director and designer, of Handel’s Semele at La Monnaie last September, a coproduction with the KT Wong Foundation. The opera tells the story of a mortal woman, Semele, who has an affair with Jupiter. The god’s wife, Juno, discovers them in a palace Jupiter has built for his lover, and seeks revenge. Zhang’s entry into this narrative came not from studying Baroque opera, but from finding a man’s recent diary inside a 450–year–old Ming–dynasty ancestral temple, which the artist purchased in 2008. “He wrote about his love and hate for his wife, but also his longing for her to return,” says Zhang, who learned that the man was executed for murdering his wife’s lover.

Zhang wove this true story into the opera. He invited the real–life philandering wife to perform. During the overture, a documentary about the temple was projected onto a screen, which when lifted revealed the structure of the actual temple—the artist had brought it from China. Icons of the East that appeared onstage included a white dragon, a pair of Sumo wrestlers, and a wedding donkey. During the intermissions Mongolian musicians enacted the narrative of the love triangle outside the opera house, beneath a sculpture standing more than a story tall: Three–Legged Buddha, an arch of three legs meeting at a truncated torso that Zhang designed. “I want it to be like when you stumble upon the sight of a pair of woman’s legs in the middle of a lush garden,” he says of the element of surprise. Opera critics took issue with his choice to eliminate the final scene, in which Semele dies. Zhang replaced it with a chorus of the Communist anthem, “The Internationale.” “In the end, there is no god, no Jupiter,” he says. “You have to save your own life.”

Some leaders of the world’s top opera houses are prepared for criticism; they are willing to take risks to clear the path for visual artists. “It is very important to me that we keep opening up not only the canon of operas that we know, but our way of interpreting and seeing them,” says the managing director of La Monnaie, Peter de Caluwe, who worked with Zhang. “Also, it brings in a totally different audience. We see that already with Semele. It’s a totally different public that wants to see these shows.” In his previous position as chief of artistic affairs at the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam, de Caluwe worked with such artists as Georg Baselitz and Jannis Kounellis. Since joining La Monnaie, in 2007, he has overseen set designs by Olafur Eliasson and Anish Kapoor. “A set designer is automatically part of the team, working alongside the lighting designer and the costume designer,” de Caluwe says. “A visual artist comes with an idea that he needs to make work in a theatrical space. It’s a completely different approach.”

Gérard Mortier, artistic director of the Teatro Real in Madrid, has collaborated with visual artists on opera productions for three decades, first in his capacity as director of La Monnaie during the ’80s, then at the Salzburg Festival from 1990 to 2001, and most recently as general director of the Paris National Opera, where he brought in Kiefer. (He also briefly signed on to lead New York City Opera, but he left the post when it became clear City Opera did not have the funds to realize his vision.) Spanish artist Jaume Plensa worked under Mortier to create the set design and costumes for both The Magic Flute at the Paris National Opera in 2005 and Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust at the Salzburg Opera Festival in 1999. “Mortier has the enormous capacity to give you freedom for everything,” Plensa says. “Even more, he pushes you to reach into the deepest part of your experiences to reach something new.”

Recently opera–house leaders have been finding ways to involve contemporary artists off the stage. New York City Opera opened its season last fall with an installation by E. V. Day in the theater’s public space. Under Gelb’s direction, in 2006 the Met created Gallery Met to present exhibitions of contemporary art. A solo show there in 2007 featured Guillermo Kuitca’s paintings of theater interiors and seating plans, a series he started in 1994, after seeing a seating chart at a box office when buying tickets to Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House in London. Last year Kuitca unveiled a work on more permanent and prominent display at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House in Dallas: a new stage curtain containing his fragmented interpretation of the theater’s seating plan imprinted on chocolate–colored velvet.

Kuitca has also worked on the stage, designing sets for two operas in his native Buenos Aires: a 2002 production of Federico Garcí­a Lorca’s La casa de Bernarda Alba, performed at Teatro San Martin, and a 2003 production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at Teatro Colón. Like other visual artists who have worked in the theater, Kuitca finds its collaborative nature quite unfamiliar. “The biggest challenge is to stay close to your first idea,” he says. “In opera, there are very accomplished technicians who offer their advice. I need their advice, but I also have to have my own idea and some sense of keeping my intuition alive so that the final product is something I can recognize as my own.”

Opera impresarios see the participation of visual artists as vital. “It puts opera at the center of the contemporary–art scene, where I think it should be,” says La Monnaie’s de Caluwe. “We need to give chances to people who are new to opera, onstage as well as in the audience, because otherwise we are going to lose this art form.”

Barbara Pollack is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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