From Canvas to Stage: The visual artist as opera scenographer

Hannah Chan-Hartley, Independent Musicologist, Toronto, Canada,

Corrinne Chong, Independent Art Historian and Curator, Toronto, Canada

Since the start of the early modernist period, there has been a longstanding tradition of artist–opera collaborations. Dalí’s Salome (Covent Garden, 1950), David Hockney’s Turandot (Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1992) and William Kentridge’s Wozzeck (Salzburg Festival, 2017) are a few examples that attest to the enduring legacy of Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk and, more generally, to the appeal that the musical stage continues to hold for painters and sculptors today. This interdisciplinary session examines the artist’s role as opera scenographer – one which involves the orchestration and manipulation of space, architectonic structures, costumes, lighting and images; in short, the visual elements of the performance environment. Inevitably, the artist’s aesthetic language and subjective lens shape the scenographic realisation of the operatic work. The outcome is an interpretation which can either complement or challenge the authorial intention, whether it be textual and/or musical. Moreover, the artist’s scenographic vision can align with or disrupt the spectator’s expectations of the production. These underlying tensions can provoke polarising critical responses which merit further investigation in the scholarship.

Speakers & Abstracts

The Rise and Fall of Regietheater, or ‘Opera Through Other Eyes’

Diane V. Silverthorne (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London)

This paper examines two opera productions, which subvert the often-controversial concept of Regietheater,  noted for a dominant interpretation by the stage director/designer often with the aim of disrupting, some might say violating, the timelessness of the work. Both works took place at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, noted for embracing other artistic disciplines:  in this case the staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in a collaboration with video artist Bill Viola and director Peter Sellers (2005), and in 2009, with a work entirely conceived by Anselm Kiefer to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opera house.

Viola’s famously slowly-evolving imagery, filmic in medium,  comes closest to the early ideals of Wagner’s Gesamkunstwerk, mediated through the theories of stage designer Adolphe Appia with the evocative use of light-filled imagery directing the audience’s attention to the numinous world beyond the dramatic flow on stage.  Yet often the scenes depicted on screen have little direct connection with the dramatic narrative of the work.

Kiefer’s monumental paintings, of German history, myth and the darker recesses of the Holocaust have consistently attracted the epithet of the Gesamtkunstwerk. For Am Anfang (In the Beginning), in collaboration with composer Jörg Widmann, Kiefer took on a controlling role more alike to Wagner’s, his aim to imbue the company of artists as one organic entity bound to the will of the progenitor. Both these productions suggest competing interpretations of the Gesamtkunstwerk as an art of borderlessness.

Uncomfortable Allegiances: Maurice Denis and Vincent d’Indy’s La Légende de Saint Christophe

Rachel Coombes (St. John’s College, University of Oxford)

The widespread non-partisan commendation that greeted the première of Vincent d’Indy’s final opera La Légende de Saint Christophe on 9 June, 1920 was a surprise even to the composer himself, who envisaged the work as a vehicle for political propagandising. The heroic tale of the Saint’s conversion to Christianity served as a scaffold for d’Indy’s construction of a deeply anti-Semitic allegory. The French painter and life-long music lover Maurice Denis (whose monumental decorative scheme L’Histoire de la Musique is in situ in the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées) agreed to undertake the set and costume designs for the opera; he had long felt a strong affinity between his own desire for a Catholic revival in the visual arts and d’Indy’s commitment to models of religious music. But the painter, who did not espouse d’Indy’s uncompromising anti-juif sentiments, chose to prioritise the timeless, sacred nature of the drama in his designs, over the composer’s suggested topical references. Although La Légende de Saint Christophe has justifiably never found a place in the mainstream repertoire, its problematic ideological premise offers salient grounds for exploring the hermeneutic role played by its scenography. This paper considers how Denis’s dressing of the stage visually substantiated aspects of the composer’s cultural philosophy, and, in so doing, reinforced the opera’s political character.

Staging Neo-Classicism between Interwar Paris and Berlin: Giorgio di Chirico’s designs for Ernst Krenek’s Leben des Orest

John Gabriel
(University of Melbourne)

Ernst Krenek’s Leben des Orest (1930) was one of the most anticipated operatic events of late Weimar Republic Germany. Krenek was a leading composer of the New Objectivity in music, and his latest opera tantalisingly transferred his jazz-infused style from a modern-day setting to ancient Greece. The work’s second production was at the Berlin Kroll Opera, a notorious centre for experimental, modernist stagings, with set designs by the Italian-French Surrealist Giorgio di Chirico.

Critics of the Berlin production of Leben des Orest clashed over which elements succeeded or failed, with particularly widespread disagreement over di Chirico’s contributions. I argue that this split reception stemmed from a fundamental disconnect between Krenek and di Chirico’s neo-classicism – how they understood Classical antiquity and sought to instrumentalise it in the present. In his music and libretto, Krenek sought to bring antiquity into the modern day with the bustle of the city, the sounds of jazz, and a political-philosophical allegory of individualism and collectivism in modern society. Di Chirico also tied his designs to contemporary society and politics, but through a lens of detached abstraction and a strong Surrealist element – including his famous faceless, dehumanised statues – that were not present in Krenek’s work. Building on recent comparative interdisciplinary work on the wide range of practices that fell under the interwar umbrella of neo-classicism, I contend that critics’ diverse perspectives on the production reveal commonalities and divergences in neo-classical artistic production across national traditions (Austro-German and Italian-French) and artistic practices (composer-librettist and visual artist).

Shanawdithit: ‘confronting different eyes in different ways’ (bell hooks)

Natalie Rewa (Dan School of Drama and Music, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada)

Contemporary First Nations artistic intervention in scenographic dramaturgy challenges representational concepts of spacialising a libretto and in its stead, proposes an active spectatorial programme. Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman (Kwagulth and Stó:lo First Nations, Irish and Scottish) observes that in the première of Shanawdithit, the critical participation of First Nations artists interrupts traditions by knowingly addressing ‘different eyes in different ways’ (bell hooks). Newman’s remarks highlight the discernible dramaturgical shift that occurs when the scenography is by First Nations artists, rather than about First Nations figures. In the case of Shanawdithit, the six First Nations designer-artists activated an architectonics of commemoration and survivance each in their idiom and that together these reoriented the space of performance. While Shanawdithit’s maps and sketches were projected as her known and integral legacy, overlaid on this colonial story of the last Beothuk woman were the responses to a specific map or sketch by each artist. This approach signals a fresh relationship with librettist and composer. Yvette Nolan (Algonquin, Métis) intentionally provided moments in the libretto to enact a cultural hybridity of scenographic elements to be filled by contemporary artistic practices, and Dean Burry the composer devised instrumentation that provides a temporal warp aurally of shared sounds. This discussion is a response to the themes of the session in terms of confronting questions of the active interactive dialogues between artists, their scenographic dramaturgy, and opera in production.

Collaborative Collision: David Hockey, John Dexter and Erik Satie’s Parade

R. Scott Blackshire (Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas)

Painter David Hockney often turned his attention from canvas to stage. In 1981, director John Dexter asked Hockney to design sets and costumes for Parade, the Metropolitan Opera trilogy of French works – Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Francis Poulenc, L’Enfant et les Sortileges by Maurice Ravel and Erik Satie’s ballet Parade.

This case study considers the creative methodology Hockney applied to the trilogy, simply Parade, through the lens of Dexter’s re-discovered Parade score marginalia and accompanying Hockney set design Polaroids. Dexter’s notations span stage directions, to scene mapping, to catty comments. Hockney’s Polaroids foreshadow his fascination with photography and collage throughout the 1980s, and current preoccupation with iPad art.

Examining Hockney’s aesthetic approach to live performance adds dimension to understanding his artistic processes. Dexter, the Met’s director of production, initially imagined Parade as a chaotic, multi-part spectacle, featuring a kaleidoscope of early 20th century music. Hockney’s creative methodology, however, upended Dexter’s detailed vision – and with it all preconceived notions of collaboration. Hockney often designed in solitude, but shared his labour freely. In Hockney’s performance-based practice with colleagues, he insinuated himself into the varied production tasks of Parade’s dancers, stage crew, children choristers and costume shop personnel.

Ultimately, Hockney developed visual complements to composer Erik Satie’s musical intentions, aesthetic interventions that, ultimately, both enhanced and complicated the audience experience as evidenced in Dexter’s score. Today, the Hockney/Dexter/Satie intersection speaks to implications associated with the increasingly prevalent crossover of contemporary visual artists into the sphere of opera scenography.







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