Discovering Maurice Sendak, the Opera Designer


There is a drawing that will get to the root of Maurice Sendak’s ominous sweetness, his work’s potent combination of childhood idyll and threatening evening.

It’s a sketch of a fancy dress for the premiere of Oliver Knussen’s early-1980s operatic adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” the image guide that had made Sendak a publishing sensation twenty years earlier. The costume is for one among the maniacally grinning Wild Things, full with horns and pointy-sharp tooth.

But the drawing is a cross-section. Inside the looming beast is only a baby, his little fingers and ft strapped into the woolly Wild Thing’s, making the character roar by talking via a tiny cone.

The boy in the monster, the monster in the boy: This is the actuality Sendak, who died at 83 in 2012, wished us to see, and perceive.

Drawn from Sendak’s bequest to the Morgan of his theatrical drawings and organized by Rachel Federman, an assistant curator at the museum, the succinct yet bountiful exhibition offers an overview of a dense, underappreciated period in this artist’s career, undertaken with his most celebrated books well in the past and his life in uneasy transition.

“Fifty,” he said, “is a good time to either change careers or have a nervous breakdown.” The new midlife career he took on in the late 1970s, it turned out, was that of a designer for music theater.

It was not actually such an unlikely shift. Music was a lifelong preoccupation of Sendak’s; he revered composers above all artists — certainly far above illustrators like himself. And there was one he worshiped in particular: “I know that if there’s a purpose for life,” he said, “it was for me to hear Mozart.”

Frank Corsaro, the daring stage director, didn’t know about this adoration of Mozart when he asked Sendak in 1978 to work with him on a production of “The Magic Flute” for Houston Grand Opera. Corsaro merely suspected that Sendak would be well suited to the opera’s slippery tonal blend of fairy-tale delight and somber pathos.

“Flute” was well known to Sendak: Just three years before, he had produced one of his delightful “fantasy sketches” — fluid drawings swiftly executed as he listened to music — illustrating Mozart’s first act. (The most wonderful of these sketches at the Morgan has a miniature Mozart rushing among the staves in a page of the score for “Der Schauspieldirektor.”)

Just two weeks after the opening of “Flute,” in 1980, “Where the Wild Things Are” premiered in Brussels. With the kaleidoscopically agile, angular score not quite complete and the elaborate costumes wonky, it was an unsteady start. But four years later, Corsaro, who had quickly become a trusted collaborator, directed a finished “Wild Things” in England — its world now better constructed, the picture book come magically to life.

The Morgan itself was a character in the creation of some of the designs in the exhibition. Elements of Sendak’s “Flute” may well have been inspired by a 1977 visit to the museum, when he was researching “Outside Over There,” to see the curving shapes and iridescent colors in drawings by William Blake. These Blake works are on view in “Drawing the Curtain,” as are Tiepolo drawings in the museum’s collection that are obvious models for Sendak’s designs for “The Love for Three Oranges,” a surreal Prokofiev satire that stumped him and Corsaro until they saw Tiepolo’s images of commedia dell’arte and 18th-century life.

Sendak and Corsaro reached perhaps the height of their partnership in 1981, with a New York City Opera production of Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen,” a richly wistful yet cleareyed story of life, death and nature’s rebirth among both human characters and anthropomorphic animal ones.

Relayed nationwide in a 1983 Live From Lincoln Center broadcast, Sendak’s luminous backdrops evoked German Romantic paintings. The stage was populated by figures adorable yet uncanny: A fox suavely smokes a cigarette in one of the fluently rendered drawings. An outsize owl costume — its giant feathered head and talons on view just outside the exhibition at the Morgan — is cuddly until its yellow eyes keep staring, increasingly sinister, into yours.

Sendak captured Janacek’s seductive yet unsparing vision of the natural world. While there is humor and poignancy in both opera and design, there is nothing sentimental about either.

Sentiment is also hard to find in Sendak’s “Nutcracker.” In his version of what he called a “throbbing, sexually alert little story,” created with Kent Stowell of Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle in 1983, Clara is not a little girl but a young woman on the verge of maturity. When she travels, it’s not to a cutesy land of sweets but to an island seraglio. (Perhaps Sendak was again thinking of Mozart, and his “Die Entführung aus dem Serail.”)

In the ballet, as throughout this late part of his career, Sendak resisted being typecast as a “kiddie book” artist, brought into theaters to sprinkle around some twee. “At my age I’m not about to do a predictable, candy-coated version,” Sendak, then 69, said of his production of the opera “Hansel and Gretel” in 1997.

But as he knew better than anyone, the pieces he worked on were far from kids’ stuff. They depict the blurry border of order and chaos, childhood and adulthood, boy and monster.

And Sendak clearly poured himself into them, especially in his heady, jam-packed first years as a designer. He looms over the shows — sometimes literally, with self-portraits as the wide-eyed, lovably smiling Wild Thing Moishe and as a clenched-teeth Nutcracker on two of the curtains he created.



Source link Nytimes.com

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