maurice sendak

ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.


Review: a little flute magic

Portland Opera's "The Magic Flute" kicks off its summer-season gamble with a bright and sly design by the illustrator Maurice Sendak

There were those bright, cartoonish sets designed by the slyly elegant author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, with their intimations of wild things a-wilding and shenanigans in the night kitchen. There were the ornate and occasionally birdlike costumes from a slightly cracked Age of Reason, also designed by Sendak. There was even an occasional rumble of thunder from offstage, like a fuzz pedal on full blast, just to stir things up.

But what struck me most at Portland Opera’s opening-night performance of The Magic Flute on Friday was the large number of children and young people in the Keller Auditorium audience. Mothers came with their young daughters. Fathers showed up with their young sons. I happened to be sitting near a cluster of high school or college students, out on their own, and they were hooting and hollering like they were at an arena rock show. For an opera!

Over his (not quite) dead body: the ladies-in-waiting and Prince Tamino. Photo: Cory Weaver

Over his (not quite) dead body: the ladies-in-waiting and Prince Tamino. Photo: Cory Weaver

The involvement of the late Sendak, a true god of childhood, no doubt had a lot to do with that. (Read Angela Allen’s fascinating account for ArtsWatch of how Sendak’s sets and costumes, created in 1980 and destroyed a quarter-century later in a hurricane, were re-created for this production.) So, I’m guessing, did the fact that Mozart’s opera was sung in English (in a translation by Andrew Porter); and that it is in that subcategory of opera known as a singspiel, which means simply that the narrative is spoken rather than delivered in sung recitative, so that structurally the show is as close to a Broadway musical as to a grand opera. Those things – plus, of course, Mozart’s almost uncannily gorgeous harmonies, which came through clear and ravishing in Portland Opera’s production – conspire to make this a most accessible evening of musical-theater entertainment.


Portland Opera preview: Rebuilding a magical world

Portland 're-premiere' reincarnates Maurice Sendak's destroyed design for Mozart's 'The Magic Flute' 


To imagine that The Magic Flute is merely beguiling child’s play is to sell W. A. Mozart’s masterpiece short. His last staged opera’s enchanted world, clear-cut good vs. evil themes, lyrical music, and fanciful characters like Queen of the Night, Papageno and Tamino appeal to children of all ages. Now back on the boards at Portland Opera for four performances this month, it is among the five most frequently performed operas in the world.

Portland Opera's 'The Magic Flute.' Photo: Cory Weaver.

Portland Opera’s ‘The Magic Flute.’ Photo: Cory Weaver.

The most outsized child-friendly delight is this production’s whimsical scenery, designed in 1980 by the world-famous children’s author, the late Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). And the story of how that wondrous world will reappear in Portland this month is almost as enchanting as Mozart’s music.