“It’s not quite true, what it says in the gallery brochure,” said Maurice
Sendak, “that I only got into opera so that I could design “Idomeneo,” but
it’s close. All those old-time “Idomeneo” lovers, they all look down on us
newcomers as some sort of cultural yuppies. But I’m 62, and I’ve loved that
opera, above all others, since adolescence.”
Softspoken, witty in the abrasive New York manner, Sendak took a few minutes
off from applying finishing touches to the Music Center Opera’s upcoming
“Idomeneo” for a quick sandwich at the pleasant little cafe at MOCA, just
down the street. He was obviously aglow from this labor of love. “I needed to
do this,” he said, “not only out of love for the opera, but also to get out
of the kiddie-book-illustrator-turned-opera-designer mold for once.”
At that, he hasn’t gotten very far out of it. See for yourself. Mozart’s
masterful opera may stand at some remove from the world of the kiddie-book
illustrator, but all of Sendak’s set and costume sketches for the opera go on
display this week (September 25 through October 28) at Every Picture Tells a
Story, that most charming gallery of children’s-book art at 836 N. LaBrea in
West Hollywood, where they will sit surrounded by a vivid selection of
Sendak’s really-truly kiddie books.You can buy the books, but not the
Even within the mold of kiddie-oriented opera, of course, Sendak’s work hasn’t
been exactly frivolous. “I think of “The Magic Flute” as the most serious
of all Mozart’s operas. Sure, there were those barnyard animals in Janacek’s
“Cunning Little Vixen,” but the opera was really about Janacek’s last
thoughts on humanity. And “Higgledy” was the most tragic of them all.”
“Idomeneo” stands as a work apart. Its American career has been relatively
brief. Its first performance, by an operatic workshop at Tangelwood, wasn’t
until 1947, 166 years after its premiere. It only made it to the Metropolitan
Opera in 1982, where its initial reception at the box-office was insured by
the presence of Luciano Pavarotti in the title role. The darker side of its
reputation has everywhere preceded it: that it is long, that its plot is full
of old-fashioned devices, that it is serious and complex.
“Idomeneo” is all of those things; its plot devices (father bound by the
gods to sacrifice a favorite child, multi-level conflict of love and honor,
last-minute redemption after the avenging god — Neptune, in this case —
changes his mind) were indeed well-worn by Mozart’s time.
But there is one aspect of the work that conquers all else: its radiant, noble
beauty. It’s interesting, and fortuitous, that the Music Center Opera’s
“Idomeneo” should be flanked on the schedule by Gluck’s “Orfeo ed
Euridice” and Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” because in a very real sense, Mozart’s
sublime creation forges a link, musical and dramatic, between the other two
“I want to do “Idomeneo,” ” Sendak continued, “because I am happiest
doing fantasy operas. “Cosi fan Tutte,” or “Don Giovanni” or “The
Marriage of Figaro” — they’re all basically room operas. Unless I can
overcome my extraordinary limitations — like, how to get in and out of
properly designed rooms — I can’t do them; I can’t vibrate to them. Sure, I
saw the Peter Sellars “Don Giovanni” in New York last summer, and it was set
outdoors. It was plenty vibrant, but they weren’t my vibrations.
“I do fantasy operas, because I can set them in some place of my own
invention. I’ve seen “Idomeneo” productions that had no fantasy. There was
one at Caramoor {the elegant summer festival just outside New York), but all I
can remember is a lot of slaves being pushed around. And the one at the Met:
well it was just your basic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, may he rest in peace:
pillars and schmattas.”
We had by now walked back to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. On stage there
were no pillars, no schmattas, just a Maurice Sendak fantasy ship in two
guises, whole and wrecked.
Sendak had a confession. “I really should have become a musician. The truth
is, my family couldn’t afford a piano, and watercolors were cheaper. This kind
of work” — a sweep of that supremely endowed right hand toward the ships on
stage — “is the closest I can get. I stand here at rehearsal while the
chorus sings its music, and I nearly faint from the beauty, and I wonder if
those bums in the chorus know how jealous I am of just what they’re doing as
their routine job.”
All of Sendak’s operatic work so far has been with director Corsaro. “We sit
at a table. He talks, I doodle. We agree on something or other, so I go home
and do the sketches. Then, the next day, he sees the sketches, yells “what
the hell is this!” and we discuss some more. Finally we come to an agreement.
It’s a marvelous arrangement, because we work so closely. I couldn’t work any
other way, with a director or with a writer. If some writer tells me that he
trusts me to do the illustrations, that he doesn’t want to see them, I know I
can’t work with him.”
The future? Sendak listed a “Hansel and Gretel” for the Music Center Opera
two seasons from now. “Now that I’ve broken the kiddie-book identification
with “Idomeneo,” I can go back to it.” For further down the line, he talks
of starting a children’s theater, probably near his current home in
Connecticut, “where I can have complete control over design and direction,
where I can develop new works, small and complex like my books.”
“Control? “That’s the most important thing. Ideal, of course, is for the
designer to be his own director, like Ponnelle. Working so closely with Frank,
that’s the next best thing. I love the opera company here, because they offer
respect, and freedom, and control; that’s rare. If anyone is trying to
sabotage me here, it’s so subtle that I haven’t noticed it.
WHAT: The Music Center Opera Company production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”
WHERE: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Friday and Oct. 2 and 5.
STARRING: Siegfried Jerusalem, Susan Quittmeyer, Christine Weidinger.
BEHIND THE SCENES: Directed by Frank Corsaro. Designed by Maurice Sendak.
Conducted by Roderick Brydon.
TICKETS: $15 to $80. For ticket information call (213) 480-3232. For more
information, call (213) 972-7219.

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