Discovering Maurice Sendak, the Opera Designer
There is a drawing that gets to the root of Maurice Sendak’s ominous sweetness, his work’s potent mixture of childhood idyll and threatening night.
It’s a sketch of a costume for the premiere of Oliver Knussen’s early-1980s operatic adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” the picture book that had made Sendak a publishing sensation two decades earlier. The costume is for one of the maniacally grinning Wild Things, complete with horns and pointy-sharp teeth.
But the drawing is a cross-section. Inside the looming beast is just a child, his little hands and feet strapped into the woolly Wild Thing’s, making the character roar by speaking through a tiny cone.
The boy in the monster, the monster in the boy: This is the reality Sendak, who died at 83 in 2012, wanted us to see, and understand.
It was his rare ability to convey that quality — the light in darkness, the darkness in light — that brought him to opera, the focus of “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet,” aimed at adults but likely delightful for children, too, at the Morgan Library & Museum through Oct. 6. Five of his productions emerge before our eyes — from rough sketches to storyboards, polished designs and a bit of video footage — in those unmistakably Sendakian colors, watery and vivid at once.
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.”)
And at the time he was engaged for “The Magic Flute,” Sendak was already at work on “Outside Over There,” the profound picture book that completed a loose trilogy with “Where the Wild Things Are” and “In the Night Kitchen.” It, like “Flute,” endows music with redemptive power: Its heroine saves the day by playing a wonder horn, as Mozart’s Tamino does with his flute.
Sendak was clearly ready for opera when it came calling. With Corsaro, he created for “The Magic Flute” a flight of Masonic-Pharaonic fancy, an explosion of Enlightenment-era Egyptology, doubtless influenced by the splashy “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition touring America at the time.
Lush vegetation spills over ancient ruins in the drawings. Dioramas created during the design process, three of them on view at the Morgan, show the irresistible combination of Baroque-style scenography, with its receding flats, and Sendak’s inimitable drawing style — old and new, living and dead, in charming balance, teetering delightedly on the edge of kitsch but made with great craftsmanship and earnestness.
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.
There is a sense that his opera work renewed and saved him — artistically and personally — at a moment he needed saving, when he felt his creative juices had run dry. His world widened, from the isolation of creating books to the vibrant collaborative spirit of a company.
“When I was working in this situation,” he later said of his time in the theater, “I became the person I want to be.”
Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet
Through Oct. 6 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, Manhattan; 212-685-0008, themorgan.org.