The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

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SEPT 2019 Issue

Bel Canto: Contemporary Artists Explore Opera

Guillermo Kuitca, Santa Fe Opera I, 2018. Mixed media on paper. 36 x 43 3/8 inches. Photo: Robert Vinas Jr. Courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

On View
SITE Sante Fe
Bel Canto: Contemporary Artists Explore Opera
March 16 – January 5, 2020
Sante Fe

Since its founding in 1957, the Santa Fe Opera has been internationally recognized as one of the leading summer opera festivals in the world. This year, SITE Santa Fe presented an exhibition and related events that took the tradition of the opera as point of inspiration. Bel Canto: Contemporary Artists Explore Opera features eight contemporary artists in a range of interdisciplinary work—Vasco Araújo, Suzanne Bocanegra, Candida Höfer, William Kentridge, Guillermo Kuitca, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Matthias Schaller, and Bill Viola—who explore ideas within the tradition and aesthetics of the opera.

William Kentridge and Bill Viola are among several contemporary artists who have collaborated with opera companies on the staging of productions. In 2003, Kentridge was commissioned to stage Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the National Opera of Belgium. Learning the Flute, presented here, was created as a study for the staged production. The short film, projected on a blackboard, presents a series of chalk and charcoal drawings in Kentridge’s signature style that animate the creation and erasure of multiple images. His work reframes the opera's original theme of Enlightenment philosophy through drawings that evoke the legacy of colonialism. In the course of the eight-minute film, Kentridge works out the central imagery of his set design, with images such as a temple with fireworks, clouds and curtains on black—perspectival studies of the stage. Several of the completed drawings from Preparing the Flute are also on view with the film.

Bill Viola’s Becoming Light (2005) is a video that was created as a companion piece to the overall visual work Viola created for the 2005 Paris Opera’s production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, directed by Peter Sellars. For that production, Viola created slow-motion videos of fire, water, and figures that were projected onto a large screen, suspended above the singers who performed on a minimal square stage. Viola’s visuals were as integral to the opera as the music. Becoming Light is directly related to the material Viola created for the opera, and is inspired by the love story of the protagonists—an erotic journey towards ecstasy and union in the form of a drowning—featuring Viola’s signature slowing down of time where an underwater dance of the two lovers are entwined in an embrace that ultimately consumes them.

Candida Höfer and Matthias Schaller each present a series of photographs in impressive installations. Schaller’s Fratelli d’Italia (translated as Brothers of Italy) is an assemblage of images of 150 Italian opera houses from the 19th century. Each photo is taken from the same vantage point, from the point of view of the stage, facing the balconies and the elaborate, ornate ceilings, so that one gets the sense of the grandeur of each theater from a performer’s perspective. Collectively, these images create a united portrait that underscores the sheer beauty and magnitude of these spaces. By contrast, Candida Höfer’s large scale photographs present orchestra pits, empty hallways, stages, theater boxes, and more. The meticulous, colorful images are completely devoid of any human presence, and yet they evoke the range of performances and audiences in these grand architectural spaces. One can envision being performatively embodied in these locations.

Going beyond the photo-real representations, Guillermo Kuitca’s drawings and collages of opera house floor plans and seating charts are abstract representational designs of several grand sites in bold, primary colors with strong gestural impact. Besides abstractions from earlier works, here Kuitca created two beautiful new works specifically for Bel Canto, paying tribute to the Santa Fe Opera.

Guillermo Kuitca, <em>Santa Fe Opera II</em>, 2018. Mixed media on paper. 36 x 43 3/8 inches. Photo: Robert Vinas Jr. Courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.
Guillermo Kuitca, Santa Fe Opera II, 2018. Mixed media on paper. 36 x 43 3/8 inches. Photo: Robert Vinas Jr. Courtesy the artist and Sperone Westwater, New York.

Suzanne Bocanegra’s Dialogue of the Carmelites was created specifically for the exhibition, and is based on Francis Poulenc’s opera of the same name, a tale that tells the true story of the execution of French nuns during the French Revolution. Bocanegra brings the tale to a 20th century American perspective, using the vintage book, A Guide to the Catholic Sisterhood in the United States. She deconstructs the book by presenting each nun’s page on a shelf, almost like head shots for a casting call, and adding embroidery to the pages, like a costume for each “performer.” This act of embroidery recalls the practice of cloistered nuns who would adorn their prayer books with stitching. Bocanegra’s installation is enhanced with music by renowned composer David Lang, which adds to the meditative, contemplative spirit of the installation.

Vasco Araújo’s immersive installation Diva, a Portrait, brings viewers into the dressing room of a fictional opera diva. It’s interesting to note that Araújo initially trained as an opera singer before becoming a visual artist. One enters the room, complete with portraits of the artist, a vanity, gowns on a rack, etc., but in addition to the expected female accoutrements, there are some typical men’s items: razors, aftershave, and men’s shoes. Continuing into the adjacent room, there is a video installation of the artist as diva, except there is a female voiceover performing the operatic pieces. Araújo examines gender stereotypes in performance, and points to the history in opera of men performing in women’s roles, underscoring the malleability of identity and gender fluidity.

The final work in the exhibition, Addio del Passato, is Yinka Shonibare CBE’s post-colonial take on Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. The large-scale video installation draws on the final scene of the opera where Shonibare reimagines and recasts the French protagonists as Admiral Lord Nelson, the British historical figure, and his estranged wife Fanny. British opera singer, Nadine Benjamin as Fanny, sings the final haunting tragic aria, clothed in Shonibare’s signature use of colorfully patterned textile designs (inspired by Indonesian batik fabric that have come to represent African identity, heritage, and political and socioeconomic history). The film places the opera in a new cultural context, exploring issues of race and post-colonial themes.

In one way or another, each of the works in Bel Canto explores the history, politics, aesthetics and/or music of the operatic form, framing the opera as a reflection of society, a creative expression that encompasses essential human emotions and cultural values, as well as revealing some of its subversive aspects and the complex relationship opera has to issues of class, race, and gender. Bel Canto celebrates this historical creative form as a powerful source of inspiration for contemporary artists.


Kathy Brew

KATHY BREW is an independent filmmaker, artist, writer, curator, and educator. She teaches in graduate programs at The New School and The School of Visual Arts.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2019

All Issues