Lead book review

Toy theatres on the stage: the set designs of Maurice Sendak

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

1 June 2019

9:00 AM

I must have seen hundreds of opera productions in my time. Out of these, hardly any made a lasting impression on account of their design: the great Tarkovsky Boris Godunov for Covent Garden; Hockney’s Rake’s Progress for Glyndebourne; Es Devlin’s Les Troyens; the Richard Peduzzi Bayreuth Ring preserved on film. Very few others.

For many opera-goers, an interventionist or bold visual approach to an opera is automatically a bad thing, and (I guess) a lot of the musicians involved are visually somewhat conservative. The ludicrous 1980s Met Ring cycle, designed by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen to follow every one of Wagner’s demands, was driven by musicians. It’s fair to guess, too, that the splendid but very innovative 1990s Ring at Covent Garden, directed by Richard Jones and designed by Nigel Lowery, was prematurely killed off from the same direction. The opportunities to do something visually interesting in the opera house are more challenging than one
might suspect

The artist Maurice Sendak had a late entry into the world of theatrical design, which flourished into an effective and interesting career. He is best known as a writer and illustrator of books for children, most famously of Where the Wild Things Are. Other exquisitely produced classics are the Biedermeier-inflected Outside Over There and the knockabout In The Night Kitchen. Their look, of muted colours, a sepia carnival, is unmistakable; and Sendak took great care to preserve that specific chromatic atmosphere in his stage excursions.

He is a medley of eclectic allusions, including Mozart, Walt Disney and, especially, Freud. Sendak lived with the psychoanalyist Eugene Glynn for 50 years, and Freudian mythology consciously shapes much of his imagery and drama. It is no accident, for instance, that the baby-rescuing heroine of Outside Over There is called Id(a). The unabashed revelling in dramas of milk, seminal fluid, conception and excremental play in In The Night Kitchen, barely veiled, along with images of a naked child, has made it one of the most frequently banned books by American institutions.

Sendak’s initiation into stage design came about in an unpredictable but inevitable way. Oliver Knussen, one of the best of British composers, wrote a one-act opera based on Where The Wild Things Are during the 1970s, followed by an adaptation of another of Sendak’s books, Higglety Pigglety Pop! It was more or less unthinkable that the production for the commissioning house, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, should be anything other than a recreation of Sendak’s images.


He himself was approached in 1975 to design the production, and despite his lack of experience, which would create initial problems at the 1980 partial première, he accepted. Subsequently, during the long interval in which the slow-working Knussen completed the operas, Sendak accepted other commissions, including a Magic Flute for Houston, a Love for Three Oranges for Glyndebourne, a Seattle Nutcracker and a Cunning Little Vixen for New York City Opera. Between the 1980 première of half of Wild Things and its 1984 full unveiling, Sendak designed five very substantial productions. Those are the subject of an exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York, and this sumptuously illustrated catalogue.

For a devotee of psychoanalysis and a very conscious explorer of childhood development like Sendak, the move from child-sized picture books to a darkened theatre with outsized forms and huge noises must have been pregnant with significance. A child moves from being held and being read to, to holding his or her own book; from looking upwards to mother to looking downwards at the pages. The book is the fulcrum of development; it does not change, but at first engagement the child is the object, the read-to, the recipient. At subsequent engagements, the child holds the book as reader, and chooses when to turn the page and where to direct attention. The book is first parent, talking down, and then child, being controlled.

The theatrical production, it is fair to say, must have struck Sendak as a reversion to that initial state. The theatre-goer of whatever age is placed in a firm setting, almost a clamp, which cannot be escaped from at will. He or she is subjected to narrative from above, which proceeds at a pace, and on a scale, which he or she has no say in. It will just go on until it chooses to finish, very much louder and more impressive than the ordinary life of the read-to. The theatre, the singers, the orchestra, I would guess, all together represented the mother — an exploration of something once present in the original books before being decisively cast away. We are never read to in everyday adult life apart from when we choose to go to those gigantic, looming, inescapable presences, the cinema, the theatre and the opera.

For those reasons, Sendak’s entrancing and virtuosic designs are not in the slightest degree mere re-creations of originals, despite initial impressions. In the Wild Things production, a new monster, Max’s mother, with a monstrous inflating vacuum cleaner, was proposed. (The whole story is a kind of demonic inversion of that tale of a child’s adventure and rescue by his mother, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges.) The idea of the frame, or of the toy theatre on a real-theatre scale, is strong in most of these productions. The Magic Flute looks like a charming game, but executed on a scale that means that the game is playing with its observers.

Even less apparently sincere is the Glyndebourne Love for Three Oranges, where Sendak’s learning and wit was on full display. The source of the design was that most theatrical and mannered of artists, Gian Domenico Tiepolo, the son of the great court painter. The younger Tiepolo’s scenes of absurdly mannered contemporary life inflected by the Commedia dell’Arte are perfect for Prokofiev’s absurdly mannered, rootlessly cosmopolitan fantasy. Sendak’s designs are full of quotation marks, as it were, frames and a sense of dressing up for the particular purpose. For once, the Freudian dramas are somewhat subdued. If this is Sendak’s most haunting opera production, it might be because he wasn’t absolutely conscious in delineating fantasy and marshalling allusions.

The characteristic Sendak style has a familiar and cosy physicality. In much of his work, the human characters appear a little shorter and plumper than most adults, the features somewhat more rounded. It’s the same conflation of infant proportions and adult scale that we sometimes find in Disney’s fantasies. Much more dangerously Disney is the art of the speaking (or singing) animal. When Sendak came to Janacek’s pantheistic masterpiece, The Cunning Little Vixen, he must have been aware that the Disney approach was a temptation that must be avoided. There is no real-life mouse like Mickey, but Janacek’s animals are intently observed and behave as they really would; his heroine lays waste to a chicken coop and murders a baby rabbit. The unsentimental moral at the end of the story is that the animals die, usually violently; their blood goes on, for quick generations. The Sendak designs are beautiful and well-observed; he toyed with giving the fox a frock coat before settling for a much more naturalistic approach.

All in all, this is a handsome catalogue of an intriguing part of the Sendak oeuvre. He was not alone among gay American artists in both being drawn to fantasies of theatrical life, and given the occasional opportunity to indulge his enthusiasm in a real-life production. The great Gothic fantasist Edward Gorey both drew absorbed narratives reflecting his own obsession with ballet, and designed a number of productions with considerable success. Sendak’s world, like Gorey’s, had a unique and powerful flavour across a wide range. It was a triumph to have managed to preserve that warm, learned, grotesque and agreeably neurotic style on stage.

Drawing the Curtains: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet
Author: Liam Doona, Rachel Federman, Avi Steinberg and Christopher Mattaliano
Publisher: Prestel
Page count: 208
Price: £29.99

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