Abstract Animation

Yesterday an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum in New York on the post-war German, and eventually international, network of artists called Zero closed.  I had never heard of the group or most of its members, but it was a great exhibit and an interesting moment in (art) history…

One of the recurring themes for the group and many of its members was movement in art, either literally art with moving parts, or optically, creating the impression of movement.

Vision in Motion / Motion in Vision exhibit at Hessenhuis, Antwerp 1959

Vision in Motion / Motion in Vision exhibit at Hessenhuis, Antwerp 1959

As such, it was interesting that one of the earliest group shows, whose distinctive installation (seen above) the Guggenheim mimicked in part of their own exhibit, was called Vision in Motion – Motion in Vision.  Held in an old industrial building in Antwerp in 1959, it included some moving pieces, proto-op-art pieces implying movement, and one abstract animation by the American Robert Breer.

The Breer piece included in the Guggenheim was Phase Forms IV, from 1959, and the above animation, Eyewash, was from the same year, the earliest piece I could find by him online…  The piece I saw at the Guggenheim, maybe more than this one, reminded me a tiny bit of a better known 1965 semi-abstract animation by that American animation giant, Chuck Jones:

Kindred spirits-ish…

Christmas Caroling

Photo by Lynn Lane

Photo by Lynn Lane

It was just a few weeks ago that I first discussed the young British composer Iain Bell here, specifically his first foray into opera with last year’s dark adaptation of the 18th century moralistic painting cycle The Harlot’s Progress, but the 2014/2015 cultural calendar has brought the premiere of his second opera.  He’s moved one century forward in British art, but the new opera’s source material shares a lot in common with last year’s…

Bell and the Houston Grand Opera have adapted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, apparently emphasizing the eerie ghost elements over the more conventional yuletide cheer…  In another unusual turn, it’s a monodrama for a single tenor, inspired by the one-man version of the story Dickens himself used to perform in Victorian England.

Keeping with the forward march through British literature, Iain Bell’s website already lists his next operatic commission, for the Welsh National Opera, this time adapting an epic poem of the 20th century.  In Parenthesis, by David Jones, was about World War I and culminates in the Battle of the Somme; WNO’s 2016 premiere performance will mark the occasion of that battle’s centennial.

At any rate, I’m hoping Bell keeps up the pattern and makes his next opera about some 21st century British work of literature…  Any suggestions?

The Late Children Speak

Just a quick post about tomorrow’s New York Comic and Picture-Story Symposium event with Marguerite Van Cook talking about her new multi-generation autobiography The Late Child and Other Animals adapted into comic form by James Romberger.  Beyond the author’s own childhood, the book starts with her mother’s experience living through the Nazi bombing of the UK port city of Portsmouth, and subsequently having two children on her own when her soldier husband dies en route back home.

The Late Child and Other Animals by Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger

The Late Child and Other Animals by Marguerite Van Cook and James Romberger

It sounds like an interesting life story and story-story, and the team of Van Cook and Romberger have created some real lovely, trippy art before in 7 Miles a Second, another autobiographical comic created with artist David Wojnarowicz before his AIDS-related death in 1992.  I’ve been planning a separate post about that book for a while, so tomorrow’s event comes at a good time to learn more about Van Cook and Romberger’s collaborative process, and about this exciting new book too!

7MilesASecond-Wojnarowicz

Hogarth’s Progress

 

A Harlot's Progress, scene 1, by William Hogarth, 1731

A Harlot’s Progress, scene 1, by William Hogarth, 1731

At tomorrow’s installment of the New York Comics & Picture-Story Symposium, Abigail Zitin of Rutgers will talk about William Hogarth in a presentation titled “Narrative Art and Visual Pleasure”.  Hogarth’s narrative painting cycles mark him as a proto-cartoonist, with two popular sets of 6 paintings each popularized through more affordable print cycles in their days.  The original, A Harlot’s Progress cycle from 1731, was followed up in 1733 by The Rake’s Progress cycle. (The original paintings of the latter are at the Soane Museum in London; the Harlot paintings were lost to a fire and only survive in the print format.)

After seeing the original pieces in an exhibit in Chicago, composer Igor Stravinsky adapted the story into 1951’s Rake’s Progress opera a neo-classical satire and a modern classic.  The 1975 Glyndebourne Opera production by English artist David Hockney is a classic in its own right too…  As a demonstration of how intrinsically linked this production has become to the opera, this video from Glyndebourne is as much about the production’s creation by Hockney and director John Cox as it is about the music and opera itself:

More recently, the earlier The Harlot’s Progress was adapted into an opera in six scenes (mirroring the original cycle of six paintings) by 34-year old English composer Iain Bell, premiering just last year at Theater an der Wien in Vienna with German soprano Diana Damrau creating the title role.  Unlike Stravinsky’s more comical take, Bell apparently had an unremittingly bleak vision for his Hogarth opera, but it seems to have been pretty well received

Is it any wonder an artist who pioneered narrative paintings would be an inspiration to modern composers?  Only a shame Hogarth didn’t create more cycles to be adapted!

I Guess Opera can still Shock…

This weekend, the Met Opera gave it’s last performance of what became the hot button cultural event of the season here in New York, John Adam‘s 1991 Death of Klinghoffer.

Death of Klinghoffer premiere at La Monnaie, photo by Baus Hermann J.

Death of Klinghoffer premiere at La Monnaie, 1991, photo by Baus Hermann J.

The opera is about the the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, during which a 69 year old Jewish American passenger was murdered.  As you might imagine, controversy has dogged the work since it’s premiere at La Monnaie, in Belgium, just six years after the original events.  That being said, the reception in New York seemed especially strong compared to other recent productions in the US.

Having seen the piece myself last week, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on its merits.

Musically, the opera is known for its choral pieces, which are mostly quite lovely/striking, ranging from peacefully meditative to distressingly aggressive.  Besides the choral music though, I found the music pretty flat at the beginning.  The second part had more diverse music though, from agressive expressions of anger to one weirdly 90s commercial jingle interlude…  All in all though, that diversity I thought included stronger music and made for a more interesting musical experience.

Textually, the libretto by Alice Goodman alternates between poetic and more concrete language, which I found problematic…  Given the reality of not just this particular hijacking and murder, but of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any time someone’s given obtuse poetry to recite feels like a missed opportunity.  Furthermore, it seemed that the Jewish characters were more frequently given poetic lines than the Palestinians, so the Palestinians had more concrete things to say, while the Jews were just harder to understand…

All that said, I don’t think the opera is antisemitic or glorifies terrorism, two critiques often thrown at it.  It obviously depicts hatred, and I think that’s done heart-wrenchingly well.  While Palestinians are given a voice in the choruses, and allowed to express their grievances as displaced people, the terrorists aren’t really sympathetic.  But that comes to another critique, about humanizing the terrorists…  And of course, they are indeed human, not pure avatars of evil, so I think that aspect was pulled off alright…  Despite some glimpses of underlying shared humanity, their actions are never sugarcoated.

All in all, a  gutsy albeit ultimately imperfect attempt to analyze an unapproachably taboo subject through opera…

Now for some totally inappropriate emotional whiplash!

In an infinitely more light-hearted case of operatic culture clash, Juilliard is presenting Rossini‘s 1814 comic opera Turco in Italia starting this Thursday (tickets $30).  Below, the full opera from Zurich Opera in 2001:

Opéra-Cosmétique

I’m starting a new job today at a beauty company in New York so I thought I’d celebrate with the one opera I can think of about a beauty magnate:  Queenie Pie by Duke Ellington!

That’s right, legendary jazz band leader and composer Duke Ellington had a brief foray into opera when he received a commissioned by New York’s public television station WNET for an hour-long opera in 1962.  He used this commission to finally see to fruition a long-standing interest in opera, including the idea to create a musical about Madame C.J. Walker, an African-American woman who became a self-made millionaire with her beauty and hair products marketed to African-American women.

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker

Queenie Pie is definitely not biographical though, apparently going a very different route with a title character only loosely inspired by Walker.  It’s too bad since Walker sounds like a fascinating figure; the first child of her parents to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation becoming America’s most successful female entrepreneur, with plenty of twists, turns, and reinventions along the way.  (See also the official Walker website)

Unfortunately, only bits and pieces of Ellington’s score were completed when he died in 1974, and because of the collaborative nature of his compositional practice as a band leader, it’s hard to complete the picture without him…  It’s been attempted on a few occasions for different productions, most recently at Long Beach Opera earlier this year.  The LA Times review gives lots of  details about the make-up of this most recent performance, and this NPR story goes more into depth with one of the most recent people to take on the challenge of reconstructing the score, musician Marc T. Bolin.

Anyway, wish me luck with my new job!

Muslims in America, Italians in Russia

In catching up on some NY Times arts coverage this weekend I found two Bizarro-Twins-appropriate articles I thought I’d merge into one…

Chronologically first, Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has a new album of baroque operatic arias called St. Petersburg.  Not a city we associate with baroque opera, but as Bartoli’s latest musicological excavation effort points out, as was the case all over Europe, the Russian court was home to several Italian composers patronized by emperors and empresses, alongside other artists from across Europe.  The pieces they composed basically followed Italianate opera conventions, though they were occasionally performed in Russian, but all 11 tracks on the CD are world premiere recordings so it’s certainly a rare set of materials.

 

Bartoli herself went to the Mariinsky Theater archives to peruse these scores, which were sort of hidden especially during Soviet times to suppress the history of Russia looking to Western Europe, a binary that’s relevant to this day.  I’d certainly like to know a bit more about those archival adventures!  (NYT article)

The other story I wanted to share was a conversation between three Muslim-American artists on how being Muslim, and depicting Muslim characters, influences their work.  The trio included Ayad Akhtar, creator of the Pulitzer-winning play Disgraced, currently on Broadway, Sundance award winning filmmaker Musa Syeed, and of special interest to us, writer G. Willow Wilson, creator of Marvel’s best-selling Ms. Marvel comic, of which the first trade paperback came out earlier this month!  It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, and Wilson talks to how the themes of assimilation and representation pop up in Kamala Khan’s own hero’s journey. (NYT article)

Ms. Marvel by Adrian Alphona, Copyright Marvel Comics

Ms. Marvel by Adrian Alphona, Copyright Marvel Comics

Apparently the new Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City whose own comic debuted in February of this year, is now Marvel’s top-selling female character, and that’s with competition from titles like Black Widow, Storm, She-Hulk, Elektra, and even her inspiration, Captain Marvel!  Not bad kid, not bad…