The idealistic fantasy of a “total art work” is one that regularly visits the imaginations of opera producers, probably because they see themselves as already halfway there. With a good score matched to a good libretto, the union of at least two arts—music and literature—appears to be taken care of, presuming a producer has available musicians and singing actors who can do them justice. The producer, stage director, and cast will try to assure that the result is good theatre. All that remains is to incorporate good dancing, good architecture, and good art. Then the total art work is achieved, and the muses are pleased.

Richard Wagner wrote and dreamed of such a Gesamtkunstwerk . But he never really got beyond his private vision of words and music united. Productions of Wagner’s music dramas during his lifetime were limited by the abilities of available singers and musicians, by traditional nineteenth-century theatre practice, and by set and costume designs—the “art and architecture” of opera—of the most conventional romantic-realistic style, which lagged far behind the Wagnerian visions they were supposed to help audiences see.

The most thoroughgoing attempt to realize a union of all of the arts on the musical stage came about in ballet, rather than opera. It was the work of Serge Diaghilev and his Russian Ballet, first in St. Petersburg, then (from 1909 to 1929) in Paris. For a single production, Le Train bleu in 1924, Diaghilev assembled the combined talents of Pablo Picasso, Darius Milhaud, Jean Cocteau, Coco Chanel, Henri Laurens, and the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. In 1911, Diaghilev got Gabriele D’Annunzio, Claude Debussy, and Leon Bakst to collaborate with Michel Fokine on another of his ballets. He persuaded André Derain to work with two composers—Satie and Milhaud—as well as George Balanchine, on a Ballets Russes creation of 1926.

At no period before or since have so many major visual artists been involved in theatrical production. Perhaps the nearest comparable phenomena are the collaborations of Martha Graham with sculptor Isamu Noguchi between 1935 and 1950, and those of choreographers Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor with a number of important American artists during the last thirty years.

The world of modern dance, by virtue of its relative plotlessness and abstraction, may lend itself more readily than opera to interpretations by modern artists. And yet the list of twentieth-century painters and sculptors who have designed sets and costumes for the opera stage is an impressive one. From the early-modern generations, André Derain, Maurice Utrillo, Oskar Kokoschka, Marc Chagall, Giorgio De Chirico, László Moholy-Nagy, André Masson, Pavel Tchelitchev, and Henry Moore have all designed opera productions. Among artists come to fame more recently, Louise Nevelson, Eugene Berman, John Piper, Salvador Dalí, Victor Vasarély, Maurice Sendak, Bernard Buffet, Robert Indiana, and David Hockney have all had the chance to impose their visions on the opera stage.

The earliest known artists of the stage were in fact architects: sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Renaissance and Baroque architects whose impressive designs, more often for pageants, masques, and processions than what we would call “operas,” have come down to us in the form of pen sketches (like Inigo Jones’s), illustrations for books (like Sebastiano Serlio’s), or, in the case of Vincenzo Scamozzi’s great all-purpose set for Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1585), as permanent pieces of theatre architecture. (The Teatro Olimpico is still occasionally used for operas.) Four generations of the prodigiously talented Galli da Bibiena family of Bologna designed opera settings (as well as buildings) all over Europe. Their sketches for stage scenery are now collectors’ treasures. Perhaps the best way to appreciate the Bibienas’ unique and brilliant style is to visit the little court theatre at Bayreuth designed by Giuseppe and his son Carlo in 1748. It remains to this day the perfect rococo opera setting.

A number of serious artists worked for the opera stage in the nineteenth century. The great Berlin architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel designed a memorable Magic Flute in 1816, among other theatrical commissions. But in general the century witnessed a serious division between stage design, which tended toward more and more extravagant, “period-style” illustration, and what we now think of as important nineteenth-century art. By midcentury, the artists we now regard as major tended to see themselves as independent, self-expressive rebels, at war with the ultraconservatives who managed and supported the government, the church, the museums, and the major opera houses—a condition that was to maintain well into this century.

Beginning with Adolphe Appia’s radically purified designs for Wagnerian operas, conceived in the 1890s (for the most part theoretical and unproduced; the widow Wagner would have nothing to do with such blasphemy), a vigorous and exhilarating new movement in stage design swept through the twentieth century. Russian Constructivists, Parisian Cubists, Bauhaus theorists, and a number of other French, Italian, and (in particular) German “total art work” movements fed into this bubbling stream.

The leading figures in innovative opera design, however, were now primarily theatre professionals, not moonlighting painters and architects: people like Alexandre Benois and his son Nicola from Russia, master stage artists who designed scores of operas all over Europe throughout most of the century; Alfred Roller, president of the Vienna Sezession , presenting fresh versions of Wagner and exciting Strauss premières; Edward Dulberg, working with Otto Klemperer at the Krolloper in Berlin (which also commissioned opera designs from Oskar Kokoschka and László Moholy-Nagy); archmodernists of the Neue Sachlichkeit school, creating radical designs for new and traditional operas in several German cities before, during, and after World War II; Caspar Neher, Bertolt Brecht’s chief designer, who began a tradition of astonishingly imaginative opera design at the Komische Oper in East Berlin; Josef Svoboda, Czech wizard of light. The most notorious were Richard Wagner’s own grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang, who gave Bayreuth and opera production generally a new lease on life after 1951, mounting austere symbolist productions washed in light and pure color. Brilliant designers from the legitimate stage (Oliver Smith, Ralph Koltai, Rene Allio) and major filmmakers like Visconti, Zeffirelli, and Bergman added their talents to the opera stage. A reaction against abstract “Appian” (or neo-Bayreuth) austerity led to a new cycle of imaginative, evocative, semirealistic design.

Now all styles coexist in most of the world’s major opera seasons. The most adventurous (and sometimes the most ludicrous) new work continues to be done by designers for the state-subsidized German houses, and by traveling French and Italians. Since the 1950s, American opera companies have been able to share in the international excitement, with productions designed not only by historic masters such as the Benois père et fils but also by many of their celebrated successors, like Alfred Siercke, John Conklin, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Günther Schneider-Siemssen, and Pier Luigi Pizzi.

With so many distinguished professional stage designers to choose from—men and women with years of training in theatre design, close relations with stage mechanics and opera artists, familiarity with the demands of production, and a mastery of lighting and scenic composition—why would the producer of an opera call on a painter or sculptor who is probably unfamiliar with all of these things? And why would a famous artist agree to spend weeks, perhaps months, designing sets and costumes to serve someone else’s work—sets and costumes that will, in the end, probably be made by other people, regarded by critics as “mere illustration,” and stored in a warehouse (or even destroyed) once the production is over?

Sometimes the answers to these questions are simple: (a) for the publicity; (b) for the money. There is reason to suspect less-than-idealistic motives whenever press and public begin to identify the production of an opera not with its composer, its conductor, or even its producer, but with its celebrity designer—a person who has in most cases never designed an opera before. Four interesting examples are “Dalí’s Salome ,” “Bernard Buffet’s Carmen ,” “Chagall’s Magic Flute ,” and “Vasarély’s Tannhäuser .”

Peter Brook, at the time chief of production at Covent Garden, was reportedly so chagrined by the hostile press reaction to his and Salvador Dalí’s 1950 Salome that he quit the company and stopped producing operas, at least for thirty years. (“Would that critics still had such power,” one of them recently lamented.) On that occasion, Dalí avoided his more celebrated excesses, but his surrealist costumes and freakish pomegranate-and-peacock feather sets apparently reduced Straussian decadence to farce. Thirteen years later, Dalí made a second foray into opera, with a comic rewrite of a seventeenth-century Alessandro Scarlatti opera seria for Venice, which included a man on stage watching TV, the artist himself splashing paint, perfumed soap bubbles, one giant weeping eye, and paintings of elephants on legs a hundred feet high.

Bernard Buffet’s designs for Carmen (Marseilles, 1962), with their black, spiky, knife-cut lines, cartoon-cubist outlines, and ink-scribbled costumes, look like any other example of this once phenomenally popular artist’s work. They say “Buffet” far more than Bizet. Alongside the wonderfully imaginative opera designs of professional French scenographers working in the 1950s and 1960s, this contribution by a “real” artist looks unadventurous and tame.

Marc Chagall designed sets and costumes of considerable originality for several adventurous theatres in Russia before and after the revolution. But his designs for the Met’s Magic Flute of 1967 simply imposed on the opera the artist’s established and well-known style. Chagall designed 13 large painted curtains, 26 smaller curtains, and the costumes for a cast of 121, all in his personally symbolic, dazzlingly colorful signature style. It was a tour de force of sorts, not unlike his new ceiling for the Paris Opera of 1963. But (although the opera is certainly open to numerous interpretations) Chagall’s designs seemed to have very little to do with Mozart or Schikaneder, in fact to war against their classic creation. As art critic John Canaday wrote after the New York opening, Chagall’s decors for The Magic Flute represented “the biggest one man show in town. . . . The finesse, the delicacy, the wit, the tenderness of the music were not backed up. They were smothered.”

Victor Vasarély’s oeuvre involves precise geometrical arrays of lines and shapes, often ranked in stripes or grids or interlocking patterns to create vibrating “op art” effects. When he was invited to design a 1984 Tannhäuser for the Paris Opera, he turned Wagner’s world into a series of giant distorted squares that shrank as they receded downstage, and changed color to suit the seasons. His backdrop for the Venusberg bacchanal was simply a huge mirror—which makes a certain psycho-erotic sense. The front curtain, one critic wrote, was in Vasarély’s “own inimitable style that has nothing to do with the work but which will no doubt find a final resting place in some art gallery.”

One odd commission was the engagement of the English sculptor Henry Moore to design a Don Giovanni in 1967 for Gian Carlo Menotti’s Festival of Two Worlds at Spoleto. Moore took no fee, but in return demanded that there be no advance public mention of his participation. He also insisted, according to Menotti, on total control of the staging, which involved Mozart’s dons and donnas posing about stark walls and courts dominated by typically Moore-ish reclining nudes and other giant abstract shapes made out of foam rubber. Generous critics insisted that Moore’s strange, indefinable things gave the opera a “timeless” quality.

Menotti’s engagement of Henry Moore is in one way typical of many artist-opera collaborations of the past forty years, in that it took place in a “festival” setting. Since the war, many European (and some American) opera festivals have been more willing to take risks—including risks on artist-designers—than have city-center companies in their regular seasons. Most of the famous postwar visual experiments at Bayreuth have been the creations of the Wagner grandsons themselves. The painter John Piper has designed for the Glyndebourne and Aldeburgh festivals in England. David Hockney’s first two full-length opera designs and one of Maurice Sendak’s were commissioned by Glyndebourne.

In its opening season (1933), the director of the Florence May Festival invited Giorgio De Chirico to design the sets and costumes for Bellini’s I Puritani; between 1949 and 1952 De Chirico contributed three additional opera designs to the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. His brother, another surrealist painter of note who went by the name of Alberto Savinio, designed the sets for Rossini’s Armida (which starred Maria Callas) at Florence in the latter year. Wilhelm Fürtwangler invited the German Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka to design a Magic Flute for the Salzburg Festival in 1955; he also did a Ballo in maschera for Florence in 1963. The founder of the summer festival at Aix-en-Provence, who had the appealing idea of putting on opera productions each summer in the courtyard of the archbishop’s palace, was committed from the outset to a policy of persuading leading French artists to design the painted drops and flats that separated the performers from the palace walls. Balthus painted a charming Così fan tutte for Aix in 1950. André Derain designed a candy-box Abduction from the Seraglio for 1951, and The Barber of Seville for 1953. André Masson contributed designs for Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in 1952—the same year that Lucien Coutaud designed a dramatic, fantasyland Médée .

Some artists seem to have been designing “stage sets” all of their lives. A great many of the best-known early paintings by Giorgio De Chirico, for example, look like ominous, empty stage settings waiting for something to happen. But although De Chirico was frequently asked to design for the stage, and in eight cases for opera, his theatre sets bear little resemblance to his “stage set” paintings. The former look disappointingly old-fashioned—stylistically clumsy painted drops that lack either the disquieting power of his best early painting, or tile useful and novel vigor of good professional stage design. This is probably due to the fact that his opera commissions came well after his important, “metaphysical” early work. By the 1920s, in fact (when he was not simply copying earlier motifs), De Chirico was turning out—on canvas as on stage—casually imprecise visions of a classical world, painted in a sort of garish, primitive “Renaissance” style.

Since 1958, the American sculptor Louise Nevelson has been creating magnificent, otherworldly walls made up of shallow, precisely crafted wooden boxes stacked in grids, each box carefully inlaid with bits and pieces of machined and unfinished wood. The whole wall, which may be ten feet high and twenty feet long, is then spray-painted black, white, or gold, depending on the mood Nevelson wishes to create. These “environments” achieve a hieratic, sacred quality, like altars or altar screens for some primeval religion, and I can well imagine one serving as the background for an opera or a ballet.

In 1984, Nevelson designed a simple, flat version of one of those walls as the setting for Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis: a giant painted grid of gold-edged black rectangles variously filled with gold circular and triangular shapes. The chorus carried standards that repeated these motifs. The spectacular costumes and jewelry Nevelson designed for the opera’s hellish, earthly, and heavenly creatures were not unlike the costumes and jewelry she designs for herself.

Certain artists specialize in dreamlike (or nightmarelike) visions, which seem appropriate to dream- or nightmarelike operas: The Magic Flute, Le Coq d’or, L’Enfant et les sortilèges, The Cunning Little Vixen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; or (among the nightmares) Elektra, Erwartung , and Lulu . This is probably the kind of “appropriate” collaboration the Metropolitan Opera had hoped for with Chagall’s The Magic Flute; or that Jean-Louis Barrault intended when he engaged the aging surrealist André Masson to design the Paris Opera’s first Wozzeck in 1963.

Neither venture was 100 percent successful—any more than the operatic collaborations of other “dream” artists, such as Pavel Tchelitchev and Giorgio De Chirico. Perhaps the incarnated dreams of genuinely visionary artists are too personal, too uniquely expressive of their own needs and impulses to represent or even comment usefully on the special visions of composers.

A few artist-opera collaborations seem to have worked either because the artist had thought long and deeply about a work he cared for very much; or because there was a particular affinity between his style and that of the composer. Despite the fact that he was sixty-seven years old and very ill, and had been doing little more than copying his own early works for many years, Maurice Utrillo was an obvious choice for the Opéra-Comique’s fiftieth anniversary revival of Charpentier’s Louise in 1950. Both composer and artist were in love with a fantasy image of la vie de bohème and Paris as it used to be. The sets Utrillo drew could have been (and perhaps were) borrowed directly from any one of the hundreds of loving views of Montmartre he had painted in the preceding forty-five years.

David Hockney’s designs for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (first used at Glyndebourne in 1975) represent another apt meeting of minds. This time the meeting was not so much one between artist and composer, or artist and authors, as between the artist and what had been the composer’s and authors’ own original inspiration: a narrative series of paintings by the eighteenth-century English painter and engraver William Hogarth. Stravinsky’s librettists, W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, contrived the opera’s plot from the story implicit in Hogarth’s series. Hockney then took as his cue what one might call “Hogarth’s world”: its costumes and architecture; its taste for artifice, generality, and overt moralizing; the very lettering style; the cartoonlike drawings; the fussily filled panels and cross-hatching technique of Hogarth’s popular engravings. Hockney found in these engravings a certain congruence to his own experiments in the early 1970s with eclectic, technically precise drafting. In the end, he believed (and most critics agreed) that his personal absorption and recreation of Hogarth’s style not only suited a work drawn from Hogarth; but also echoed, or perhaps “shadowed,” Stravinsky’s own musical technique, which made obvious use of eighteenth-century borrowings. “Stravinsky’s music,” Hockney has said, “was a pastiche of Mozart’s, and my design was a pastiche of Hogarth.”

Robert Indiana, the artist of American pop images (the tilted-O “LOVE” logo, American Dream dart boards, road-sign letters, Marilyn Monroe, Model-T Fords), confesses to having been captivated by Gertrude Stein, and the Stein-Thomson operas, since he first heard of her and them in the 1950s. His second one-man show in 1964 began with a concert of Virgil Thomson’s music, including excerpts from The Mother of Us All , composed in 1947 to Stein’s text on Susan B. Anthony. After their meeting at that concert, the composer wrote a “musical portrait” of the artist. Later still, Indiana designed posters for an exhibition of the Stein family’s art collections and for the opening of another Thomson opera.

In 1965, Virgil Thomson invited Indiana to design the sets for a UCLA production of Mother . Although they weren’t used at UCLA, Indiana’s sketches formed the basis for the Center Opera Company’s production of The Mother of Us All at Minneapolis in 1967—the text rewritten by the artist to incorporate a Model-T Ford, a Mississippi River showboat, and various new characters identified by Miss America banners across their chests—and then for a definitive bicentennial production at the Santa Fe Opera in 1976.

The Stein-Thomson-Indiana interaction is one example, I believe, of an artist-designed opera at least as successful as the Diaghilev dance/art collaborations of the 1920s, or those arranged by the Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation since 1956. Not only did the artist care profoundly for the opera he trying to make visible; he was also able to work closely with the composer (as Alfred Roller had worked with Strauss and John Piper with Britten). Indiana had evolved a flat, sharp-edged, pop-iconic, circus colored personal style that drew from sources not all that different from Stein’s and Thomson’s, and that helped to realize the full potential of their opera. Alfred Frankenstein described Indiana’s sets at Santa Fe as combining “the best features of three great American entertainments: political convention, a traveling circus and a beauty queen pageant.”

In a relatively few cases, independent modern artists have grown so fascinated by the challenge of designing for the opera stage that they have tried to master the intricacies of production and the politics of collaboration. Through opera after opera, year after year, they have made themselves into full-fledged and successful artists of the stage. Some, like Natalya Goncharova (whose dazzling 1914 sets for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Le Coq d’or have never been surpassed), Alexandre Benois (who remains my favorite opera designer of this century), and a few of their Russian contemporaries are now better known for their stage designs than for their gallery art. A number of Neoromantic French artists who first emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, like a few German and Austrian Neue Sachlichkeit painters, are also best remembered today for their theatre work.

In recent years, artists who have established notable reputations as designers for opera include Eugene Berman (1899–1972), John Piper (1903–), Maurice Sendak (1928–), and David Hockney (1937–). Eugene Berman, born in St. Petersburg, was identified by the 1920s as one of a group of “New Romantic” artists in Paris, along with his friends Christian Bérard and Pavel Tchelitchev—artists who rejected nonfigurative abstraction for variously stylized forms of pictorial realism highly charged with emotional appeal. Berman’s own penchant was for a melancholy, lyrical kind of historical nostalgia, vestiges of dream castles and ruins, tattered draperies, haunting shadows, all exquisitely sketched in ink or painted in bright glowing colors.

After designing a number of ballets, both in Paris and in New York (where he moved in 1935), Berman designed five operas for the Metropolitan between 1951 and 1963: Rigoletto, La forza del destino, The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni , and Otello , plus a Così for the Piccola Scala in Milan in 1956. (He moved to Rome to paint in the 1950s.) Berman’s designs represented the most interesting and original work to appear on the Metropolitan stage during those years, and helped break its long tradition of stultifying historicist sets. A conservative among twentieth-century painters who was deeply attached to Italian Renaissance art and architecture, his work was highly successful on the opera stage, perhaps for those reasons. Berman knew well the operas he designed and respected the demands of the stage. A highly sophisticated colorist, stage architect, and manipulator of shadows, he knew how and when to twist realism into surrealism, and provided audiences with sets and costumes that were at once original, beautiful, and historically evocative, if not always clearly related to the opera in question.

John Piper is best known to followers of opera for his many collaborations with Benjamin Britten. Piper designed the first staged productions of The Rape of Lucretia (1946), Albert Herring (1947), Billy Budd (1951), Gloriana (1953), The Turn of the Screw (1954), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960), Owen Wingrave (1973), and Death in Venice (1973). The two men were close friends of long standing—Piper’s wife Myfanwy wrote some of Britten’s librettos—and could work together in intimate and productive fashion. But Piper also designed sets for other plays, ballets, and operas (notably a Don Giovanni for Glyndebourne in 1951).

He was an extraordinarily versatile and popular artist. He illustrated books, designed stained glass windows (including a memorial window to Britten at Aldeburgh and the great baptistry windows for Coventry Cathedral), posters, ceramics, and fabrics. His ghostly, Impressionist paintings are saturated with a deep sense of place, time, and longing; of realism vanishing into ruin or dream; of a present haunted by the past. His style was at once accurate and evocative, highly personal and recognizable, yet always respectful of his subject. It served as well for travel guide illustrations, a wartime series of paintings of bomb-damaged churches, and a suite of twenty-six watercolors of Windsor Castle commissioned by the Queen Mother, as for the ghostly projections of The Turn of the Screw , and the flickering gold and blue images of Venice’s palaces and canals that form part of Aschenbach’s waking dreams in Britten’s last opera.

Maurice Sendak is best known as an ingenious author and illustrator of books for children—at least thirty written by other authors (including both Grimms’ and Andersen’s tales) and twelve he has written himself. In November 1980 he began his series of opera designs (in collaboration with director Frank Corsaro) with a Magic Flute —the all-time favorite artist’s opera—for the Houston Grand Opera. In this production, characters in eighteenth-century costume performed against a charming Sendak dream world of temples and grottoes, tropical foliage, and imaginary animals painted on a succession of drops, which drew more applause than the singing.

That same month, Oliver Knussen’s operatic version of Sendak’s book Where the Wild Things Are opened in Brussels. It was repeated at Glyndebourne, along with another of Knussen’s children’s operas, in 1983. In these, Sendak’s sets and costumes essentially reproduced the artist’s fancifully grotesque book illustrations. Meanwhile, the New York City Opera had produced his and Corsaro’s version of  Janácek ‘s The Cunning Little Vixen in 1981. Glyndebourne introduced their production of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges in 1982. In the summer of 1987, a double bill of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges —which has a story very like that of Wild Things —and L’Heure espagnole , two more fantasy operas with Sendak designs, were produced at the Glyndebourne Festival. An Idomeneo was produced at Los Angeles in 1990, in which I found Sendak’s cartoonish decors ill-attuned to Mozart’s opera seria.

After his remarkable success with The Rake’s Progress , which has now been produced in several cities, David Hockney—one of the most successful and popular painters of his time—was next invited to design a Magic Flute for Glyndebourne in 1978. Drawing on manifold sources (Giotto, Paolo Uccello, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, eighteenth-century images of Egypt, etc.), Hockney created another series of obviously artificial drops and flats painted in unmodulated areas of glowing earth-and-sky tones, plus two marvelous images for the fire and water ordeals, and the finest realization I have ever seen of Schikaneder’s impossible final-scene demand: turn the stage into a sun. These share the witty cartoon- or posterlike directness of Hockney’s Rake , and add to it a greater eclecticism, exoticism, range of color, and outlandish perspective. The decors for both these operas have been used in several cities.

For 1981, John Cox asked David Hockney to design two three-part productions for the Metropolitan Opera. The first began with the Milhaud and Cocteau circus ballet Parade , originally designed by Picasso in 1917. It continued with two one-act French operas, Poulenc’s gaga Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1945) and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925)—both based on scripts (by Apollinaire and Colette, respectively) written in Paris in 1917. The combination allowed Hockney to pay tribute to the early modern School of Paris artists the three works evoke (Parade included direct borrowings from Picasso; L’Enfant recalled Matisse), while playing some splashy colorist and Cubist games of his own. The second trio—an all-Stravinsky evening—included Le Sacre du printemps , danced on and in front of two great circles of changing color; an all-blue “Chinese porcelain” Le Rossignol , with dancers on stage and singers off; and Oedipus Rex , sung by formally dressed and arranged soloists and chorus, wearing huge white masks, on a great circle of blood-red light.

In December 1987, Hockney displayed the results of his greatest challenge so far—a new Tristan und Isolde for the Los Angeles Music Center Opera—a leap into musical drama deeper and more tragic than anything he had dealt with before. Despite some intentionally dazzling color combinations, a few provocative cartoonlike shapes (the sails of Isolde’s ship, the steeply raked and regular “forest” outside her castle), and a transcendentally moving “light show” for the final scene, some observers—including me—felt that with Tristan , Hockney had ventured out of his depth.

Producers of opera, for the reasons I’ve been suggesting, keep inviting famous artists to design their productions, and famous artists keep accepting these invitations. If these idealistic, “total art work” collaborations often end in failure, this may reflect the fact that serious artists are not , by and large, entirely happy in the role of craftsworker-collaborator.

From Pablo Picasso to Robert Indiana, artists have insisted on the right to alter a libretto to suit their visual impulses. Whatever the libretto, the score, or the director may propose, the artist may insist on expressing his own private visions. He may dislike having these visions interpreted by mere follow-the-dots crafts-workers, whose job fit is to enlarge the artist’s inspired sketches into stage-sized drops and make-believe places. He may dislike the idea of his valuable efforts being regarded as anything less than permanent, although he can still exhibit, sell, and publish his sketches, as many contemporary artist-designers do.

Famous artists who have worked for the opera stage, unable to yield to the imagination of a rival artist, have often overwhelmed the works they were invited to illustrate and evoke. The result then is likely to be not a collaboration, but Chagall versus Mozart, De Chirico versus Bellini, Masson versus Berg. This seems to me true of some of the most celebrated Diaghilev Gesamtkunstwerk creations. Not only did Picasso force Cocteau to rewrite his scenario for Parade; he also obliged Massine’s dancers to parade about in what were nothing more or less than his own 1914–1916 paintings come to life. The dancers were no longer human beings, but Über-marionetten , giant puppets encased in thirteen-foot-high body masks, walking cubic sculptures.

“The use of famous painters as set designers,” Walter Felsenstein once remarked, “which is particularly popular with the French, is not only wrong but even grotesque. . . . The set designer . . . must give himself utterly to the stage if he is to explore and master the laws of the stage, which are so radically different from those of painting.”

In a few classic cases, like the Indiana-Thomson collaboration (Fernand Leger’s ventures with Darius Milhaud seem to have worked with comparable success), a fortuitous coincidence of artist’s style and composer’s style has yielded an onstage incarnation of the musical idea. If one can find an independent, visionary artist who is willing to collaborate, willing to participate, willing to learn the requirements of actors, singers, and musicians, willing to take his or her own private needs and submerge them into, or at least merge them with, those of other artists, there is a chance that our conception of an opera may be illuminated and enlarged—which in the end is the soundest justification for such rare and risky joint ventures.

Fuente: David Littlejhon, The Ultimate art. Essays around and about Opera, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 266-277.

 UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004

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