Arias on Canvas
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
At the opera, where fantasy never goes out of style, heroines often carry the plot on a high note.They, like all operatic characters, are nonetheless rooted in human experience. Their heroism is palpably real.
The inaugural exhibition of the Metropolitan Opera’s new Gallery Met, “Heroines,” conjures them up as painterly, magical archetypes. Ten well-known contemporary artists contributed paintings and mixed media works inspired by some of the heroines featured in productions scheduled for the Met’s 2006–2007 season, which opened last night. As portraits, they depart from an artistic genre that is typically devoted to individuals rather than archetypes.
Curator Dodie Kazanjian, an art critic and former fashion writer for Vogue, seems uniquely suited to organize the first exhibition of a gallery nested under the wing of the Metropolitan Opera. Her invited artists include Cicely Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Richard Prince, and David Salle, along with relative newcomers to the art scene Barnaby Furnas, Verne Dawson, Sophie von Hellerman, Makiko Kudo, and Wangechi Mutu. The pamphlet accompanying “Heroines” unfortunately omits mention of each painting’s relationship to its chosen character.The assumption that Gallery Met’s audience would be familiar with the operas but not with the artists is logical; at the same time, it neglects the fact that not all art lovers are opera buffs.
Helena, the heroine of Richard Strauss’s “Die Agyptische Helena,” is the beautiful Queen of Troy who prompted the Trojan War. She’s an archetypal figure of feminine sexual power, and both Messrs. Currin and Salle chose to paint her. Rosina, a bride beset by suitors of varying classes in Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” is the subject of portraits by Ms. von Hellerman and Mr. Condo. Mr. Prince pays tribute to the tragic Cio-Cio San, of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” performed at last night’s opening gala. Puccini’s “Il Trittico” honors Suor Angelica, a nun and the mother of an illegitimate child who commits suicide upon learning of her child’s death; she is forgiven for this cardinal sin in the afterlife. Ms. Brown coaxes Suor Angelica’s figure to emerge from inchoate yet suggestive paint strokes that bring her into being. Princess Yueyang, an ancient Chinese character, comes alive in Tan Dun’s “The First Emperor” and in Ms. Kudo’s portrait.
But it is Euridice’s return from the dead and reunion with Orpheus in Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” that sets artistic imaginations most afire. In myth, Orpheus lost Euridice a second time, and sings his beautiful, sad songs in perpetuity; but Gluck gave the tale a romantic ending pleasing to mortals. Ms. Mutu and Messrs. Dawson and Furnas each interpret the miracle of Euridice’s return to life as a thing sublime. Ms. Mutu’s rendition, entitled “Love’s a Witch, Orfeo’s Underworld Coronation for Euridice,” is a mixed media work on mylar featuring “fairy dust” and glossy photocollage. It conveys an ebullience that is all Cartier, legs, ovum, wood grain, and cranberry spray, with a black male ballerina-hunter at the center.Mr. Furnas’s “Untitled (Euridice)” is also cause for extravagant celebration. The heroine stands full figure, in brilliant sunlight, before a frothy surf, like Titian’s or Botticelli’s Venus rising from the waves. Pinker than a lobster, giving voice to a powerful beam of yellow sound, she is attended by curlicues flaring out from her striped bikini, while blue stars stick to her torso.
The opera-going public — and indeed to anyone so inclined to stop by — will be pleased that, at a time when major museums charge as much as $20 admission (not without justification), Gallery Met is not only free but refrains from asking for so much as a donation. Patronage such as this has decided advantages. From a practical point of view, it bestows upon the gallery the most accommodating hours of any art venue in New York: It is open seven days a week, including evenings until 11, except on Sundays, when doors close at 6 p.m. What is more, if chance favors the viewer, she or he will hear the distant warbling of a soprano coloratura, while savoring the paintings’ synesthesia of color, form, and sound.
Until May 12 (south side lobby of Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, Columbus Avenue at 64th Street).