Friday, June 20, 2008

Opera Rules!

Final Scene of Manon Lescaut
Oil on Canvas 16" X 20"

I've really been busy of late. I love opera and have since childhood. In fact my first blog--Jan. 25,08 was entitled "How to Enjoy Opera." In it I spoke of how I and a couple of other opera lovers founded an opera company here in Portland Maine. It's called PORTopera and we are now into our 14th season. Check out its website at to get the whole story. It'll give you an idea about why we can be so damn busy at this time of year.
As subjects for painting, you'd think with all the emotion, plot machinations, beautiful music, stunning sets, costumes, etc. that there would be much inspiration and treasure in opera for the artist to mine. Opera does show up here and there in the art museums, Degas comes to mind, but no one painter really has focused on it. I think that's because any operatic subject offers profound complications. For one thing, the painter must be expert at face, figure and gesture. And if you want to show a setting from the stage, you have severe distortions in lighting, value, color, abstract scenery and a lot of other things to distract you.
But, listen, why are we here? So, I blithely stride forth and once in a while give it a shot. And here I tackle the final scene of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut."
This opera tells the story of a simple country girl who is courted and falls in love with a well-to-do young man. She becomes infatuated with her new found comforts, but soon becomes bored with her lover, and she moves on to an even wealthier older nobleman and more of the trappings of luxury he offers. But the old flame still burns and she is caught in fragrante delicto with her lover. The nobleman has her imprisoned to be exiled to America. Just before the ship embarks, the first lover arrives and pleads with the captain to be let aboard to join her.
They land in New Orleans where they become impoverished. The final scene shows the couple in a desert "west of New Orleans"--Puccini didn't study U.S. geography very well-and they are dying of starvation and thirst. The lover leaves to find help. But Manon has visions of demons and death and dies alone in fear and madness--still in her finery. I tried to capture this all, but trust me it's better with the music.

Maguerite's Spinning Aria from Faust
Oil on linen panel 10" X 8"

Everyone knows the Faust legend in which Faust, an old philosopher, sells his soul to the devil to regain his youth. The devil approaches him and tempts him by showing him this vision of the beautiful and virtuous young girl, Marguerite. The purpose of this scene is to build the character of Marguerite--purity and virue--and contrast it with the cynicism of Faust and the evil of the devil. PORTopera's Stage Director staged it this way, showing Marguerite in the innocent act of sewing surrounded by young girls. With the arrangement of the straw hats, it made a very effective scene and one of the few in the opera that could be captured on canvas.
Oh, yes, back to the story... Of course, Faust, aided and abetted by the devil, seduces Marguerite, corrupts her, gets her pregnant and abandons her. In the end, he regrets all this bad stuff, but it is too late and the devil drags him off to hell. At the end of the opera there is redemption in a swelling of some of opera's most powerful music as Marguerite is seen ascending to heaven. In opera this is called an "apotheosis." (You could look it up.)
I'll come back to this subject now and then and if you have stayed with me this long, maybe you ought to give opera a listen--at least read my January blog!


Frank Gardner said...

Hi Jack. I must admit that I know nothing at all about opera besides from the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny cartoon and your previous post.
It is great that you tried to capture the emotion of these two on canvas.

Amy Sullivan said...

Hi Jack, you know I love Opera too. It is pure magic. And as you point out, the story lines are almost always very dramatic, tragic or funny.Really good stuff.And even if it is sung in a different language, I find by just knowing a bit about the story, I get pulled in and for that moment, I understand that language.
I have had the great pleasure of painting the sets for the Washington National Opera, in 1988,Johann Strauss, Die Fledermaus. That was some fancy painting :D I was working in N. Va. at a scenic company called Scaena Studios, this company moved from Boston, so we also had the Boston Ballet for clients.
Anyway, I was thinking, have you asked if you could take pictures during dress rehearsals? From all I know about production, I think most stage managers,(that's who you would want to get in contact with)would most likely let you take some pictures.Or, they surely would not mind if you found yourself a spot & sketched during rehearsals.It doesn't hurt to ask.It would be fun & actors love that kind of thing.
The two paintings you have done look,great & have the drama. So, I think it would be a wonderful thing, if you could get into the theatre & spend some time sketching.Rehearsals are pretty relaxed & there are always people just setting in the audience for whatever reason.I'd bit they would allow it.
Oh-Kee-Doe-Kee, I sure have enjoyed this chat :D Amy

Jack Riddle said...

FRank--it's an aquired taste, but it takes time, too. As Amy points out, the story lines can be very meaningful and if you get into it, you can develop an almost religious devotion to it. Just about like painting!
Amy--wow--you have great credentials in this. As a founder of the company I can pretty much do what I want re rehearsals. We also have a company photographer who takes literally hundreds of shots at dress rehearsals. Also we have a videographer record the dress as well. It would be hard (for me anyway) to sketch because so much changes so quickly, but as I move along I will research the thousands of photos we have to find suitable subjects. Our Stage Director is an absolute genius at choreographing scenes that often result in tableaus such as you see in master paintings--or the Faust piece, for example. Thanks for the informative comments.

Anonymous said...

This is all wonderful. Your paintings have enticed my interest in opera. I will take a look at your January posts. Thanks!


Amy Sullivan said...

I am feeling very silly. How did I miss that you were a founder ? I just hopped in there & was reading everything else. So, yep, you can pretty much come & go as you please. And, wonderful that you & your friend
are supporting the arts threw Opera. And, sounds like you have a fantastic production staff.
Theatre is so exciting.The whole process never ceases to amaze me. So much needs to go right & yet something always goes wrong. And on opening night... Magic! Amy

rob ijbema said...

love the red glow in the faust one tells a wonderful story!

Jack Riddle said...

Paz--that's music to my ears--Thanks!

Jack Riddle said...

Amy--yeah, this company plays way over its head. Because of our Artistic Director's affiliation with places such as the Met, Julliard, Manhattan School of Music, agents, trade, etc., we get singers and designers that other companies our size can't get. So our work is highly regarded (not bragging, though!). Our weakness is the usual: the $$$$ needed to support the work. But so it is with just about everyone in the performing arts.

Jack Riddle said...

Rob--The set for this was very minimalist and used blacks and reds in various intriguing ways. Glad you picked up on the red.

Dianne Mize said...

Jack, so glad you visited my blog so that I could discover yours. I am devouring your discussions and really enjoying your paintings. I'll be back.