A Night at the Opera

New York

Left: Dealer Larry Gagosian, artist Rachel Feinstein, curator Dodie Kazanjian, the New Yorker's Anne Stringfield, and Steve Martin, with artist John Currin in front. Right: Studio Museum director and chief curator Thelma Golden with artist Richard Prince. (All photos: Julie Skarratt)

On Thursday, I attended a cocktail party and dinner inaugurating a new contemporary-art gallery within the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center. The gallery is the felicitous brainchild of Peter Gelb, the new general manager of the Met. Gelb asked Dodie Kazanjian, editor at large for Vogue, to act as the Met’s curator at large for the gallery. She invited ten artists—Cecily Brown, George Condo, John Currin, Verne Dawson, Barnaby Furnas, Makiko Kudo, Wangechi Mutu, Richard Prince, David Salle, and Sophie von Hellermann—to submit artworks inspired by heroines from the six new productions that the Met is mounting this season. Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice was the choice of Dawson, Furnas, and Mutu. I spent some time contemplating Dawson’s picture: Euridice beckons—more accurately, she points at—Orfeo from her netherworld domain on the sad side of an oddly sunlit River Styx, garbed in what looks like a customized version of the Scream costume. As she seems here rather like a flesh-eating zombie, I took her gesture to mean, “No! Go back. It’s just not going to work out,” which, in fact, it doesn’t, in both Gluck’s opera and the Greek myth on which it is based.

I quite liked Prince’s “Joke” painting apropos Madama Butterfly. The joke reads: “I went to the opera. It was Madame Butterfly. I fell asleep. When I woke up the music was by Klaus Nomi and Cio Cio San had turned into a lesbian and refused to commit suicide. It was a German ending.” Above and below the painted text, Prince has collaged hundreds of pornographic pictures of girl-on-girl hanky-panky. If only there were a contemporary composer as passionately vulgar as Puccini who could carry off the artist’s inspired revision of the all-too-well-known story. Richard Strauss, no stranger to operatic perviness, could have done so with élan. Die Äegyptische Helena, a lesser-known work by one of my favorite composers, was the choice of Currin and Salle. Currin represents a somewhat chunky Helena, her head thrown back in (orgasmic?) ecstasy. Salle’s large-scale painting, a good example of his recent “vortical” style, is also porn-oriented, featuring at its center, as far as I could ascertain, a ménage à trois between a man and two women. Queer theorists–cum–opera buffs beware: Salle and Prince's representations of sapphism are unmistakably heterosexist!

Left: Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson with Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb. Right: Artist David Salle with Dodie Kazanjian.

The event was exceedingly well attended: All of the artists save for Mutu, Kudo, and Hellerman were there, as well as numerous dealers, curators, and artists. The list is long, but I spotted Maurizio Cattelan—a close friend of Kazanjian’s who apparently acted as an unofficial advisor to the project—Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeff and Justine Koons, Chuck Close, Clarissa Dalrymple, Barbara Gladstone, Carol Greene, Neville Wakefield, Yvonne Force Villareal, Thelma Golden, Roland Augustine, and Larry Gagosian. I chatted with Rachel Feinstein, who was wearing an extremely pretty dress that she described as “vaginal japonisme,” I suppose referring to the large “pubic” pleat that ran down its center. An homage to Madama Butterfly, which opened the Met season the following Monday, I wondered? Many of these eminences were also at the dinner, held in the Met’s Opera Club. I was fortunate in my placement: Steve Martin was at my table. Surprise, surprise—Martin said many exceedingly witty things, but a rudimentary, one might say medullary sense of etiquette prevented me from pulling out a pad and writing them all down. Speeches by Kazanjian and Gelb were easier to listen to than speeches at events such as this usually are; for one, both erred on the side of relative brevity. Gelb gave Deitch an especially enthusiastic shout-out—“I would like to thank Jeffery Deitch and all the other dealers,” etc. Perhaps this comment did not sit too well with “all the others”; I did notice at least one prominent dealer shift uncomfortably in her seat, but possibly she was adjusting her hemline. Deitch later explained to me that Kazanjian is an old friend, and that she had asked him to be on the advisory committee for the gallery. He also recommended the fashionable South African architect Lindy Roy, who designed the modest but attractive and attractively understated (rather than annoyingly architectish) gallery, the entry to which is conveniently located on Lincoln Center Plaza.

It is perhaps churlish to find fault in any aspect of this otherwise charming and well-intentioned endeavor. Nonetheless, one wonders how much actual progress is to be made in bringing together contemporary art and fustian opera. Is opera somehow to ride the coattails of “wild” art and glamorous, or at least fashionable, artists? Simply hanging opera-inspired paintings in the gallery doesn’t go very far in bridging any sort of gap. Apparently, it is being considered that artworks exhibited in the gallery might be reproduced in the Opera's playbills, but beyond this modest proposal is the notion that in the future artists might design curtains and even stage sets. I’m certainly not an expert in operatic scenic design, but offhand I can’t think of many notable modern/contemporary art–opera synergisms. David Hockney’s sets for Ravel’s Les Enfants et les Sortilèges (a Met production, 1981) is the only one I can recall—very pretty. At best, perhaps the new gallery at the opera heralds future collaborations of similar brilliance.

Left: Artist George Condo. Right: Dodie Kazanjian with artist Chuck Close.

Left: Artist Jeff Koons. Right: Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

Left: Artist Dana Schutz. Right: Artist Will Cotton with dealer Mary Boone.

Left: Dealer Barbara Gladstone with Gladstone Gallery co-director Maxime Falkenstein. Right: Yvonne Force Villareal with Rachel Feinstein.