In 1967, when a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute opened at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, the steady pulse of the opera world was sent racing. The costumes and sets had been reimagined by Marc Chagall, the then 79-year-old Belorussian artist responsible for painting the ceiling of the Paris Opera House, and for installing two gigantic murals alongside the Met’s grand staircase (the latter became famous again in 2009 when the cash-strapped opera house was forced to put them up as collateral against a loan).
Chagall’s production design, the subject of an exhibition this summer at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, created plenty of buzz back then, not all good. “All I had heard around the Metropolitan in the weeks preceding the premiere boded ill for the multi-colored, fanciful, way-out sets and costumes,” wrote Speight Jenkins, Jr. for the Times Herald. “Every bad rumor was wrong. From beginning to end, the welter of color created the non-realistic landscape which is the domain of Zauberflöte.”
But that “welter of color” irked others. Chagall’s efforts, which included the design of 39 stage curtains and 121 costumes and masks, were met with mixed reviews, cranky opera critics haranguing the artist for, essentially, making Mozart all about Chagall.
“Until last night, everybody thought that either Andrew Wyeth at the Whitney Museum or Paul Klee at the Guggenheim had the biggest one-man show in town,” grumbled John Canaday in the New York Times. “But it turns out to be Marc Chagall at the Metropolitan Opera.” He added: “A lot depends on which you want more, Mozart or Chagall. This reporter has a greater weakness for Mozart, which made the evening extremely wearing for him.”
Alan Rich, writing for the World Journal Tribune, described a scene in which art-besotted operagoers burst into “wild applause” with “each new stage picture,” an experience that, no doubt, distracted from the music. “By the end of last evening, many members of the Metropolitan Opera House’s audience were convinced that Marc Chagall had not only designed the new production of The Magic Flute, but had also composed the music, written the libretto, sung the major roles, and conducted,” Rich lamented, then punctuated that flight of hyperbole with one last athletic eye roll: “If you admire Chagall’s art, a trip to the Met’s new Flute is at least as valid as a trip to the Museum of Modern Art. And, furthermore, you can divert your attention from it all (with a little effort, to be sure) and have Mozart’s incredible opera thrown in as a bonus.”
Despite initial backlash, Chagall’s production stayed in rotation until the 1981–82 season. In the decades since, other big-name artists have tried their hand at designing The Magic Flute, notably David Hockney for the Met and Maurice Sendak for the Houston Grand Opera (Sendak, wrote the New York Times Magazine, felt Chagall’s production lacked imagination, and that he had “merely imposed his shtetl symbolism on the opera.”) Since retirement, Chagall’s designs have, for the most part, been filed away in the Met’s dusty basement archives. But this summer, fans whose weakness for Marc rivals or outshines their weakness for Wolfgang, are in luck: The Fenimore Art Museum has unearthed several of the artist’s original costumes, along with masks and other production paraphernalia, and relocated the lot to Cooperstown for display through December.
“Chagall was a big music fan, Mozart in particular,” Chris Rossi, the exhibition’s curator, tells Vogue.com over the phone. “His ideas of perfection were the Bible and The Magic Flute. This must have been pure heaven for him.”
That sense of delight comes across loud and clear: The costumes, divorced from the operatic setting, are beautiful, appearing, as Rich wrote nearly 50 years ago, like “Chagall paintings wrapped around people.” Among those on display are the artist’s feathery take on the bird-catchers, Papagena and Papageno (“in amazingly good shape, considering it’s covered in feathers” notes Rossi); his dusty rose and violet gown for the princess Pamina; a set of sun and star-adorned robes in jewel-tone greens and blues for the fatherly Sarastro; a wildly painted cobalt and aubergine silk chiffon and linen gown for the Queen of the Night (“If I could wear any costume in the exhibit, I would wear this one,” says Rossi); and a gold-lamé jacket-and-pant ensemble for the flute-playing hero Tamino, punctuated by an orange tie-dyed silk sash.
“It looks to me like something that would have been influenced by the Beatles, by India,” Rossi speculates about Tamino’s flair. “It could be me reading into it, but it definitely looks like something of what was happening in the world was sneaking in.” A Chagall homage to the counterculture? “He was really hip,” laughs Rossi. “I’ll just say it. It’s amazing.”
For an even more modern take on Mozart’s 1791 opera, museum visitors can head over to the local Glimmerglass Festival, where a new, completely contemporary production of The Magic Flute, directed by Madeline Sayet, goes up on Friday, and runs through August 23. “We were interested in exploring contemporary people trying to find balance and wholeness in life, finding oneself in nature,” I am told by the production’s costume designer Kaye Voyce, most recently responsible for outfitting Ewan McGregor and Maggie Gyllenhaal in last winter’s Broadway revival of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing. “Even in their most extreme, the costumes are definitely clothing.”
Voyce plans to see the Chagall show, but has been too slammed to make it yet (“honestly, the legacy and history of this piece is incredibly daunting!” she admits). For her own take, she looked at a range of influences: everything from technical gear to hunter camouflage to traditional Native American garb to neoclassical dresses. Her Queen of the Night will wear a twenties Madeleine Vionnet–inspired beaded gown that “feels like a dress you could wear to a gala.” Pamina wears a sweater skirt from Brooks Brothers Black Fleece. Sarastro has a coat made out of a neoprene fabric that could be mistaken for Alexander Wang. “We tried to figure out what it would look like at some deep secret lab at Apple where everything new is created,” she explains.
But it’s the hunter gatherer Papagena, who visually steals the show, spending two scenes encased in full 3-D camouflage—the type of fake grass and leaf-adorned, Big Foot–resembling getup that you might find skulking next to a rack of shotguns at your local Cabela’s.
“It’s called a Ghillie suit,” Voyce explains excitedly about her own over-the-top moment. “In the opera she’s supposed to appear in disguise. We thought that’s perfect! It kind of makes you look like a monster, but it’s great.”
The post Marc Chagall’s Wild Designs for Mozart’s The Magic Flute Are at the Fenimore Art Museum appeared first on Vogue.
BEAUTY TIPS & UPDATES BY GABBY LOVE! –Get free shipping everyday on orders $ 35+ at Beauty.com plus earn 5% back!
Gabby Loves Avon #2-