Opera: the ultimate art form?

“I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven” — Richard Wagner

Some might say that Opera is the greatest of art forms, gracefully reflecting the drama of life back at itself. Encompassing all the arts: from music to poetry, from design to choreography, from painting to acting, and beyond. In fact the legendary German composer, Richard Wagner (1818-1883) became obsessed with what he called the Gesamtkunstwerk — the total work of art. He believed his operas were just that. He certainly wasn’t much of a modest chap, but his huge influence on opera cannot be underestimated.

You will probably find it as no surprise that we have some gorgeous books on this ‘ultimate art form’. So, we’re taking this opportunity to tell you all about them. Here at Cornerhouse Publications, one particular member of our team is rather partial to a bit of opera. As a teenager he actually hated opera, but then one day he discovered the work of Richard Wagner. Something changed. The rest (as they say) is history. Anyway, more about Wagner later. 

This spring our esteemed Viennese publisher friends, Verlag für moderne Kunst (VfMK) have just published three art/opera books. We’ve been waiting eagerly for them to arrive. The first one is, CURTAIN – VORHANG: A Living Museum Space – The Vienna State Opera Safety Curtain which brings together the opera house’s major stage curtain design commissions over the past 20 years. It features the work of a dazzling list of international artists including John Baldessari, Tacita Dean, Richard Hamilton, Joan Jonas, Jeff Koons, and Kara Walker, among many others. 

VfMK have also brought into the world two important new books on the late, great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson to celebrate what would be her 100th birthday this year. Birgit Nilsson: 100. An homage is a major piece of epic publishing; comprising over 700 pages in a luxurious and highly collectible presentation box it is the ultimate tome on the life and work of this vivacious, straight-talking operatic icon. It features lots of writings from key figures in the world of opera including conductors, James Levine and Riccardo Muti and tenor, Placido Domingo. As a fitting compliment (and companion book), La Nilsson. My Life in Opera is the reprint of her autobiography, available for the first time in this exclusive English edition.

Birgit Nilsson was perhaps most well-known for her breathtaking performances of Wagner’s operas. So, this is a perfect segue into introducing four books that we have on the maestro.

The Wagnerian Sublime is written by, the often controversial, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. This giant of modern critical thinking gives Wagner’s operas some thoroughly deep, psychoanalytical scrutiny. On a lighter note (sorry, bad pun), Isolde is an elegant artist’s book (of paintings, drawings, photo’s, etc.) created by Elizabeth Peyton, who explores both her lingering interest in Wagner’s opera romance, Tristan and Isolde and the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk. 

Richard Wagner and Africa may not seem the most obvious subjects to unite, however to the late German filmmaker, theatre director and performance artist, Christoph Schlingensief (1960–2010) they were intimately entwined. Essays, artistic contributions and interviews with his contemporaries are brought together in, Art of Wagnis to investigate Schlingensief’s creative preoccupations. For photography enthusiasts we recommend, Wagner in Switzerland which is a beautiful photobook by the composer’s great-great-grandson, Antoine Wagner. The young photographer goes on a journey through the sublime Swiss Alps searching for the spirit of his famous ancestor.

So, maybe you’re a fan of Italian opera? We think these two books might be just what you’re looking for. During the summer of 2015, American artist Kara Walker directed a special production of Bellini’s classic opera, Norma for Teatro La Fenice in Venice (to coincide with the Biennale). The book, Norma features Walker’s beautiful preparatory drawings and photographs of the final sumptuous stage design. Desdemona for Celia by Hilton celebrates a collaboration between artist Celia Paul and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Hilton Als, inspired by their shared love of Verdi’s re-telling of William Shakespeare’s iconic, Othello.

If excursions into the art of contemporary opera are your thing, then these books come highly recommended too. TV chefs, June Spoon and Philip Fork are probably the characters you would expect from an unorthodox opera-of-sorts by renowned British artist of insatiable wit, David Shrigley. In his, Pass the Spoon: A Sort-of-Opera About Cookery he deftly weaves together a new libretto of surreal culinary characters and drawings for our pleasure. 

Rosa is a novel-opera written by controversial BAFTA award-winning British artist/filmmaker, Peter Greenaway. This story is about the violent murder of the fictitious Brazilian composer, Juan Manuel de Rosa (who apparently became known in the 1950s for his music for Westerns). Greenaway’s text eventually evolved into the libretto for the opera, Rosa – A Horse Drama (1994) which is his collaboration with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.

South African artist and raconteur, William Kentridge has a huge oeuvre and is most celebrated for his drawings and animated films. He has been commissioned for his stage designs and role as theatre director on a number of occasions with companies such as English National Opera (London), and Metropolitan Opera (New York). Notes Towards a Model Opera is a substantial volume which unites many of Kentridge’s key works over a period of 25 years. It also focuses on a recent operatic work which addresses the aesthetics and ideals of socialist China from the artist’s own unique perspective.

Don’t you often wonder how we give objects meaning in our daily lives? Well, The Virtues of Things is a mini opera which feeds this curiosity. Written by British writer and performer Sally O’Reilly and composer Matt Rogers, it playfully investigates values, inanimate things, materialities and the limits of sculptural thinking. The piece was commissioned by Aldeburgh Music, Opera North, and The Royal Opera. Quite an illustrious affair indeed! 

As a mark of respect, let’s give Birgit the last word…

“I sang before I could walk, I sang even in my dreams” — Birgit Nilsson (1918-2005)

Posted on 25th April 2018
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