Known primarily for his 1963 illustrated children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak also designed several sets for operas and ballets, inflecting them with his trademark light-hearted style. A new exhibition of his sketches, storyboards, watercolours and dioramas at The Morgan Library & Museum in New York reveals for the first time how the inimitable author brought his set designs to life.
The show includes almost 150 works, selected principally from the 900 items Sendak bequeathed to the Morgan upon his death in 2012. Drawn in his characteristic whimsical style – inspired by British poet and artist William Blake as well as by Italian painters Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son, Domenico – operas and ballets are given illustrative makeovers.
One item on display – a 1981 sketch of a theatre curtain for Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges (1919) – pictures a ludicrous band of masked and caped dogs playing an assortment of toy box musical instruments. Sendak collaborated with Broadway director Frank Corsaro on the adaptation of Prokofiev’s surreal opera, in which illness is cured by laughter.
Another work – a 1983 design for a battle scene from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker (1892) – intersperses warring armies with comic-book clouds. Initially wary of adapting The Nutcracker due to the ballet’s innocuous storyline, Sendak instead turned to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original narrative, which tells a more sinister tale.
Sendak also adapted Where the Wild Things Are into an operatic libretto, set to music by Oliver Knussen, which was first performed in 1980. Costumes for a production by Glyndebourne Touring Opera at the National Theatre, London reached three and a half metres in height and incorporated yak hair, aluminium and lycra.
Having long cited Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a significant influence on his artistic work, Sendak described being approached in 1978 to design a set for the composer’s The Magic Flute (1791) as ‘an extraordinary moment of wish fulfilment’. These designs unite his life-long love of classical music with his irreverent, distinctive and much-loved style.
‘Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet’ is at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, USA, until 6 October.
Main image: Maurice Sendak, Diorama of Moishe scrim and flower proscenium (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on laminated paperboard. Courtesy: © The Maurice Sendak Foundation and The Morgan Library & Museum