Musical theatre works about painters are, in a odd sort of way, like movies about baseball stars. There’s no reason they shouldn’t work, but they rarely do. Goya has been the subject of hugely unsuccessful pieces by Gian Carlo Menotti and Maury Yeston. Frida, a portrayal of Frida Kahlo, was a mixed success last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. And just last summer, a musical about Leonardo da Vinci titled Leonardo: A Portrait of Love was all but booed out of London’s West End.
Even Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George remains a controversial work, but that piece’s dramatization of artistic creation was a major reason playwright Bernardo Solano and composer William Harper became convinced that the life of El Greco could be musicalized. Rather than basing the plot on one painting – as did Sondheim – Solano Solano wanted 30 or 40 portraying El Greco’s inner life as well as Inquisition-dominated Spain in the 16th century. Thanks to practicality, or perhaps the insistence of set designer Robin Wagner or director Tom O’Horgan, a mere 20 paintings are dramatized as the now-finished El Greco plays at New York’s Playhouse 91 through Oct. 17.Order now
El Greco has a budget of $250,000, thanks in part to a grant from AT&T OnStage, and is the most elaborate production ever mounted by the INTAR Hispanic American Arts Center. The cumulative impact of many paintings is essential for the effect the creative team is after.
“The faces in those paintings recur over and over again, and they were, in fact, contemporaries of El Greco – friends friends and family members,” said Solano, a playwright whose best-known play is Buena Vista. “So we decided from the beginning that we wanted the story to be told by characters moving in and out of the paintings as they were modeling and being painted. That’s a complex thing to do, and we took a lot of liberties. But not much is known about El Greco’s personal life, and that made it easier for us in a way, because then we could just let our imaginations go crazy.”
The underlying ideological concept of the piece is that the Crete-born painter – who was originally named Domenikos Theotokopoulos and trained in Italy before moving to Spain, where he died in 1614 – tried to create a bridge between earth and heaven through his art. Besides exploring what is still considered a highly dissonant use of color, El Greco created figures that became increasingly elongated, almost resembling flames arching heavenward. After spending some weeks in Spain, particularly in Toledo where El Greco spent much of his creative life, Solano and Harper began to understand why.
“Toledo is this city built on a big rock with high walls,” Solano said. “Because of the walls, all you can do is look up and see the heavens above you. That’s the natural thing in the city – seeking a connection with the heavens.” Maybe that’s a high-flown extrapolation, but Solano is the first to admit that he’s always been at odds with naturalism.
Color and ornamentation
Harper had his own revelations: “There was a blind beggar singing, and his song had an Arab scale and ornamentation to it. I wasn’t interested in the kind of Spanish-style music that Ravel wrote. I needed to assimilate some of that kind of color and ornamentation.” Elsewhere, Harper’s musical equation for portraying El Greco’s world included his discovery of the Cantigas di Santa Maria, a series of earthy, folk-like canticles written to the Blessed Virgin Mary, hailing from the 13th century. He also absorbed influences from the rich polyphony of Tomas Luis de Victoria, who was a contemporary of El Greco.
At all points, they resisted the tortured-artist stereotype. “He mostly tortures other people,” asserts Solano good-humoredly. “He’s close to being an unsympathetic figure, and he knows full well what he’s doing to the people around him. He never married the mother of his child because she was Jewish, even though she was a convert. He just couldn’t take the risk of being legally connected with a Jewish person. He wouldn’t get commissions.”
This free interpretation of the paintings clearly isn’t tableau vivant, which Solano believes would wear thin quickly and probably invite criticism from art lovers who would want every detail in place. Exact replication might also create legal problems with the museums that own the paintings. Thus, Wagner’s set consists of unfolding panels that reveal a figure or just a fragment of a painting. “We’d focus on an aspect of the painting, whether it’s a hand gesture or a color,” says Solano. “Often, it’s an emotional response to the painting.”
Dream states and metaphysics
The result is a musical without traditional linear progression, which reflects its authors’ preoccupations: Solano’s ongoing experimentation with dream states and metaphysics, and Harper’s exploration of the dichotomy between real life and spiritual life that he examined in his opera The Snow Leopard, written for the Minnesota Opera.
Director O’Horgan, who played a major role in the creation of the pop opera Jesus Christ Superstar but has little patience for the British megamusical, is enthusiastic about Solano and Harper’s attempts to create a new musical theatre hybrid. “This is an opera that’s quite serious and requires incredible stamina from the singers. But Bill Harper isn’t really interested in the stereotypical opera singer. He wants people who can also project the ideas and the drama of the thing,” observes O’Horgan. “Theatre has come to a place where we have to strike out and find new voices, new ways of using people. This is an amazing period in theatre history. It’s either the worst or the best, but I can’t quite make up my mind which.”