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When the wild rumpus gave way to Mozart: Maurice Sendak at the Gardner

‘Drawing the Curtain,’ a new exhibit showcasing the illustrator’s designs for opera and ballet, sheds light on his love of music and stagecraft.

Maurice Sendak, "Study for stage set #5 (Where the Wild Things Are)," 1979-1983.MLM90260. © Maurice Sendak Foundation, The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013, 2013.103:54. Photography by Janny Chiu.

For generations of fans, the name “Maurice Sendak” instantly manifests his 1963 classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” maybe the most beloved children’s book of all time. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this summer, it would be museum malpractice not to trade on that fame: The museum’s Sendak exhibition, opening June 16, will be complete with a reading nook for the late author’s legions of fans to curl up with the many books he produced throughout his life.

Even so, that’s far from the focus of the show, which the title makes clear. “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” centers on his lifelong fascination with music and stagecraft, and his deep involvement in both. “He was a voracious opera fan, but a very particular fan of Mozart,” said Diana Seave Greenwald, the museum’s assistant curator of the collection. “We have some wonderful early works in the show that he called his fantasy sketches, where he would listen to music and sketch along to it.”


In the late 1970s, renowned opera director Frank Corsaro asked Sendak if he might be interested in designing sets for a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” an opportunity that the artist, by then in his early 50s and somewhat of a celebrity, jumped at. “I’m paraphrasing, but he has a fabulous quote from the time: ‘50 is a good time to change careers or have a nervous breakdown,’” Greenwald said and laughed.

Maurice Sendak, "Magic Flute: Diorama 3," 1979-1980. MLM90921. © Maurice Sendak Foundation, The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013. Photography by Graham Haber.

The breakdown, of course, never happened, and neither did the career change, at least entirely. Sendak continued to write and illustrate children’s stories until his death in 2012. But the offer added a new dimension to his work, and a fresh path to wander down. “Drawing the Curtain” includes more than 100 of his illustrations, storyboards, dioramas, and costumes for four productions, most drawn from the collection of New York’s Morgan Library & Museum. “The Magic Flute” will open the show in an anteroom, with soft strains of Mozart’s score accompanying; Sendak’s designs for a production of Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges,” of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” and of the opera version of his very own “Where the Wild Things Are,” will fill the main galleries.


Together, they illustrate the great breadth of influence Sendak drew on, despite his young target audience. His take on the Prokofiev piece was heavily influenced by the 18th-century painter Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, Greenwald said, while for his version of the Nutcracker, he channeled E.T.A. Hoffmann’s darkly fantastical original text for his own aesthetic. (At the time, Sendak called the menacing, steel-eyed Nutcracker figure he designed “a good self-portrait.”)

Maurice Sendak, "Design for battle scene, act 1 (Nutcracker)," 1982-1983. MLM90197. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum

Sendak, of course, was well-acquainted with darkness. Born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Polish Jewish immigrants, he described his own childhood as a “terrible time,” as news came in constantly of relatives who had either disappeared or died as the Nazis took control of Eastern Europe. “He talked about that as being a formative experience,” Greenwald said. “His parents, and their Yiddish speaking community in Brooklyn, didn’t see childhood as a sugar-coated, protected experience. They were really quite frank about the horrors of the world.”

In the operatic production of “Where the Wild Things Are,” which evolved in Europe with composer Oliver Knussen through the early 1980s and debuted fully formed at the National Theatre in London in 1984, Sendak inserted himself in the story in the form of a monster named Moishe, his own Yiddish name (the production was most recently revived by the New York City Opera in 2011). The opera version was darker, Greenwald said, more tortured and unsettling than the book ever was.


Maurice Sendak, "Storyboard (The Love for Three Oranges)," 1981-1982. MLM90277. © Maurice Sendak Foundation

In the exhibition, “that’s something we’re really trying to lean into — his point of view that there should be some dark or even scary elements to children’s literature,” she said. “With the ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ opera, Max is much more volatile than he is in the book. He cries, he screams in Yiddish sometimes, which is kind of fascinating. Opera is a more histrionic form of dramatic art than children’s books, so he could explore that side of it more deeply.”

By embracing the breadth of Sendak’s life and work, Greenwald is hoping the show finds an audience just as broad. “It should be fun,” she said. “In a way, I imagined the ideal audience to be the grandparent who’s a big opera fan with a kid who’s the big Sendak fan, and they can each get something wonderful out of it,” she said. “It’s for families, but we made sure those intellectual hooks are there, to give it some meat.”


At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, June 16-Sept. 11, 25 Evans Way. 617-566-1401,

Murray Whyte can be reached at Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.