The fantastical and revelatory “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet” is up for the summer at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and it’s a marriage of visionaries.
Gardner died in 1924, four years before the beloved children’s book author was born to Polish Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. They had in common passions for opera and old masters, and a faith in the transformational spaces that museums, books, and performances open within the souls of their audiences.
Two other installations at the Gardner now offer books as jewel boxes of the spirit: “Close-Up: Bourdichon’s Painted Prayers” is the first opportunity to see the unbound, radiant miniatures of a Renaissance-era prayer book by French court painter Jean Bourdichon. And contemporary picture book artist Oliver Jeffers’s “Universes” is the latest temporary mural installed on the museum’s façade. In it, a woman reads in the lit window of a darkened house under a vast, spangled sky. The cosmos outside reflects the one within.
You can’t see it from the street, but the book she’s reading is “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak’s 1963 classic about an obstreperous boy’s adventure within his own imagination.
Sendak moved from the page to the stage when he was around 50, but he’d always listened to Mozart, Haydn, and Wagner as he worked and doodled sequential sketches, depicting opera scenes for fun.
In 1975, the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels commissioned him to write a libretto and craft designs for “Where the Wild Things Are,” with music by Oliver Knussen, which premiered there five years later. In 1978, the maverick opera director Frank Corsaro, then at Houston Grand Opera, invited Sendak to design sets and costumes for a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” in which a girl tames beasts with music. It opened two weeks before “Where the Wild Things Are,” and the artist was off and running. He designed about a dozen operas and one ballet — “The Nutcracker” — before he died at 83 in 2012.
“Drawing the Curtain,” curated by Rachel Federman at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and organized here by the Gardner’s Diana Seave Greenwald, features more than 100 of Sendak’s sketches and dioramas from four productions including “The Magic Flute” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” along with one full costume, a predictably endearing monster, Tiger Boy, a dumpy, fanged fellow in a striped tie and a fez from his “Nutcracker.” There are set pieces, short videos, and children’s books; there’s even a dance floor for young ballerinas.
The show invites viewers into Sendak’s fluid, exploratory processes and rich inspirations. He learned as he went along: an early, human-scaled costume design for a Wild Thing depicts an actor inside and includes notes such as “EYES must move!” In the opera, Wild Things tower over the woman playing Max, the show’s young anti-hero. Costumes weigh up to 150 pounds and had a puppeteer inside, with a singer offstage and someone to move the eyes via remote control.
For “The Love for Three Oranges,” Sergei Prokofiev’s 1921 satirical opera about an unhappy prince based on an 18th-century play be Carlo Gozzi, he turned to commedia dell’arte and borrowed liberally from the drawings of Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo: masked performers, dancing dogs, and an ornery ostrich, who appears on one of the opera’s drop curtains.
The mechanics of Sendak’s creativity are fascinating (he drew storyboards, typical of filmmaking), but the juiciest parts of the exhibition delve into how his capacious imagination was in many ways his salvation. His childhood was beleaguered with troubles. He lost relatives in the Holocaust. He was a frail, often sick boy. He knew he was gay from a young age, but kept that part of his identity to himself. In 2008, he came out publicly in a New York Times interview the year he turned 80. A wall label quotes him: “I couldn’t play stoopball terrific, I couldn’t skate great. I stayed home and drew pictures. You know what they all thought of me: sissy Maurice Sendak. . .”
It wasn’t just that he didn’t fit in. Depression and anxiety plagued him his whole life.
Opera, with its oversize emotions and fantastical stories, was a great place for an artist to express a painful history. There’s more leeway in an opera for rage and violence than in a children’s book. In the opera, Max screams in Yiddish.
“His parents would invite his extended family for meals,” where Yiddish was spoken, Greenwald, the Gardner curator, said in an interview. “Sendak was an American kid between two worlds. He found his relatives terrifying.”
In “Where the Wild Things Are,” Max has conflict with his mother, and then Sendak invokes the power of imagination: His bedroom morphs into a jungle, and he sails to an island where Wild Things live. They try to terrify him, but he becomes their king.
Sendak doesn’t give the Wild Things names in the book, but he does in the opera. One, who appears grinning on a scrim, is named Moishe, which is Yiddish for Maurice. Was Sendak, a famous curmudgeon then middle aged, identifying with his older relatives? More avatars appear in “The Nutcracker,” a commission Sendak was at first leery of taking from the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. He called the children’s classic the “most bland and banal of ballet productions,” as quoted in this show’s catalog. Then he went back to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story, which Tchaikovsky based his 1892 ballet on, and found something less sugar-plummy — a dark tale with an older, pubescent heroine. Seeing its strains of struggle and transformation, Sendak signed on. The ballet premiered in 1983 and was made into a film in 1986.
Sendak’s Nutcracker was a pouchy-eyed self-portrait whose broad visage appears on the opening curtain welcoming the audience into his world. Drosselmeier, the mysterious clockmaker who gives young Clara the nutcracker, reappears in different costumes in the ballet, including in drag, which the exhibition suggests was a nod to Sendak’s sexuality.
In drawings, Sendak refers to Drosselmeier as “the artist.” The clockmaker’s studio is set within a toy theater; the ballet is his fantasy. Sendak saw Clara that way, too. The catalog quotes him in a radio interview: “This is a story about an artist in the family who puzzles the parents, and thus is unwittingly segregated from them, and that’s how she’s going to grow up, in isolation.”
Sendak, it seems, knew isolation. But he also knew its best antidote: the treasures of creation.
DRAWING THE CURTAIN: MAURICE SENDAK’S DESIGNS FOR OPERA AND BALLET Through Sept. 11
CLOSE UP: BOURDICHON’S PAINTED PRAYERS Through Sept 11
UNIVERSES: OLIVER JEFFERS Through Oct. 4
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 25 Evans Way. 617-566-1401, www.gardnermuseum.org