Bryce Dessner Creates Mapplethorpe-Inspired New Work With ‘Triptych’

Cincinnati-native and member of Rock band The National recalls Robert Mapplethorpe’s "The Perfect Moment" (and the ensuing culture war) with his new musical work "Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)."

Mar 29, 2019 at 5:04 pm
click to enlarge A performance of "Triptych" at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. - Maria Baranova
Maria Baranova
A performance of "Triptych" at Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

Since word first emerged last year that Bryce Dessner was working on a musical project about Robert Mapplethorpe, there’s been speculation about its form. Many thought — and hoped — it would be an opera centered on Cincinnati’s 1990 attempt to punish the Contemporary Arts Center for showing an exhibition of the late photographer’s work that included several images of men engaged in sado-masochistic acts. 

After all, Dessner — a Cincinnatian who has risen to fame as a band member of The National and is also an emerging New Music composer — was growing up here when those events occurred. 

Conceptually, a grand opera called Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati or Cincinnati’s Perfect Moment (a tip of the hat to the exhibition’s name, The Perfect Moment) would seem a natural. There were at least three acts’ worth of high drama in the historic event. Led by a stern sheriff, conservatives from the city and Hamilton County were not just hunting for pornography in their pursuit of the CAC and its director, but also — so it seemed — trying to posthumously punish Mapplethorpe for being openly homosexual and the art world for accepting it. 

Although some of the photos were tough stuff, the ending was a rousing victory for freedom of speech. A jury sided with the art museum’s right to show and define art, and Mapplethorpe — although sadly not around to know it — became a Cincinnati culture hero. You can just hear that jury/chorus singing out the verdict in an opera.

True, the Los Angeles Philharmonic — which had commissioned the work — gave early indications not to expect something so grand, pointing out Dessner was working with the heralded vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth on the work. But the fact that Cincinnati Opera was among the international array of co-commissioning groups still left reason to believe the work would be operatic — and Cincinnati-ish.

I didn’t make it to the March 5 premiere in Los Angeles of the resulting work that Dessner composed, titled Triptych (Eyes of One on Another). But I attended both the premiere of the staged version on March 16 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and then a “concert” performance at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival.

Triptych, which runs just over an hour, isn’t a traditional opera. It features singers accompanied by instrumentalists and has an important added visual component; enlargements of Mapplethorpe’s black-and-white photographs, including some fairly graphic ones, are projected to the singing of playwright Korde Arrington Tuttle’s libretto. The latter includes poetry by Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s friend, and Essex Hemphill, a gay African-American poet who died in 1995. (The words are also projected.) 

click to enlarge Bryce Dessner (left) and librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle - Pascal Gely
Pascal Gely
Bryce Dessner (left) and librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle

It can probably best be called an oratorio, although it could also be described as a smaller, more intimate operatic “new work.” In Ann Arbor, the projections were dramatically presented on a large transparent scrim in front of the stage; at Big Ears they were shown behind or above those on stage. There were other differences between the two performances, too. 

Dessner’s music was melodically involving and wonderfully performed — starting out like a madrigal but building to something more contemporary. At times the singers made growling sounds, like ghostly mournful cries, which underscored the serious intent. Besides Roomful of Teeth, there were two thrilling soloists — tenor Isaiah Robinson and mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran.

Despite its ambition, I’m torn about the libretto. It had interesting ideas, but was also hard to follow. I was fortunate to attend a post-performance Q&A with Tuttle and director Kaneza Schaal in Ann Arbor to hear their insights. 

As the title Triptych suggests, the piece’s structure was in three parts — labeled “X”, “Y” and “Z.” These are also the titles of the portfolios of Mapplethorpe’s major work. In Triptych, “X” concerns Mapplethorpe’s homosexual S&M photos and tries to express what he felt. “Y” corresponds to the Cincinnati trial — there were projected images of court documents and the singers decried the censors who came forward “with pitchforks in their hands.” But it wasn’t too impactful. 

“Z” was the most challenging part of Triptych. It appears as an attempt to see Mapplethorpe’s work — as well as the artist and man — from the perspective of his African-American models. (Mapplethorpe’s Z portfolio features African-American male models.) The libretto here was partially in the form of a conversation between two men; one, I gathered, is such a model who didn’t get paid in cash and has conflicted feelings about whether or not he was used. 

At the discussion in Ann Arbor, Schaal and Tuttle wrestled with the aspects of Mapplethorpe’s relationship to these models, even while admiring that — as Schaal said — “that man took some stunning photographs of black skin.” (Schaal, by the way, directed last year’s excellent JACK &, an experimental theater work at the Contemporary Arts Center.)

This “Z” section added yet another level to the meaning of the parenthetical portion of the work’s title, Eyes of One on Another, which starts to seem like it’s not just about Mapplethorpe’s legacy but also a statement about how we suspiciously live in America. 

At the end, librettist Tuttle turned to the fearless voice of poet Hemphill to offer an affirmation for how we should be able to enjoy a truly free America,  a place where gay love and marriage are accepted. Dessner found a soaring, choral finish deserving of the poet’s words.

The key part, taken from the 1992 poem “American Wedding,” featured Robinson beginning, and then joined by everyone, singing the refrain, “In America/I place my ring/on your cock/where it belongs.” With repetition, it builds — like the ending of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” — and becomes anthemic. It’s also daring.

At both performances, the finish was met with long, sustained applause. So turning to Hemphill’s visionary poetry, and framing it with Dessner’s music, seemed a wise choice. Still, it didn’t seem the libretto got there easily.

Triptych has an international tour planned. Cincinnati Opera is planning to make it a special presentation for next year’s 100th anniversary season, working in collaboration with the Contemporary Arts Center. The date is set for April 2020. 

UPDATE (March 3, 2020): The Cincinnati Opera no longer will show Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) in April 2020 for their 100th anniversary season. CO's Interim Communications Director Katie Syroney says that the opera has been postponed to a future season, though a new performance date has not yet been set.