Bryce Dessner is preparing a multimedia New Music work about Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs that is inspired by his experiences in his Cincinnati hometown during the 1990 attempt to shut down a traveling retrospective exhibit of Mapplethorpe’s work, The Perfect Moment, and punish the Contemporary Art Center for showing it here. Mapplethorpe had died in 1989.
Dessner is a member of the Indie Rock band The National, all of whose members are from Cincinnati. He is also an active New Music composer who curates Cincinnati’s annual MusicNOW festival. The band formed in 1999 in Brooklyn; Dessner now lives in Paris.
This Mapplethorpe-related project, which will be theatrical in nature, is called Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), and it debuts at the Los Angeles Philharmonic on March 5, 2019 as part of its Green Umbrella series of commissioned new works receiving their world premieres. Meanwhile, a fully staged theatrical version will be presented shortly afterward —March 16-17, 2019 — at University of Michigan’s Power Center in Ann Arbor. Triptych is being produced by Los Angeles Phil in residency with and commissioned by University of Michigan’s University Musical Society.
Triptych will then be presented in a concert version at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in late March, and part of Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 2019 Winter/Spring season.
As CityBeat wrote in 2015, on the occasion of a symposium here about the 1990 events, Mapplethorpe is now firmly ensconced as a giant of art photography for the smoothly beautiful and contemplative classicism of his images of flowers, statues, nude models and the human face (including his), coupled with creative interplay between light and shadow and sometimes infused with eroticism. His legacy includes a series of photographs, known as the X Portfolio, made in late 1970s New York. In those photos, he portrayed homosexual sadomasochistic acts. (Mapplethorpe, at the time, immersed himself in that male S&M subculture.)
Because a smattering of that work was included in The Perfect Moment, the show became controversial at that time. The exhibit raised the ire of cultural conservatives here, including some elected officials, who considered those images pornographic. They lost their case in court, but their censorious efforts shook this city long afterward.
Though it is not being promoted as an opera, Triptych has a dazzling array of international co-commissioning organizations, including Cincinnati Opera. And Opera Fusion: New Works, a joint venture between Cincinnati Opera and the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is planning to workshop it here early in 2019, possibly in January.
Collaborating on Triptych with Dessner are the LA Phil New Music Group, conductor Sara Jobin, librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle (whose libretto will include poems by Patti Smith and Essex Hemphill), Roomful of Teeth, director Daniel Fish, Paul Steinberg (set design), Yuki Nakase (lighting design), Carlos Soto (costume design), Ashley Tata (associate director), Talvin Wilks (dramatic composition), and co-producers ArKtype and Thomas O. Kriegsmann. There will also be a video designer.
The LA Phil website describes Triptych this way:
“Thirty years after the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, we still cannot turn away from what his photos reveal. Composer Bryce Dessner, Librettist Korde Arrington Tuttle and director Daniel Fish in collaboration with Roomful of Teeth and a musical ensemble of 12 players seek to make theatrical the ways Mapplethorpe’s works compel an audience’s complicity and characterize them in the act of attention.
“As a young man growing up in Cincinnati, Dessner’s own exposure to the protests surrounding this galvanizing artist rooted a lifelong kinship to his pivotal body of work. Mapplethorpe’s pictures both unite and divide viewers, provoking a consideration of perceived opposites–their literal as well as emotional and cultural meanings – Black/White, Male/Female, Gay/Straight, Art/Porn, Classical/Contemporary. His pictures seduce, shock, offend, excite, intrigue and scare us all at once. Single images take our breath away through the classic capture of everyday acts of nature and the beauty of their composition. On the other hand, a single image has the power to reveal our fears and our desires and the razor-thin line between the two.
“We confront this work privately, flipping through coffee table books or seeing the work in a museum gallery. But in Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), Dessner, Tuttle & Fish ask an audience to experience these reactions collectively. Through music, projection of Mapplethorpe’s images, and a use of both theatrical and photographic lighting techniques, the work puts the audience inside the artist’s view finder, inside his beautiful, bold, voracious view of how nature and humans look, touch, feel, hurt and love one another.”
BAM’s website describes the presentation this way:
“Situated somewhere between erotic heat and cool classicism, the work of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe obliterates the high-low divide, exploding classical conceptions of beauty. Fueled by a lifelong fascination with the artist’s transgressive, sacred-profane vision, composer Bryce Dessner in collaborations with Korde Arrington Tuttle, video designer Jim Findlay and director Daniel Fish, invites us to experience these arresting images anew. Featuring photographic projections and a new score by Dessner — performed by the daring nine-person vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and a chamber orchestra — Triptych (Eyes of One on Another) examines how we look and are looked at, bringing us face to face with our innermost desires, fears and humanity.”
Other co-commissioning institutions, besides Cincinnati Opera, include BAM; Luminato Festival, Toronto, Canada; Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, Athens, Greece; Cal Performances, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, Calif.; Stanford Live, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.; Adelaide Festival, Australia; John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (for performance as part of DirectCurrent 2019); ArtsEmerson: World on Stage, Emerson College, Boston; Texas Performing Arts, University of Texas at Austin; Holland Festival, Amsterdam; Barbican Centre, London; Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, Columbus; and Celebrity Series, Boston.
It is being done in cooperation with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.