Bel Canto: Contemporary Artists Explore Opera

SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta, 505-989-1199,; through Sept. 1

If you’re not already a fan of opera, it can be quite daunting. For many people, iconic works like La Traviata, La Bohème, Rigoletto, Tosca, and Madame Butterfly represent the epitome of highbrow pretension. They are, some feel, more suited to the tastes of the aristocracy than the masses.

But you don’t need to be fan to see SITE Santa Fe’s latest exhibition, Bel Canto: Contemporary Artists Explore Opera, which is the organization’s first collaboration with the Santa Fe Opera. Here, eight contemporary artists from across the globe use the opera — its trappings and tropes, stories, settings, and venues — to create photographs, videos, works in mixed media, and one installation.

Spread across eight galleries, Bel Canto reflects director Irene Hofmann’s proclivity for the minimal, even with the addition of brightly colored curtains intended to evoke a theatrical setting and chairs borrowed from the SFO’s prop shop. Happily, these additions don’t compete with or detract from your experience of the artwork. But much of the exhibition only touches on the musical form, often leaving the viewer to grasp for connections and, ultimately, meaning. At its most engaging, though, the exhibit is marvelous.

Take Lisbon-based artist Vasco Araújo’s Diva, a portrait (2000). In a small room dressed to suggest an opera singer’s early 20th-century dressing room, photographs, a bouquet of flowers, women’s clothes, and perfume bottles seem to support our expectations of the gender of said diva. But among them are objects more suited to a man: a bottle of aftershave, men’s shoes, and a razor. The imagined singer is, in fact, Araújo, and the work, the wall text tells us, addresses issues of gender in opera. (What are the gender issues in opera? This piece won’t supply an answer.) It’s a flawed illusion, however, and the makeshift space does little to draw you into the trick. More effective is the video component (in the next room) in which Araújo, dressed as a woman, performs a series of arias. The sound, though, is dubbed by a woman simply reciting the mournful words to the lyrics. The collision of voice and singer skewers expectations of gender roles and makes for a more impactful impression.

Some of the works seem to be testaments to idiosyncratic artistic obsession, rather than thought-provoking or engaging inquiries into their subjects. Like Araújo, American artist Suzanne Bocanegra created an installation, this time inspired by French composer Francis Poulenc’s tragic opera Dialogue of the Carmelites. In Bocanegra’s Dialogue of the Carmelites (2018), yellowed pages from the 1950s-era A Guide to the Catholic Sisterhood line the room’s walls like rosary beads. In each, she has embroidered small sections of photos of nuns in habits worn by religious orders of the time. She’s said that the work was inspired by the notion of a theater production — and her favorite opera. (The New York artist’s work includes performance and sound art, as well as visual works. Here, David Lang’s score is lush, lyrical, and deeply interesting.) But there’s no explicit link tying her work to the opera. Her augmentations, too, are subtle and don’t capture or reflect on the form’s inherent drama. It all seems like overkill. Still, Dialogue of the Carmelites, like almost every work in Bel Canto, benefits from reading the wall text or listening to the audio tour — a dial-in app available through your cellphone and a first for SITE — to hear the artist speak about the work.

Like German photographer Candida Höfer and Argentinian artist Guillermo Kuitca, Matthias Schaller focuses on the arenas in which opera is performed. The German artist’s Fratelli d’Italia (2005-2017) is a grid of 150 photographs of the nearly identical interiors of Italian opera houses, all shot from the vantage point of the proscenium. To emphasize the uniformity, Schaller desaturated the colors of the images. But again, without more information, it likely wouldn’t register. Nor would the fact that the opera houses were all constructed in the 19th century in the midst of Italy’s unification. Lost on the viewer is the idea that, when taken together, the images represent a portrait of Italy at a particular point in its history.

Höfer has built a career on her documentation of public spaces, including museums, libraries, and zoos — all with photographs devoid of humans. In Teatro di Villa Mazzacurarti di Bologna I (2006), she documents the interior of an Italian opera house in an approximately 6 ½-by-8-foot chromogenic print. Opened at the end of the Rococo era in 1763, the opera house retains the ornate decorative motifs of that era and is highlighted by a series of caryatids supporting its interior walls. And at first glance, the massive size of the image seems to capture the epic nature of a hall made for opera. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that the opera house is surprisingly small, with room for only about 80 spectators and clearly worn. Although one can appreciate the beauty of its architecture and design, the single photograph stands as little more than a record.

Kuitca’s work is the most visually dramatic of the three, but ultimately feels empty. In 32 Seating Plans (2007), the artist digitally manipulated the floor plans of opera houses, then submerged the prints in water, causing the ink to bleed and imbuing them with the appearance of small watercolor paintings. Also shown are works from his Acoustic Mass series (2005): abstracted drawings and cut-paper collages inspired by the acoustic effects inside London’s Royal Opera House. Kuitca transforms views of its interior into fragmented, staccato representations. Beyond the immediate visual impact, one is left with one question: Why an opera house and not, say, a cinema or a sports arena? It’s intriguing, however, to consider that Kuitca is exploring the dynamism of a theater from the vantage point of the audience and translating that experience into a visual impression.

Bel Canto strikes a high note in its three video presentations. Yinka Shonibare’s Addio del Passato (2011), for instance, is a moving, 17-minute film that reimagines the last act of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata as that of an ill-fated romance set in British colonial-era Africa. (Shonibare is a Nigerian-British artist whose work often deals with colonial legacies.) He costumes the players in his film in vibrantly colored, richly ornament garments based on African textile designs. He recasts the characters Violetta and Alfredo as the real-life figures of Vice-Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and his estranged wife Frances “Fanny” Nisbet, finding in their story a parallel with the tragic opera. Black lyric soprano Nadine Benjamin’s passionate rendition of the final aria evokes feelings of heartbreak and regret. Its theme of death is a reflection on colonialism’s dark history. One doesn’t need to be familiar with Nelson’s story or even Verdi’s opera to be moved by the feeling of tragic emotion.

Then there’s South African artist William Kentridge’s playful Learning the Flute (2003), an eight-minute video projected on a chalkboard. The work is an unconventional look into the renowned artist, filmmaker, and set designer’s process for developing stage productions. In this case, it conjures a 2003 production of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute, which he designed for the Royal Opera House in Belgium. The video is suffused with animations of chalk drawings he created while working out ideas for the set design. The video fascinates mainly because of its reflection of the artist’s working style, but it is also quirky, whimsical animation, in keeping with that opera’s lightheartedness.

Also captivating is New York-based artist Bill Viola’s video Becoming Light (2005). The work is a companion piece to a video projection Viola created for a 2005 production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde at the Paris Opera. Knowledge of that tragic story isn’t necessary to fully appreciate this eight-minute work. It’s screened in a narrow, darkened chamber that focuses viewer attention and provides a sense of full immersion. In the video, a man and a woman sink below the surface of the sparkling blue water in slow motion, seeming to drown in blissful union and fading to a point of light. It’s a languid, beautiful, and a compelling metaphor for doomed love — or, perhaps, for spiritual love subsumed in the ocean of eternity where, presumably, it lives on.