Mise à jour
26 mai 2005
LA Downtown News
Kristin Friedrich
Contemporary Art Star Goes for Baroque
Gottfried Helnwein brings his monochromatic technique to stage in the L.A. Opera's Der Rosenkavalier.
For the last several months, Downtown-based artist Gottfried Helnwein has switched back and forth between two realities. In his Arts District studio, he works on material to fill gallery and museum shows booked into 2008, all over the world. Then he steps out into the sunlight, chats in several languages to several friends at a coffee shop on Traction Avenue, and walks to the Los Angeles Opera's costume shop on Alameda Street. Here, he oversees the costumes and sets for Der Rosenkavalier, which opens May 29 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
2005, with Maximilian Schell, Los Angeles Opera
Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss
There's a visual disconnect between the spaces. In Helnwein's studio, lush photos of rocker Marilyn Manson look like paintings, and hyperrealist paintings of landscapes and children (some angelic, some disfigured, some both) resemble photos. In the Opera building, the over-the-top costumes create a kind of Alice in Primary Colors Wonderland; they seem too cheery to have come from an artist known for his provoking, and sometimes darkly distressing images.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind: Helnwein is a guy who, despite his dark shades and bandanas, is giddily obsessed with the Donald Duck comics of his youth. He's also steeped in the history of Baroque Europe - specifically, the over-the-top Rococo period - which makes for Rosenkavalier's setting. Helnwein, however, won't be emulating much of what he's seen in prior productions of the Richard Strauss opera.
"The stage settings so far have usually been crap. Really bad," Helnwein said. "I haven't seen all of them, but whatever I've seen on video, it's always bad. It's corny, it all looks the same.
"People at that time didn't look like that. It looks how somebody in the '50s imagines these times. Baroque was very different than today. Everything was about beauty and aesthetics, everything was staged and theatrical, even life."
In the Rosenkavalier designs, Helnwein's research collides with some of his own methodology as an artist. In the early '80s, he began to paint monochromatically, usually with different shades of blue. For the opera, he chose three colors: The first act is blue because the opera opens in a bedchamber that's dark, but the sun is rising, and though princess Marshalin is popular, she's also glum about her vanished youth; Act Two finds Baron Ochs, who wants to show everyone he's rich - so Helnwein floods the palette with golds and yellows; the reds in the third act connote love, hate and revolution.
The shift from act to act, Helnwein hopes, will be a bit jarring. "When you adjust to one color, you don't realize the others are missing. Like in a black and white movie, you forget it's black and white because your mind fills it in."
Arts District Expatriate
Helnwein is Austrian by birth, has lived in Germany, and maintains a home and studio in Ireland. He set up a second studio in Downtown Los Angeles in 2002, and he and his family are Arts District fixtures. "I really love it Downtown, there's a certain freedom," he said. "It may not really last long."
The monochromatic art of the '80s is just one of the touchstones in his career. In Cologne, Germany in 1988, he installed a 100-meter long wall filled with children's pictures in remembrance of Kristallnacht, the beginning of the Holocaust 50 years prior. He has created large-scale portraits of injured or deformed humans, and chillers like "Epiphany I," a 1996 painting in which a Mary-esque model holds her infant, surrounded by German SS officers leering at the apparent baby Jesus.
Helnwein has had numerous museum shows, including retrospectives at Vienna's Albertina Museum in 1985, the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg in 1997, and San Francisco's Fine Arts Museum last year.
But for all his institutional art success, there is also a heavy participation in pop culture. He has endless celebrity collectors, projects with Sean Penn and Manson, and a hand in everything from comic art to art commissions in the film industry (his website, helnwein.com, contains a sly link to a Variety story about how his painting of Kevin Smith's daughter made the film director cry).
Helnwein has designed for the stage before, but only in Europe. The L.A. Opera job came by invitation from a fellow Austrian, the filmmaker and actor Maximilian Schell (Judgment at Nuremberg). Schell, who directed 2001's Lohengrin, is also directing Rosenkavalier.
L.A. Opera, like most major opera companies, has hired artists as designers before. For example, David Hockney handled the sets for Tristan und Isolde and Die Frau ohne Schatten, while Gerald Scarfe designed The Magic Flute.
"It's not uncommon, but it does produce different circumstances. A painter tends to hear in color," said the company's costume director, Jenny Green. "To them, an opera is a series of paintings and that affects what happens on stage directorially. It has to be a strong collaboration."
Helnwein walks to the costume shop frequently and is heavily involved in the fitting process. He has designed more than 200 costumes, not an unusually high number for an opera. (The average production has about 150). "But these clothes are so sculptural and labor intensive. We're not dealing with a standard 18th century code. These clothes are exaggerated," laughed Green, in rehearsal last week. "I can just now see the light at the end of the tunnel, but as somebody told me, 'That could be an oncoming train.'"
When asked if the opera experience makes him want to do more fashion design, Helnwein is enthusiastic. "Actually I would love it. That's really the most amazing thing," said Helnwein. "I would actually like to have all these nice, colorful people around me."
Downtown artist Gottfried Helnwein brings his monochromatic technique to stage in the L.A. Opera's Der Rosenkavalier.
Helnwein in the studio
Der Rosenkavalier plays May 29 through June 19 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 972-8001 losangelesopera.com.
page 19, 5/23/2005

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