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SITE’s opera exhibit goes behind the scenes

Artists from Pablo Picasso to Salvador Dalí and Marc Chagall have worked their magic on the operatic stage.

SITE Santa Fe is reversing that tradition with the first large-scale exhibition of its kind in “Bel Canto: Contemporary Artists Explore Opera,” featuring works examining race, gender and class within operatic themes. The artworks range from photographs and collages to installations, video and film.

“Contemporary artists have been engaged by opera houses around the world,” said SITE director and chief curator Irene Hofmann. “Even the Santa Fe Opera has worked with artists over the years. When I arrived (in 2010), they hired a graffiti artist to do a set.”

More and more opera houses are coaxing artists from outside disciplines.

The German photographer Candida Höfer created a series of photographs of some of the world’s most iconic opera houses.

“These are very large-scale works – 8 feet across,” Hofmann said. “They are these massive images of opera houses, always empty.

“For her, it is always about absence. You see the chairs; you see the seating where the audience is implied.”

Germany’s Matthias Schuller aimed his lens at opera’s birthplace in Italy, creating a grid of 150 photographs. The photographer also produced a book containing a map of these musical palaces. Every town contains an opera house. Each image contains a view of the architecture from the stage.

Argentina’s Guillermo Kuitca created drawings and collages abstracting 32 opera house seating plans across the globe. Kuitca downloads the seating plan, manipulates the color and submerges it in water before picking up his scissors.

“The pigments begin to migrate,” Hofmann said. “Some of them disappear; others maintain some of the lines.

“Everything you see is an individual piece of cut paper; a collage that is made to express sound.”

SITE commissioned Kuitca to create a new work based on the Santa Fe Opera’s seating plan.

The Britain-based Nigerian-born artist Yinka Shonibare filmed a video of an African vocalist singing the final aria from Verdi’s “La Traviata” in a palatial home. She wears an empire dress stitched from fabric that resembles African traditions but is produced in Denmark.

The imagery serves as commentary on both colonization and racism, given opera’s history of both blackface and yellowface, Hofmann said.

Portugal’s Vasco Araújo created an installation resembling an opera singer’s dressing room, complete with flowers, lights and a makeup table.

“And yet when you start to look at it, you see there’s men’s grooming devices; a razor and such,” Hofmann said. “You realize the diva’s a man.”

Photographs of Araújo posed à la Maria Callas’ album covers add to the pastiche.

American artist Suzanne Bocanegra created fabric and embroidery-embellished works inspired by Francois Poulenc’s 1956 opera “Dialogue of the Carmelites.” The opera is based on the true story of a French convent of nuns who were executed in the waning days of the French Revolution. Bocanegra cast the nuns depicted in the 1953 edition of “A Guide to the Catholic Sisterhood in the United States.”

Bocanegra attended Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop to work with master weavers, sewers and fabric printers, embellishing the nun’s habits.

In 2005, American video artist Bill Viola created a now-legendary set for Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” at the Paris Opera. South Africa’s William Kentridge created the set for “The Magic Flute” in Belgium and directed the opera in 2005. In Santa Fe, he’ll present works in a range of materials exploring the stories, music and politics of opera.

SITE Santa Fe regulars will notice some new additions to the “Bel Canto” exhibition. Visitors can take a cellphone tour of the show. Instead of the usual hard benches of most museum shows, guests may sit on dining chairs, settees and overstuffed chairs loaned by the Santa Fe Opera prop shop.