IT'S LATE AFTERNOON in a brightly lit dressing room in the basement of the Los Angeles Music Center, and Maurice Sendak is slumped wearily in a chair, overseeing the fittings of chorus costumes for next week's opening of "Idomeneo." Suddenly, a young man with dark hair and glasses, the last fitting of the day, announces to the half-dozen costume fitters and wardrobe attendants that the open-front sailor's jerkin they've put on him is totally unacceptable.
"There is too much skin showing," he insists. "I want to wear a T-shirt."
For a second, everyone is stunned. A T-shirt? For Mozart?
"Who designed this costume anyway?" he says in a tone suggesting that whoever did has clearly lost his mind.
"I did," Sendak says.
"Singers don't have the bodies for something like this," the man says. "There is too much skin showing. I want to wear a T-shirt."
"No," says Sendak firmly. "That would be entirely out of character."
But the young man is unabashed. "What do I play in this opera anyway?" he demands, "Some kind of fairy?"
The room is frozen in a shocked tableau. "That's a very offensive question," Sendak says. "It doesn't deserve a reply."
"I don't know this opera," the singer continues. "What am I supposed to be anyway?"
"You're a sailor."
"What time period?"
"Combination 18th Century and classical. You're just coming back from the siege of Troy."
The man seems ready to criticize Mozart's plot as well, but by this time the costumers have brought out his cape, which covers his chest and leaves him nothing more to complain about.
After the singer leaves, the head fitter hurries over to Sendak: "He's young," she soothes. "He doesn't understand how it's will look. He doesn't have your vision."
"Something like that always happens," says Sendak bitterly. "Everything is going great. You totally let down your guard and then some mosquito comes along and ruins everything."
The worst part was that the singer felt no shame for not having read the opera.
"Aggghhh!" he says, stomping off in disgust. It is one more instance of what he's long contended--that agony, defeat and disaster are the normal human condition. "The bad things always happen," he says. "The good things--they're the inexplicable."
MAURICE SENDAK at 62 is a short, neatly bearded man who wears comfortable, old sneakers, brushed-cotton jeans and walks with a cane. In conversation, he comes across as a concerned, low-key curmudgeon, direct and candid, but with a perpetual air of anxiety that seems to say, "If I don't worry, who will?"
His preoccupied manner notwithstanding, Sendak is an artist recognized around the world, famous in part for the 10 or so opera sets he's designed since 1980, but mainly for the 80 children's books he's illustrated during the past 40 years, including 19 he also wrote.
"He is the yardstick by which all other children's illustrators in the world are measured," says Michael di Capua, his longtime editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "He is the standard."
"If one hesitates to call (Sendak) the foremost illustrator in contemporary America or the most accomplished draftsman, it is only because those terms set too narrow a limit on the nature of his achievement," wrote New York Times critic John Gross in 1988. "He is an artist, nothing less; an artist with a powerful vision."
He is also an artist with a broad repertoire and an ever-evolving style. Sendak started his career by imitating every important children's artist since the 1850s, and made their work his own. Over the years, his style has become increasingly mature, complex and surrealistic.
Despite his popularity--at the 1988 Bologna Book Fair he was treated as if he were a rock star--there's little of the self-important celebrity about Sendak. Unlike many established artists, he is surprisingly accessible; he has no secretary and even though he positively abhors the telephone, he seems incapable of not answering it. He lives 70 miles north of New York City on the outskirts of Ridgefield, Conn., in a stone house that dates in part from 1790. It is filled with original art (including Winslow Homer and William Blake), first-edition books by writers such as Herman Melville and Henry James and one of the most extensive collections anywhere of Mickey Mousiana (Disney's creations were his first love.).
"Please don't write I live in the woods under the mushrooms," Sendak says. "That gets so boring."
There is a bit of fondness for the 19th Century about Sendak. As he readily admits, he's not an artistic innovator--"that's not my talent." His "household gods" are Melville and Mozart. Sendak refuses to buy a personal computer--he writes on yellow legal pads--for fear that it might take the agony out of writing. "There should be agony," says Sendak, who has taken as long as five years to finish a story. "I'm a firm believer in agony."