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Must everything be such an opera?

Gottfried Helnwein, who designed the sets and costumes for 'Der Rosenkavalier,' arouses creative tumult.

June 18, 2005|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

Compared with some of the other controversies Gottfried Helnwein has lived through, the dissension over the "Der Rosenkavalier" he designed for Los Angeles Opera seems like a tempest in a teekanne.

As a student in Vienna, the Austrian-born Helnwein, now 56, was kicked out of school for creating a portrait of Hitler with his own blood. Decades later, as a successful artist, he painted a Renaissance-inspired mural in which an infant Christ is greeted by three wise men -- wearing SS uniforms. The piece nearly led to a lawsuit by a soldier's widow. In the '80s, an unknown assailant slashed the throats of the children in the canvas mural; at an art festival in 2001, someone set fire to a girl's portrait.

Helnwein's art, curator Robert Flynn Johnson wrote of a recent San Francisco show, "is the visual equivalent of a contact sport."

His "Rosenkavalier" will receive its last performance of the season Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (with Margaret Thompson stepping in for an indisposed Alice Coote as the love-struck young nobleman Octavian). But the criticism began even before it opened, with an ad he photographed showing two fetching young women on the verge of a kiss. The objections grew louder after audiences got a load of his whimsically grotesque vision -- including monochromatic sets and minor characters who seem inspired by Dr. Seuss -- of an opera originally set in 18th century Vienna.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Helnwein works -- An article on artist Gottfried Helnwein in Saturday's Calendar section referred to a work of his depicting the three wise men wearing SS uniforms as a mural. It was a painting. The article also referred to the work's having been slashed by an unknown assailant. That incident involved a different artwork, which was a mural.

Helnwein himself, it turns out, is serious, thoughtful, almost grave; his temperament and constant sunglasses suggest a Germanic Roy Orbison. He says he has no urge to shock, but he appears to find controversy sadly inevitable.

"Great music, amazing singers -- for many opera fans that is enough," he says, sitting outside his studio in downtown L.A.'s artist district. "But I believe in the idea of Gesamtkunstwerke, the art that includes all art. And that means you have visual art, you have directing, you have choreography, and of course you have the music and the singing. What makes opera such an interesting art is that everything comes together."

Some viewers have been captivated by this "Rosenkavalier," only the second opera for which Helnwein has designed the sets and costumes. Times music critic Mark Swed called the production "terrific" and described its look as "sensational." The New York Times was also enthusiastic.

The Orange County Register, on the other hand, concluded that the production "has been commandeered by a gum-chewing dandy in a bandanna and sunglasses. He is the scenery and costume designer and no doubt an artiste, and someone must have given him the company's American Express card and said, 'Go to it.' "

Similarly, the Daily News said Helnwein and director Maximilian Schell's conception "leaches layers of meaning from the opera, rendering emotionally complex ideas flat and distracting us from both the music and the less obvious aspects of the drama."

But Helnwein says his unorthodox take on Richard Strauss' 1911 masterpiece, and his use of a single color to dominate each act, came after he had seen several decades' worth of productions whose bland sets and "corny, fake rococo costumes" he calls visual "disasters."

In working with Schell -- who knew him from the posters he created for the director's 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich -- Helnwein says he sought to be true to the spirit of Strauss but "wanted a piece you could see was made in the 21st century and made in Los Angeles."

He drew from research into the doomed, extravagant rococo-era Vienna.

"I wanted to have something of that exaggeration as I told the story visually," he says. "And there's a connection between rococo and the spirit of this city, of Hollywood. So I wanted to have some elements of that in the piece. It seems to contradict, but it doesn't really."

Though his paintings of smiling Nazis, retro crime scenes and wounded children have long given him a reputation for provocation, Helnwein says his art comes from a psychological need.

"For me, art is a way to fight back against everything I've experienced: I wanted to respond, but I didn't know how to articulate it. But I could paint it. That medium opened all doors. Certain images can reach so deeply into people's souls.

"And I feel also like a witness to my times -- that's my duty, my responsibility." One role of art, he believes, is to "force people to look at things they would rather not look at," an impulse he sees in Goya and Shakespeare.

Helnwein was born three years after the conclusion of World War II, when Austria was still reeling and consumed with guilt and silence.

"In my memory, my childhood was horrible. As a kid, I always felt I'd landed in the wrong place. If you lose two world wars, and your houses are bombed, you are not in a very good mood. Everything was ugly and threatening. People didn't talk. I never heard anybody laugh or sing."

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