Unlike Edith Piaf I do have regrets – but much like Frank Sinatra’s they really are too few to mention. However (you knew there would be a however didn’t you?) one of the few is not buying that lithograph by Marc Chagall (right) that sat in the window of the gallery downstairs from our office on Bloor St back in the late 1970s. It was a toss up between it and a sage-coloured Dodge Dart and someone, very wisely, advised that it would be difficult to drive the Chagall to work. Mind you as an investment the Dart was definitely on the short term.
My love affair with Chagall began when I read about the ceiling he was painting to replace the original Jules Lenepveu 19th century allegory of The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night at the Palais Garnier. The story goes that in 1960, while attending a gala performance of the ballet Daphnis et Chloe designed by Chagall, a bored André Malraux looked up at Lenepveu’s academic work and hit upon the idea of having the riot of colour he saw on stage transferred to the Opéra ceiling. De Gaulle’s minister of culture was use to getting what he wanted and despite the general outcry commissioned Chagall to design a replacement.
Rolling your mouse over the image will contrast the Lenepveu and the Chagall ceilings.
Even Chagall himself was leery of the commission and was subject to much criticism in the press and throughout the French art world. A few compromises were made – rather than destroying Lenepveu’s canvas Chagall’s work was created on removable panels that were stretched below it. Nevertheless passions ran high and French Nationalism and Antisemitism reared their very ugly heads. In an interview the painter said: They really had it in for me… It is amazing the way the French resent foreigners. You live here most of your life. You become a naturalized French citizen… work for nothing decorating their cathedrals, and still they despise you. You are not one of them.
“Who am I? I am neither Michelangelo, nor Mozart, nor Haydn, nor Goya, but just someone called Chagall from Vitebsk.” – Marc Chagall
Chagall was forced to produce the work at a secret workshop in the Gobelins neighbourhood and the canvases were assembled in Meudon under military protection. When it was unveiled in September of 1964 it made the international news and it was then I read about it. My fascination with all things Chagall and the desire to own a piece of his work had began.
In 1966 the Metropolitan Opera moved from it’s famous – or infamous depending on your point of view – home at the Yellow Brick Brewery to the glitteringly modern Lincoln Centre. General Manager Rudolf Bing was an old friend of Chagall’s and asked him to design the two murals that can be seen through the enormous glass facade and a new production (one of a record nine that season) of Die Zauberflöte. Chagall created over a 100 costume, masks and set designs for Mozart’s magic singspiel. He was to paint many of the drops himself and in an article in Vogue magazine it has been suggested that Valentina (Vava) Brodsky, his wife, may have overseen the construction of the costumes. Though the cast and direction were amongst the best in the operatic world at the time – Lucia Popp, Pilar Lorengar, Nicolai Gedda, Herman Prey and Jerome Hines conducted by Josef Krips under the direction of Gunther Rennert – it was Chagall and Mozart’s night. More than one reviewer and many in the audience felt it was a very personal Zauberflöte that gloriously reflected the painter’s viewpoint on the opera and his often expressed love of Mozart. And that didn’t sit well with everyone – some felt that it left no room for the audience to form their own personal feelings. And perhaps that is another one of my regrets – that I never had the chance to see the production, which was used until 1991 when it was replaced by painter David Hockney’s designs, and form my own opinion .
However it looks like I may get a chance to see at least a handful of the costumes and many of the set designs that Chagall created for one of my favourite operas. The Musée des beaux arts de Montréal has recently opened Chagall: Colour and Music. A major exhibition it examines the profound influence of music on Chagall’s work and his creations for the stage – theatre, ballet and opera. It follows his work from the State Jewish Chamber Theatre (though in reproduction only as the originals from the Tretyakov Gallery were entangled in legal paperwork) through his stage work in Mexico, New York and Europe. It ends with video close-up views of that now much loved ceiling of the Palais Garnier. Several friends have assured me that it is more than “vaut le voyage“.
From the sounds (and looks) of it this I should not let this be added to my “few regrets”.