Art Bryce Dessner on his Robert Mapplethorpe opera

In the experimental opera ‘Triptych (Eyes of One on Another)’, Bryce Dessner, a contemporary classical composer and guitarist of the band The National, re-examines the controversial photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. “We don't show the greatest hits”, Dessner tells Thierry Somers. “It's not a survey of images that people already know”.

200%: Can you recall when you first saw a picture by Robert Mapplethorpe?
Bryce Dessner: When I was a teenager I became aware of Mapplethorpe’s work through the controversy around his exhibition ‘The Perfect Moment’ at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati in 1990. They shut down the museum and there was a trial on seven of the images [explicit photographs of sadomasochistic sex and children with their genitals exposed – 200%]. The first images I saw were the self-portraits of Mapplethorpe dressed in leather or dressed as a woman. I saw the controversial seven images shortly after.

200%: What draws you to his work?
BD: I think that early on I was drawn to the classical beauty and artistry of the images. I was growing up in America during the Reagan years and the suppression of all kinds of cultural movements and marginalization of people. I think Mapplethorpe was a wake up call to me about all these issues in American culture and politics. So I was drawn to the beauty and artistry of his images, but then at the same time becoming more aware of a lot of conflicting hypocrisy in American culture that was very rampant at the time.

200%: The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation gave you permission to use his work and you spent many hours at the Getty Institute that houses the Mapplethorpe archive. Mapplethorpe made so many iconic and arresting photographs and I was wondering how did you start selecting the images for ‘Triptych’?
BD: Part of our work is getting to know the vast archive of images. Mapplethorpe is known from his famous iconic portraits of Patti Smith, Blondie and the graphic BDSM imagery. The truth is that Mapplethorpe’s output was much larger. He was very prolific and meticulous about organizing his images. The process of getting to know the archive and spending time in Los Angeles at the Getty Institute was a discovery and an awakening of what Mapplethorpe saw. It is a much broader range of images that people might think. In ‘Triptych’ we don’t show the greatest hits. It’s not a survey of images that people already know. It’s a beautiful selection of images that are maybe less known. There’s no image of Patti Smith although her words are heard.

200%: Why is the piece called ‘Triptych’?
BD: Mapplethorpe famously organized his own work in three portfolios: XYZ. [homosexual sadomasochistic imagery (X), floral still lifes (Y) and nude portraits of African American men (Z) – 200%]. It is both a tribute and a formal device to create a structure in the work.
Therefore ‘Triptych’ is divided in three sections. The first section is based on a Patti Smith poem and an Italian madrigal that I re-imagined. In that section you see Mapplethorpe’s BDSM photos. The second section is inspired by the obscenity trial in Cincinnati and we see his floral still lifes. The third section is largely based on his depiction of African American models. There’s a lot of images in the show and both the designer, Carlos Soto, and the director, Kaneza Schaal, found a beautiful way [for the audience] to discover Mapplethorpe’s photographs. It is quite stunning how we were able to project the images and the quality which we’ve been able to it.

200%: How did you start composing the music?
BD: Mapplethorpe’s work has a strong relationship with Mannerism [a style that emerged after the High Renaissance – 200%] so there is a very clear reference to that in the music. I’m working with the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth and their type of polyphonic singing is very much based on the Italian madrigal tradition. Specifically, there is a madrigal by Claudio Monteverdi, ‘Tears of the Lover at the Tomb of the Beloved’ cast in a poetic form of a Sestina. It is a lament for a young woman, Catarina Martinelli, who he had hoped would perform in his opera Arianna but she died from smallpox. It’s a movement which is heard in all three sections in different ways. There is also a famous poem by Patti Smith ‘The Boy Who Loved Michelangelo’ that was printed in ‘Just Kids’ and she graciously allowed us to use it in the show. That is very much a portrait of Robert and the setting of that is quite important. In addition there’s a poem by Essex Hemphill, an African American poet, who also died of AIDS five years after Mapplethorpe. In his lifetime, Hemphill was very critical of Mapplethorpe’s addiction of the black body in his photographs specifically the ones where we don’t see the head of the model. Hemphill wrote a poem to Robert ‘The Perfect Moment’ that was in his archive and had never been published before. That opens section three. I would say the Monteverdi madrigal, Patti Smith and Essex Hemphill’s poetry were the key components for me finding my way. Korde Arrington Tuttle is the librettist who tied it all together. His poetry is very musical. It’s difficult to set words to music especially as there are so many words.

How did you solve that?
I allowed the words themselves to have a certain musicality to them. I think the texts and images inspired the musical direction. The text is either written to Robert by Patti and Essex and Korde wrote the text responding to the photographs. We began with image we went to text we went to music and we came back to image. It’s a circular pattern in that way. The piece does reference American singing style partly as Mapplethorpe was firmly rooted in classical art and also in pop culture. You hear classical or even avant-garde opera and moments of Rock/Punk aesthetic.

Was that what made it so exciting to compose music to Mapplethorpe’s images?
BD: Yes, it’s a joy and privilege to put music to these images. They are so explosive and powerful. It may be different for an European audience, though. Some of the images might be shocking to an American audience, but not necessarily to a Dutch audience were you’re much more comfortable with the body and sexuality. I think there will be other energies and stories that will come out of the piece played before an European audience.

200%: Could you talk about the lengths you went for ‘Triptych’?
BD: It was extremely challenging. I had an idea to create a work inspired by Mapplethorpe. Finding a doorway into it was quite difficult. As the project addresses issues of identity and race in America, it required almost a daily reckoning and examination of what was going on and how the music and the many collaborators involved in this project were functioning with each other. Also there was the issue for the singers how they would feel to be on stage with images they might find offensive or beautiful. I would say the process of making ‘Triptych’ was all-consuming.

Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.

The European premiere of ‘Triptych’ will be performed at the Holland Festival Tuesday 18th and Wednesday 19th of June 2019.

‘Eyes on Robert’, an exhibition of emerging photographers who have drawn inspiration from Robert Mapplethorpe. Tuesday 18 June-31 July 2019, Melkweg Expo Amsterdam.