Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for show curtain (Nutcracker), 1983, gouache and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.107:262.

‘Waarom zou ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ mijn beste boek zijn? Ik weet het niet. A mystery? Ik hou van mysteries. Dus vragen mensen waar Wild Things 2 blijft na het overweldigende succes van Wild Things.’
Maurice Sendaks antwoord is kort en duidelijk. Kijk maar naar het filmpje hieronder:

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Deze enkele minuten zijn mij bijgebleven. Zijn liefde voor William Blake wiens werk hem een raadsel blijft, but I love it. Zijn plots gegrepen worden door de Duitse romantici, door een slecht geschilderd werk van Runge nog wel, maar het greep hem aan. Hij heeft het gedurfd: to take the dive, al bleef hij lijden aan wat zij lijden.I believe in his passion. Passie, ook al wordt zijn werk vaak als ‘inappropriate’ bestempeld.
Als illustrator van boeken die ook door sommige kinderen kunnen gelezen worden werd hij wereldberoemd. Zijn Wild Things bij ons een beetje raar als ‘Max en de Maxi-monsters’ vertaald verscheen hier in 1968 terwijl het oorspronkelijke ‘Where the Wild Things are’ in 1963 in Amerika het licht zag. Als opera-libretto eerste versie beleefde het in in 1980 in de Muntschouwburg in Brussel zijn première. (Oliver Knussen, componist) en kreeg daar ook de titel Max en de Maximonsters mee.

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Diorama of Moishe scrim and flower proscenium (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on laminated paperboard. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:69, 70, 71.

En dan komen we bij het eigenlijke onderwerp, een leven van een schrijver verandert einde jaren zeventig in een leven als designer voor opera’s en ballet, thema waaraan The Morgan Library & Museum in New York tot 6 oktober een tentoonstelling wijdt met als titel: Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet.

‘The exhibition will include nearly 150 objects drawn primarily from the artist’s bequest to the Morgan of over 900 drawings. Sendak borrowed gleefully from a personal pantheon of artists, some of whom he encountered firsthand at the Morgan. Several such works, by William Blake, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Domenico and Giambattista Tiepolo, will be displayed alongside his designs. Although less well known than his book illustrations, Sendak’s drawings for the stage embody his singular hand, fantastical mode of storytelling, keen—sometimes bawdy—sense of humor, and profound love of music and art history.’

“Fifty,” he said, “is a good time to either change careers or have a nervous breakdown.” The new midlife career he took on in the late 1970s, it turned out, was that of a designer for music theater.
“I know that if there’s a purpose for life,” he said, “it was for me to hear Mozart.”
Lush vegetation spills over ancient ruins in the drawings. Dioramas created during the design process, three of them on view at the Morgan, show the irresistible combination of Baroque-style scenography, with its receding flats, and Sendak’s inimitable drawing style — old and new, living and dead, in charming balance, teetering delightedly on the edge of kitsch but made with great craftsmanship and earnestness

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for show scrim (The Magic Flute), 1979-1980, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper on board. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.104:120.

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Study for Wild Things costume, with notes (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979, watercolor, pen and ink, and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.103:19.

There is a drawing that gets to the root of Maurice Sendak’s ominous sweetness, his work’s potent mixture of childhood idyll and threatening night. It’s a sketch of a costume for the premiere of Oliver Knussen’s early-1980s operatic adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” the picture book that had made Sendak a publishing sensation two decades earlier. The costume is for one of the maniacally grinning Wild Things, complete with horns and pointy-sharp teeth. But the drawing is a cross-section. Inside the looming beast is just a child, his little hands and feet strapped into the woolly Wild Thing’s, making the character roar by speaking through a tiny cone. The boy in the monster, the monster in the boy: This is the reality Sendak, who died at 83 in 2012, wanted us to see, and understand. (Zachary Woolfe)

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Design for Temple of the Sun, finale II (The Magic Flute), 1979-1980, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper on board. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.104:124.

There is a sense that his opera work renewed and saved him — artistically and personally — at a moment he needed saving, when he felt his creative juices had run dry. His world widened, from the isolation of creating books to the vibrant collaborative spirit of a company.
“When I was working in this situation,” he later said of his time in the theater, “I became the person I want to be.”

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Fantasy Sketch (Mozart, Der Schauspieldirektor), 1987, ink and watercolor on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Collection of The Maurice Sendak Foundation.

“All composers have different colors, as all artists do, and I pick up the right color from either Haydn or Mozart or Wagner while I’m working. And very often I will switch recordings endlessly until I get the right color or the right note or the right sound.”

Mortality, too, is a presence in Sendak’s work, and one which cast inescapable shadow over him from a young age. On the very day of his Bar Mitzvah, in 1941, he found out that the entire father’s side of his family had been killed overseas in concentration camps. That trauma stuck with him and shines new light on his celebrated book, Into the Night Kitchen (1970), a tale in which the protagonist’s goal is to escape from an oven.

oorspronkelijke affiche Theresienstadt

On his own, he took Czech composer Hans Krása’s children’s Holocaust opera Brundibár and remade it for a new age. Sendak’s designs combined with playwright Tony Kushner’s new English version brought a new children’s opera into the repertoire. Brundibár had been written in 1938 for the children at an orphanage in Prague. When the entire orphanage was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, work continued on the opera and it was produced some 55 times at the camp.

A chorus from the original Brundibár can be seen in this documentary starting at 04:41, which had been filmed as part of a German government propaganda film showing the fictitious prosperity of the residents of Theresienstadt.

Sendak was also a sickly child, near-terminally so. In Where the Wild Things Are, which he conceived of while sitting shiva, it’s speculated that the white pajamas the protagonist Max wears reference an all-white outfit that Sendak’s grandmother once dressed him in as a young boy—she hoped that the Angel of Death would spare his life if he already looked like an angel. Max’s pajamas in turn went on to heavily inspire Sendak’s costumes in Cunning Little Vixen (1981), an opera he did with Corsaro, the plot of which takes place in a world of gaiety, with anthropomorphic foxes and badgers, all while leaning heavily into the rhythms of life and death. In a study on view at the Morgan, the vixen expounds a speech with her finger pointed up and her hand on her hip, recalling Max’s posture with uncanny likeness. (Wallace Ludel Artsy net)

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Costume study for Fox Golden-Stripe (The Cunning Little Vixen), 1981, watercolor and graphite pencil on paper. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.105:77.

His parents were immigrants from Poland and his father’s entire family was murdered in the Holocaust; his mother was racked with guilt and trauma. For all his ambivalence, Sendak said that the round white moon that illuminates almost all his books represented his mother’s face and her love. It’s well known that her relatives, Sendak’s elderly aunts and uncles, were inadvertent models for the Wild Things. Refugees from the old country, they spoke broken English; with their bulbous noses and crooked teeth, they exemplified the hideousness that children see in adults. The relatives would come for Sunday supper and while they waited for the meal to be cooked, they pinched the children’s cheeks and said what people said in those days: “We could eat you up, we love you so.” In the libretto for the opera, the Wild Things are given proper names: Moishe, Bernard, Aaron, Zippy and Emile. They fly, swim and breath fire, sputtering in a variant of what seems like broken English with a little Yiddish tossed in. “Kkka!” they say and, not to miss the point that this is a Jewish geschrei, the phrase “Vilde-chai ah mi-mah-mee-ooh!” weaves in and out as a refrain.(Frances Brent, Moment Magazine)

Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), Storyboard (The Love for Three Oranges), 1981-1982, watercolor, ink, and graphite pencil on board. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. The Morgan Library & Museum, Bequest of Maurice Sendak, 2013.106:169.