Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” is one of the most famous works of concert music; even if you think you don’t know it, you know it. You don’t, however, know the paintings and drawings it was based on, by the artist Viktor Hartmann. Hartmann died at 39; after his abrupt death, friends arranged a show of his work; and Mussorgsky, who adored him, illustrated part of the show, in music, in about three weeks. The result is frequently played in both the original piano and subsequent orchestral version. Most of the images that inspired it have been lost.
Music does not literally replicate the things that inspire it. This should be obvious, and yet it bears repeating. You can enjoy Rachmaninoff’s “Isle of the Dead” without knowing the painting by Arnold Böcklin, or hear Debussy’s “L’Isle joyeuse” without being aware that it’s based on Watteau’s painting “L’embarquement pour Cythère,” though your program notes are likely to underline the link. Certainly an affiliation with an image encourages a certain kind of illustrative music writing: the cartoonlike chirping in Mussorgsky’s “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells” (the fifth section of “Pictures at an Exhibition”), or the dark, jazzy, fragmented outbursts of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Three Screaming Popes” (an orchestral piece inspired by paintings by Francis Bacon). But the degree to which one art represents the other is subject to interpretation and even some suspension of disbelief.
Turn to the stage and you find the opposite: works of theater are glaringly literal. If you put a painting on stage and bring it to life, it has to sing, and its subject has to have a personality, and that personality may not at all be the personality you imagined it might have. We have conjectured endlessly, through the ages, on the actual identity of the Mona Lisa, and what was behind her famous smile: put her on stage, and she’ll tell you, even breaking, perhaps jarringly, into song. (There have been several “Mona Lisa” film and musical attempts over the years; the New Age composer David Arkenstone, best known for the music for the video game World of Warcraft, is currently working on a new one.) Stephen Sondheim perhaps achieved the most acceptable translation of the thoughts of painted figures under the lights, in “Sunday in the Park with George,” by having the figures in Seurat’s famous “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” sing, “It’s hot up here!” Whatever you think is going on in that picture, there’s no arguing with that.
So now we have “Little Dancer,” the latest in a line of painting-inspired music theater works, giving a voice to another enigmatic, iconic, slightly awkward and much-debated figure, the girl depicted in the famous sculpture by Degas. Like many art works brought to dramatic life, she is being kitted out with a historically informed if not strictly historical narrative — she is a young dancer in a Paris ballet school, and there is, perhaps inevitably, a leading role for Degas. Like them, too, she is painstakingly modeled on the original work, down to a detail of a button on her costume not being entirely closed, Tiler Peck, the City Ballet dancer who will play the leading role, told Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman in an interview this summer.
There are two ways people generally approach putting art on stage. You can simply take the images, give them a story and make them sing: Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” (a cycle of paintings by Hogarth), Granados’s “Goyescas” (early works by Goya), or John Musto’s “Later the Same Evening,” based on five Edward Hopper paintings, which had its world premiere in D.C. in 2007. Often, though, when art makes its way on stage, it brings with it a lot of self-consciousness about the translation. That is to say, it becomes, partly or entirely, about making art. Think “Sunday in the Park with George,” think Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini,” which revolves around the casting of that artist’s famous “Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa.”
This is only to be expected. A painting, the sculpture, is a moment of stasis: a held breath in a whirling world. A narrative is the opposite: a segment of passing time. It’s no surprise that the first story people think of when trying to depict art on stage is the story of art’s making: the drama behind the genesis, the meeting of time and image on a single plane, culminating in the “aha” moment when the work as we know it is revealed.
Dramatically, though, such a depiction involves a tremendous suspension of disbelief. The making of art is prosaic: the artist working for an hour on a small section of drapery in the corner of the canvas; the composer returning again, and again, and again to the sketches for a symphony in progress. Portraying these activities as dramatic is a romanticized, fictitious conceit, although it is well-entrenched in the popular imagination. The flash of inspiration, the hymn to the beloved at the easel, are usually the stuff of cheap melodrama rather than serious exploration.
One of the most successful dramatizations of visual art in an opera is “De Stijl,” the third movement of Louis Andriessen’s “De Materie,” which offers a conceptual recasting of Piet Mondrian’s 1927 painting “Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue.” Andriessen, like the “Little Dancer” creators, puts the artist on stage (Mondrian plays the piano), and he offers historicisms in the period jazz color of some of his music, and in the text he sets, a treatise called “Principles of Visual Mathematics” that he believes influenced the painter. His translation is literal — he responds to the five colors on Mondrian’s canvas with five vocal and instrumental groupings — and yet not derivative.
Andriessen, of course, is creating an abstract representation of an abstract art: “De Materie” is not going to play Broadway. The measure of success, though, is the same whether the art is representative or not: It’s whether each work in the equation maintains its own identity, independent of the work that inspired it. “The Rake’s Progress” has had any number of stagings that have nothing to do with Hogarth; Mussorgsky’s “Pictures” have gradually replaced their inspiration altogether. It remains to be seen how “Little Dancer” meets the challenge.