Starchitect Takes to the Stage


Rafael Viñoly, the Uruguayan-born New York-based architect, is known for building state-of-the-art structures around the globe. His redesign of the Cleveland Museum of Art opens this winter, and preceding that, a new Viñoly building for Firstsite, a Kunsthalle-like space in Colchester, Essex, U.K., debuts on Sept. 25. In recent years, however, one of his main passions has been designing stage sets. His latest was for a Richard Strauss opera that was one of the highlights of this year’s SummerScape Music Festival at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

As part of the annual six-week festival, on through Aug. 21, conductor (and Bard president) Leon Botstein presented five performances of a rarely staged opera, “Die Liebe der Danae” (“The Love of Danae”) by Richard Strauss. “Sibelius and His World” is this year’s theme and focus, but since the Finnish composer (1865–1957), best known for his symphonies, never wrote an opera, Botstein tapped a near contemporary, Strauss (1864–1949), to add a vocal piece to the program. 

One of Strauss’s late works, “Danae” was completed in 1940, when his music was already widely regarded as passé and his perceived association with the Nazis had tarnished his name. Strauss was actually quietly critical of the Third Reich, but he happened to be one of Hitler’s favorite living composers. After World War II, the public turned its back on the kind of post-Wagnerian grandiosity represented by “Danae.”

Botstein, who is well known for dusting off hoary musical gems, has done so again with this lively production. Under his guidance, Strauss’s tragicomic mythological tale of passion and greed seems of-the-moment. With a libretto by Joseph Gregor, after a scenario by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera’s examination of the convoluted interrelationship of power, money and sex, is as pertinent as today’s news. And with Viñoly’s help, the ancient setting has been updated to modern times.

In the Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center, Viñoly collaborated with designer Mimi Lien to transform Mount Olympus into a modern metropolis. They showed the principal characters, such as Jupiter and King Midas (thrillingly sung by Carsten Wittmoser and Roger Honeywell, respectively), as high-powered executives in business suits. These characters take command of busy offices in skyscrapers Viñoly renders with scrims layered with enormous photo blow-ups of architectural details and super-graphics, plus spare modernist furniture and other stage props.

The characters fight over the prettiest girl in town, Danae (stunningly portrayed by soprano Meagan Miller), who is in turn obsessed with money and has a recurring dream of being showered in gold. One of Viñoly’s most eye-catching sets, and key to the entire production, features his simple yet elegant interpretation of a shower of gold coins. According to the myth, Jupiter first appears to Danae as a shower of gold that envelopes her as he, metaphorically at least, takes possession of her.

Accompanying Strauss’s elegiac passages, a curtain of shimmering yellow crystals, slowly descending above Danae as she reclines on her bed, effectively evoked a celestial shower of gold. Viñoly told A.i.A. that the inspiration for this design came from an exhibition he saw in Zurich several years ago of works by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, featuring the artist’s well-known beaded curtain pieces from the 1980s and early 1990s.

In Act III, a real car onstage replaces the poor farmer’s hut from the original production as the principal abode of Danae and her lover, the now-impoverished King Midas. The gesture cleverly symbolizes the transformation of the Age of Gold into today’s Age of Oil, a notion further reinforced by the photographic desert landscapes in the scrims and backdrops—depicting, no doubt, some oil-rich Middle Eastern principality.

In the end, though, cash and commodities hardly matter because Danae willingly—and happily—renounces money for true love. The poignant story, combined with Botstein’s music direction and Viñoly’s canny modernist vision, clearly refreshed a Strauss relic that might have faded into oblivion.                          

Above: Meagan Miller as Danae in Richard Strauss’s opera Die Liebe der Danae. Photo by Cory Weaver.