A Visual Diary of Artists Who Designed for the Opera


Sofia Coppola is set to make her opera debut this year with a production of La Traviata at the Opera of Rome. Costumes will be designed by fashion icon Valentino, who asked Coppola to join the production after seeing her 2006 film Marie Antoinette.

Collaborations with the performance world have stretched back for centuries, but the opera has particularly fascinated artists. The Guardian writes about the appeal of Wagner for artists, who dreamed of a “total work of art”:

No creative artist has had such an electrifying impact on his contemporaries as Wagner. ‘What an artist! A man like him in painting would be quite something, and one will come,’ wrote Vincent van Gogh in 1888. Wagner obsessed artists because he had conceived of an art that denied the consumerist status of art, which Renoir captured in his 1874 painting La Loge, of a couple in a box. Wagner evoked an art that enveloped its spectators, dissolving boundaries between creator and public, involving every art form — music, literature, architecture, painting — fused in a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art.

We highlight a few of the artistic collaborations famous artists have had with opera, designing costumes and sets.

David Hockney

The New York Times writes about Hockney’s long relationship with the opera, including his designs for Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress and Mozart’s Magic Flute:

The pull of opera has proven irresistible. For years, Mr. Hockney has driven and painted with opera blasting from loudspeakers. Now, new technical possibilities have emerged to refine the way he’s always approached design problems. And that, in turn, has made his theater work an ever more integral aspect of his own artistic evolution. ‘People criticized me for my photography,’ he said. ‘They said it’s not art. I didn’t give a damn if it’s art — I was learning something.’ Now, he added, what he’s learned from his photographic collages is feeding back into his designs — multiple perspectives in his first-act ship set for ‘Tristan,’ for instance. And his design models, which he has already exhibited in museum shows, have become a kind of sculpture, a three-dimensional form that he has otherwise not explored.

The Brothers Quay

The brothers created the set design for this 1991 production of Mazzepa. More on the opera from the New York Times:

There is plenty of swashbuckling music, starting with the orchestral prelude, all galloping rhythms, elusive melodic turns, rattling instrumental effects and somber harmonic shifts. The third and final act opens with a symphonic prelude depicting the Battle of Poltava, in which Peter routs the Swedish invaders and the turncoat Mazeppa. The bloody chaos is conveyed in frenzied music with a tangled web of thematic lines and blasts of raucous offstage brass, played here from the dome of the Met’s auditorium. But the crucial battles in Mazeppa are internal, and most of the score is given to ruminative and deeply melancholic exchanges between the main characters. Mazeppa’s courtship of Maria, for example, takes place in ambiguously romantic scenes.

Salvador Dalí

The set for Salome designed by Dalí for the Royal Opera House in 1949.

Sidney Nolan

On Nolan’s vision for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring:

The original work stemmed from the Diaghilev Ballet Russes’ fascination with Russia’s mythic past. In Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s scenario, a prehistoric people from the forests of Northern Russia sacrifice a virgin to the cosmic forces, which alone can make the spring come and ensure the continuity of the tribe. The scenario was retained by later choreographers including MacMillan. His innovation, was to switch hemispheres and, in tandem with his designer, Sidney Nolan, to re-enact The Rite in a nightmarish vision of aboriginal Australia. Nolan called the golden mushroom like totem pole on the backcloth of the second scene ‘Moonboy,’ but to Cold War audiences it seemed like the cloud of a nuclear bomb explosion. The dancers wore ochre red and brown unitards, marked with handprints, suggestive of the daubed bodies of aboriginal peoples.


In 1915, Jean Cocteau asked Picasso to work on the ballet Parade, featuring music by the eccentric composer Erik Satie. We’re slightly cheating here, but the Guardian explains how the show helped transform the old-world notions of performance (opera and ballet):

Cocteau called his music event Parade. It was to evoke the chaotic life of modern Paris in a cacophonous performance by street artists including a Chinese conjurer, an acrobat and ‘une petite fille américaine.’ The idea was to synthesise the avant-garde cubist vision of modernity with the high forms of opera and ballet that still dominated French bourgeois taste. Getting a visual artist, as opposed to a professional stage designer, to conceive the sets and costumes of an opera or ballet was not new. In late 19th-century Europe, it was the Russians who took up Wagner’s baton. In the 1880s the railway millionaire Savva Mamontov established his own private opera, putting composers including Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky together with artists such as Mikhail Vrubel and Victor Vasnetsov. In 1883 Mamontov’s opera company performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden in Moscow with exotic sets by Vasnetsov. Music theatre became the forcing ground of Russian modernism, with designs in all styles. The imperial theatres followed the fashion and, when Serge Diaghilev was sacked from his job in the imperial theatre administration, he brought the Ballets Russes to Europe and the US. But none of this prepared anyone for Parade. Cocteau and Diaghilev conceived of Parade as part of a fashionable form, the high-concept, high-design music spectacle, but with a twist, making the controversial new art of Picasso acceptable to polite tastes. Cleverly, Cocteau caught Picasso just at the moment when he was moving from the ‘realist’ concerns of analytic cubism – portraits and still lifes — into fantasy. The painting closest to the monstrous figures he designed is Harlequin (1915), a frightening phallic automaton.

Maurice Sendak

On Sendak’s creative relationship with opera:

Starting in the early 1980s, he designed sets for operas and ballets, some of which were widely used by regional opera companies. His version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the Houston Grand Opera (1980) was rented out to smaller companies so frequently that the backdrops needed to be painstakingly restored when Houston revived it in 2004. The company also hired Sendak to design sets and costumes for Humperdinck’sHansel and Gretel (1997). Sendak’s work was featured several times at New York City Opera, most notably his 1981 staging of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. The work featured a fantasy world with talking animals not so unlike the goblins and ghouls of his books. The New York Times opined: ‘Mr. Sendak, in his City Opera debut, has designed a captivating menagerie, sometimes tilting too far in the direction of Disneyland, but on the whole capturing and holding a dusky woodlands mood.’

Robert Indiana

From Indiana’s website:

Robert Indiana’s 49 cut paper costume and scene designs and 30 ink sketches for The Mother of Us All — Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s 1947 opera inspired by Susan B. Anthony — are among the treasures of the McNay Art Museum’s Tobin Collection of Theatre Arts. Acquired by art collector and Santa Fe Opera supporter Robert L.B. Tobin, as well as a gift of the artist, these vibrant images establish Indiana among artists in the theatre from Pablo Picasso to David Hockney.

Giorgio de Chirico

Giorgio de Chirico’s set design for Ballet Russes’ Le Bal in 1929.

Marc Chagall

“Chagall was a big music fan, Mozart in particular,” curator Chris Rossi told Vogue in a 2015 interview. “His ideas of perfection were the Bible and The Magic Flute. This must have been pure heaven for him.”

Louise Nevelson

Louise Nevelson’s made an abstract design for the libretto of a 1984 production of Orfeo and Euridice.