Safety Curtain 1998/1999

Shadow World and Exorcism. Kara Walker's Large Scale Picture in the Vienna State Opera.

There are good and evil spirits in opera. We love the good ones and the safety curtain traditionally protects us from the evil. During the next Vienna State Opera season this safety curtain will not only attempt to keep a check on the fire devil but also to banish some demons which are in the opera repertoire itself.

The safety curtain is there to divide the stage and auditorium like a wall when there is no performance – also during the intervals. A visit to the opera therefore does not only offer the enjoyment of music, acting and various stage scenery, it is unavoidable that the design of the safety curtain will also be seen. In the Vienna State Opera this prominent place has been occupied since 1955 by a "Orpheus and Eurydice" scene by Rudolf Eisenmenger. However, not everyone has been completely happy about this for political and aesthetic reasons.

Since then the opera has gone through a continual process of renewal under the influence of modern and postmodern theatre as well as changes in methods of musical interpretation and the development of new listening habits. Art has also developed. The design of a safety curtain today is no longer the job of a craftsman but rather a challenge to painting, for which during the last decades it has become commonplace actively to take into account the surrounding context and to conceive it as included as a picture frame. When the subject of a new design for the safety curtain was brought up for discussion by State Opera Director Holender in spring 1997, it was already long overdue.

Temporary Art

Since there was the desire not to destroy the old picture, a partner was found in "museum in progress" who already had wide experience in the field of temporary art presentations (projections and posters in urban space, inserts in newspapers, large-scale pictures on the facade of the Kunsthalle etc.). Together, a model was developed which could soon become the accepted thing – the curtain changes with the opera season. The technology which meets all artistic and opera house requirements is as brilliant as it is innovative. The picture is printed on the 176m² surface by means of the "CALSI System" (computer aided large-scale imaging). The medium it is printed on is so light that it can simply be put up on the safety curtain using magnets.

Finely-Cut Nastiness

An international jury chose the Afro-American artist Kara Walker to begin the initial four-year series. Her large-scale picture will be on view during the 1998/1999 season. In black and white and partially on a gold background which was taken over from the hidden Eisenmenger picture, the tableau fits elegantly into the splendour of the auditorium. One quickly recognises three trees, mountain tops and some figures. What at first looks like a charming fairy-tale illustration, however, actually packs quite a punch. The silhouettes have less to do with and tranquil craftsmanship than with a grotesque malignance. Pairs of eyes loom in the trees which are overgrown with marsh moss and nastiness is revealed behind each element in the picture. The scenery which dances on the curtain is not only aesthetically an interplay of shadows. Unlike Eisenmenger's picture, it is not about an elegiac kingdom of the dead from which Orpheus wanted to bring back his beloved Eurydice with the power of music, but rather it depicts some evil spirits of European culture.

Iconography of the Other

The exotic is especially loved by opera. The stranger the location the better. Verdi's "Aida" carries us away to the monumental world of Ancient Egypt, Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" gracefully depicts the melancholy of the Japanese, Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" celebrates the world of the Afro-Americans and from Mozart we know the joie de vivre of the Spaniards and Italians. In all this there is no question that cliché is piled upon cliché – that is exactly what makes for the entertainment. However, when Kara Walker puts into the picture a swollen-lipped Negro caricature blowing a turban-headed figure from a saxophone, one realises how easily the fun could also turn sour. One does not even need to know that a similar caricature adorned a poster for the exhibition "Degenerate Music" in 1938.

The whole curtain is full of such shadow plays. The Moor, who is holding out a coffee bean to Eurydice from a tree, is interpreted by Kara Walker as follows, "The Moor is the sensual eunuch. Orientalism in Western Art often places this type of black character in close proximity to a beautiful white woman to accentuate her sexuality. He/she becomes an agent of the psyche, in a way. He/she is holding out an oversized coffee bean that somewhat resembles the female sex. Eurydice has abandoned her saviour-Orpheus for the perceived pleasures of the Black Other."

A small figure on a mountain top indicates how we ourselves can be forced into the furnace of clichés. According to Kara Walker, in this silhouette of a girl the Austrian character mutates into a cross between Heidi and the singing Maria from the 1960's musical "The Sound of Music". The sledgehammer is ready for us all. Let's take off our hats to it.