Visual Culture

The Wild, Expansive World of Maurice Sendak’s Opera Sets

Wallace Ludel
Jun 3, 2019 3:58PM

Maurice Sendak, Diorama of Moishe scrim and flower proscenium (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice Sendak. Photo by Graham Haber.

Maurice Sendak liked to say that he didn’t write for children; rather, he just wrote. “I do not believe I’ve ever written a children’s book, I don’t know how,” he said in a 2011 interview with the Tate, at age 82. He did, however, have a great reverence for children; he believed in the particular bits of knowledge that they alone possess. “The magic of childhood is the strangeness of childhood,” he said in the same interview, “the uniqueness that makes [children] see things that other people don’t see.”

Sendak often told the story of a young girl who witnessed the towers collapse on September 11th, then told her father that she had seen butterflies falling from them as they came down. Later, she admitted that she had lied to her parents so as not to upset them—she knew they weren’t butterflies, but people. The instinct to shield oneself from suffering by layering it with absurdity and beauty is often unique to children, but was Sendak’s most acute gift of all.

This sensibility is perhaps most apparent in the illustrator’s lesser-known career as an opera set and costume designer, as opera is an art in which all action is at once supremely beautiful and inextricably heartbreaking. Sendak designed about a dozen operas and ballets in his lifetime. A show of nearly 150 objects, drawings, and paintings from five of his productions will be on view from June 14th to October 6th at the Morgan Library’s “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet,” curated by Rachel Federman.

Maurice Sendak, Study for Wild Things costume, with notes (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy ofThe Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice Sendak. Photo by Janny Chiu.


By 1981, at age 53, Sendak was working on the sets of four different operas. His first two had been produced the previous year: A one-act adaptation of his beloved 1963 book Where the Wild Things Are began its run at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels in November and, two weeks earlier, his design for Mozart’s The Magic Flute, led by director Frank Corsaro, debuted at Houston Grand Opera in Texas.

One highlight at the Morgan is a watercolor and graphite study for the costume of Moishe, the beast from Where the Wild Things Are who was an avatar for Sendak himself. In the drawing, a young boy wears the costume, with Sendak’s hand-written notes detailing requirements like “Eyes must move!” (Early versions of these costumes were unsuccessful; performers reported being unable to breathe while wearing them, and one Wild Thing even fell off the stage due to a lack of peripheral vision.) Another treat is a depiction of the backdrop for the finale of The Magic Flute. In it, animals, mystical and otherwise, crowd the scene as the composition is split in half between night and day, a rainbow bridging the two.

Maurice Sendak, Design for Temple of the Sun, finale II (The Magic Flute), 1979-1980. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy ofThe Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice Sendak. Photo by Graham S. Haber.

Corsaro, who was already an established opera director at the time, admired Sendak’s range of ability, particularly after seeing his Brother’s Grimm illustrations. The Magic Flute was the perfect beginning to their professional relationship: It’s an opera that offsets vaudevillian absurdity and allegory with heavy, substantial undercurrents; and Sendak, unbeknownst to Corsaro at the time, was what one might call a Mozart super-fan. (Decades later, on PBS’s American Masters, he referred to Mozart as “a god I could really respect.”)

While Mozart reigned supreme for Sendak, he had strong associations with various composers. In a 1966 interview, he said he always worked with music playing. “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,” he explained. “And very often I will switch recordings endlessly until I get the right color or the right note or the right sound.”

Maurice Sendak, Design for show scrim (The Magic Flute), 1979-1980. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice Sendak. Photo by Janny Chiu.

In 1981, Sendak published Outside Over There, one of the only books he would publish during this period in which he was so dedicated to set design. It’s a dark story about a little girl named Ida whose infant sister is stolen by ladder-wielding goblins. Ida eventually distracts the goblins by playing her horn and saves her sister.

Sendak’s love for opera is deeply baked into Outside Over There, a book explicitly about the power of music; just as Tamino in The Magic Flute overcomes adversity by playing his flute, so does Ida play her horn. Sendak once said that when he wrote the book he was trying to write “an opera with pictures,” and Mozart even makes a cameo in it—Ida and her baby sister pass him composing in his cottage as they return home. (Mozart’s likeness also appears on a hot air balloon in The Magic Flute and on a bust above a cabinet in a set design for The Nutcracker.)

Maurice Sendak, Design for battle scene, Act I (Nutcracker), 1982-1983. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice SendakPhoto by Janny Chiu.

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.

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.

Maurice Sendak, Costume study for Fox Golden-Stripe (The Cunning Little Vixen), 1981. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice Sendak. Photo by Janny Chiu.

Among the motifs that overlap between Sendak’s books and set designs are symbols of nature. Sendak illustrated Where the Wild Things Are, a book centered around rich greenery, from his windowless studio in New York City, adding longing to the lushness of his scenes. Likewise, the trees in his set designs are rendered with such vigor and care, that they become the focal point of countless works in the Morgan show. When Sendak illustrated Randall-Jarrell’s book The Bat-Poet, the artist’s long-time friend, playwright Tony Kushner said of it, “I think, for Maurice, those drawings were just an excuse for him to draw beautiful trees.”

In fact, one of the first things Sendak did after finding success was move to suburban Connecticut, in a house surrounded by trees, where he remained from 1972 until his death. In an interview with Terry Gross of NPR in 2011, he spoke to the beauty of his home, and what it meant for him as he aged. “I’m not unhappy about becoming old. I’m not unhappy about what must be […] [I look] out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old,” he said. “And you see, I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are. It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music.”

Maurice Sendak, Study for stage set #10 (Where the Wild Things Are), 1979-1983. © The Maurice Sendak Foundation. Courtesy of The Morgan Library & Museum, bequest of Maurice Sendak. Photo by Janny Chiu.

When Sendak was hospitalized the next year, a trip from which he would not return, Kushner brought him a copy of the opera La Cinesi to listen to. La Cinesi had been written for Empress Maria Theresa, and Sendak loved it so much that he insisted the nurses refer to him as Your Royal Highness Princess Amalia, the name of one of the empress’ daughters. And that’s how it ended, humor and sadness all mixed up in the same aria.

Wallace Ludel

A previous version of this article implied that the exhibition “Drawing the Curtain” at The Morgan Library will only feature works from Sendak’s operas. The exhibition will also include works from a ballet.