John Parks, "L'Opera"
On the Stage of David Beck's L'Opera a glorious and fantastic theatrical moment is taking place. Verdi's Aida is reaching a triumphal climax at the end of Act II and an ancient Egyptian procession is underway, complete with camels and elephants and a vast chorus of splendidly attired courtiers and dancers. Flames are blazing from enormous torchieres and deep in the background the two principal singers are lodged on top of a monument. They are not singing, however, and appear to be already taking their bows prior to being cast into a tomb to die together. Any singing is coming from the audience, where all the best seats are occupied by characters from three other operas arranged in sections like preposterous sports fans. The cast of Wagner's Ring, complete with naked Rhinemaidens along with various gods and helmeted heroes, sits down the center. They are flanked on one side by the cast of Mefistofele with its garish contingent of demons and devils and on the other by the more decorous and decorative Chinese denizens of Turandot. Meanwhile the orchestra comprises the entire cast of I Pagliacci attired in beautiful domino Commedia dell'Arte costumes. Other operas have crowded in with the very fabric of the opera house: the carvings around the stage show Rigoletto, Salome, and Carmen, a golden frieze above the proscenium arch displays animals from The Magic Flute, while golden Trees flanking the entrance support Papageno and Papagena, characters from the same opera who are Playing to each other. Six figures carved in relief on the exterior walls are from The Rake's Progress. Opera goers of a terrestrial variety have only just managed to squeeze into this performance – formal couples peering from the boxes with opera glasses and middle-aged men who have unfortunately dozed off long before the finale and now sleep shamelessly sprawled in their alligator skin seats.
This lavish and loving tribute to the world of opera has been conjured by David Beck in a sculpture that is a tour de force of carving and crafting but ultimately a work of considerable poetry. He has invented an opera house of fantastic architecture, a hybrid of Moorish, Classical and Victorian Gothic, resplendent in decorated surfaces, gold leaf, eggshell, velvets, satins, carved relief, and wood in various guises. The artist has drawn on a wide variety of traditions and sensibilities to achieve a rich, dense and comprehensive vision. He has ransacked the worlds of the European cabinetmakers Dunand and Bugatti for his surfaces. He has carved in the spirit of American folk art, with the raucous humor of the comic book and with the delicacy of the German Gothic sculpture he so admires. Moreover the artist has mechanized the entire scene with a skill and complexity matched only by certain extraordinary mechanical toys of the eighteenth century. At the push of a button the lights come on and the audience begins to sing and sway, a feat achieved with numerous tiny spindles, push rods and electric motors concealed beneath the opera's floor. At the push of a second button the curtain rises on the stage and the procession sets in motion, the singers bow and the torchieres flame. And everywhere in the work is the joy of observation and reinvention, the sheer fun of remaking the world. In combining so many approaches Beck has achieved a broad and encompassing vision which shifts from the grotesque to the exquisite and from the absurd to the deeply reverential. Nowhere is this more clear than in the color which moves from comic book cheerfulness in some of the figures to rich subtleness in the decorativesurfaces. If opera is the original multimedia extravaganza then Beck's multiplicity of techniques and viewpoints is well equipped to recapture it.
A work of almost encyclopedic depth, David Beck's L'Opera offers the absorbing pleasure of detail. It is here that the sheer inclusiveness of operatic drama can be discovered, stories and spectacles that range from the tender and sweet to the outright macabre. Operas, observes the artist, are full of stabbings and beheadings. And so in Beck's audience one character sits with his severed head on his knee. (Although in the spirit of the moment the head sings along with the rest of the crowd.) A little painted vignette dose to the stage shows a figure wrapped in a sheet with a knife in its back. Another vignette shows the stabbing of Carmen and yet another shows Salome proffering the head of john the Baptist. Up on the stage Aida and her lover are about to meet their doom while the painted frieze behind them appears to show a whole slew of beheadings. If you can discover a plethora of bloodletting you can also find much that is lighthearted and pleasant. There are numerous birds and frogs, and all manner of carved faces in the intricacies of the woodwork. You can enjoy the busts of ten composers perched high above the stage or marvel at the variety of leaf forms throughout the piece. And because the main action is encased in an elaborate building, the viewer is obliged to explore it slowly from numerous incomplete views and angles, to glimpse from the back of the boxes, through slender doors in the side or through the facets of the glass dome. The viewer must bend and peer, observing closely and carefully, before the work is fully revealed, a process which offers its own rewards. The only thing missing in this massive work is the music itself. The artist says that he felt he could not simply feed recorded music out of the piece – he feared it would be distracting or merely annoying. So the work is exclusively a tribute to the visual splendors of opera, its theatrical glories and its lurid narratives. Given so much, the viewers will have no trouble in imagining the music for themselves.
The building of L'Opera, even from the point of view of craft, is an extraordinary accomplishment. Beck has signed the work with the words 'Travail d'un Seul Homme"– the Work of One Man – a quote from the French "outsider" artist Ferdinand Cheval who spent more than twenty years building an elaborate palace in his backyard. It is impossible not to contemplate the five years of sustained and monumental effort required to build L'Opera or the sheer skill and prowess with materials it displays. Beck has used at least twelve different woods as well as materials ranging from copper sheeting to lacquer, brass to satin moire. He has carved two hundred and seven figures and animated almost all of them. There is fine lacquer and deftly handled gold leaf, gouache painting, eggshell and marquetry. But having built this world and set it in motion the artist has not quite managed to sneak away. A wistfulness hangs over the whole piece taken up in the dark spiral of the chandelier, the heavy shafts of the supporting legs, the insistent richness of the grey carved panels on the exterior. Opera is as amazing, inspiring, and absurd as life itself, the piece seems to suggest, a collective fantasy in which both performers and audience are destined to play out preposterous dramas in ludicrous surroundings. If Beck has housed these goings-on in a somewhat somber shell of greys and blacks it only makes their antics, obsessions and excesses all the more endearing and precious.