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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Art auction for opera
Met auction marries art, music in bid to fund future operas
Associated Press Writer

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May 7, 2007, 1:25 AM EDT
NEW YORK -- Soprano Renee Fleming appeared twice on the Met stage on Sunday _ but for once she didn't sing.

Two works displaying the diva's face were among the pieces for sale at a benefit auction of new art by major living artists _ part of an ongoing effort by the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, Peter Gelb, to combine the visual and vocal arts while keeping his house humming along financially.

The evening, dubbed "Art for Opera," was staged amid the sets of "Orfeo ed Euridice" and raised more than $1.8 million for future Met productions.

Also on the block was a William Wegman photograph of his famed Weimaraner hunting dogs dressed as Hansel and Gretel, in the costumes of next year's Met production of Engelbert Humperdinck's fairy tale opera. It was among a series of four Polaroids that fetched $50,000.

Two other offerings were ephemeral: the live voices of Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra and the Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska, who entertained several hundred onstage dinner guests before the bidding.

"For someone who's never been on the Met stage, it's thrilling to be able to look into the audience and realize what it's like to be a singer here," Gelb said before the auction, which he believes is the first on the Met's massive main stage _ 54 feet wide and 80 feet deep, with a height of 110 feet from the floor to the rigging loft.

James G. Niven, vice-chairman of Sotheby's, offered his services as auctioneer for what he called "a noble experiment."

Most of the lots were specially commissioned, opera-themed works on the market for the first time, including pieces by artists John Chamberlain, Chuck Close, Barnaby Furnas, William Kentridge, Richard Prince and David Salle.

"You'd never in a million years say that this woman is an opera singer," Fleming said of her portrait by Close, using a cotton tapestry technique. "I'm in casual dress. It's just me. Real."

Two editions of the work went for $70,000 and $80,000 each.

By contrast, director Robert Wilson created a stylized video portrait of Fleming in the 19th-century operatic role of Thais, a beautiful courtesan with whom a monk falls in love. That piece sold for $130,000.

Wegman's work "is amusing and fanciful, and it captures the human emotions expressed in his model dog faces. They're great, organic works of art," Gelb said.

Another link to the Met's scenery for next season is an ink-on-paper birdcatcher by the South African artist William Kentridge, who will direct Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's opera "The Nose," a 2010 production about a government worker who wakes up to find his nose has departed and taken on a life of its own. That work fetched $110,000.

The sets of "Orfeo," designed by Allen Moyer, were chosen as the scene for the auction, Gelb said, "because it's very beautiful contemporary design _ a work of art in itself."

Attending the auction was Mark Morris, the dance choreographer who directed the new "Orfeo" production, as well as artist Jeff Koons, entertainer Steve Martin and tennis great John McEnroe.

Before the sale, for which tickets sold at $750 and $1,250 apiece, the works were exhibited in a new gallery the Met opened this season near the entrance of the house at Lincoln Center.

Through Friday, bids also were accepted by phone, or by downloading a form from the Met Web site.

The event was part of a larger institutional goal, Fleming said: "pulling the Met into the 21st century by making opera more relevant to younger audiences _ to a generation brought up on expectations that are visual, on TV and film."

She noted Gelb's introduction of live, high-definition broadcasts of Met productions in hundreds of movie theaters across the country _ many selling out.

"It's an outreach going out into the community and saying, 'Hello, we're here! Don't be afraid, come in'!" Fleming said, adding, "Opera is modern. The people on the stage are people you can relate to, and find intriguing."


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