This past weekend, the Barnes Foundation was transformed into an opera house, but it wasn’t Mozart or Wagner on the program.
Instead, the Barnes featured an opera composed and produced by Wendy Steiner, Penn’s Richard L. Fisher Professor of English Emerita.
“Biennale: A Comic Opera” follows Kate, a beauty secrets editor for a women’s magazine, as she travels to the Venice Biennale — a well-known contemporary art exhibition — and engages with the art on display. Inspired by a specific art installation and artist shown at the Biennale, Kate enters into a dreamlike fantasy, crossing paths with a host of real and fictitious figures from the past.
“[The opera] is about why art is important to people,” Steiner said. “But it’s a comedy and it’s weird [because] individual responses to art are weird and fantastical.” As a comic opera, Steiner added that the show was “more like musical theater than tragic high opera.”
The Penn Humanities Forum, which Steiner founded, helped sponsor the opera’s production.
“We like to sponsor a few events each year outside of our theme-based annual program,” James English, an English professor and director of the Penn Humanities Forum, said. “Biennale was perfect for us — a production that truly spans the disciplines of the humanities, combining the history of art and aesthetic philosophy with music, drama and photography in a wild mash-up.”
Steiner got the idea for the opera after hearing a lecture at Penn by a historian who spoke about women’s secrets books from the Renaissance. She was intrigued.
“[The secrets books] concerned questions of aesthetics, beauty and perfection of form that everybody pretends is really unimportant but it’s really very important,” Steiner explained. “I began to think about why this is so, and why we want to forget why it’s important.”
Having been to the Venice Biennale a number of times and often thinking about art and what it means to people, Steiner put all three of these themes together and composed her opera, which opened on Oct. 4 at the Barnes and went on to have two more shows this past weekend.
“It was so much fun, I can’t tell you,” Steiner said. “Dreaming it up and then working with wonderful collaborator[s].”
Steiner has produced an opera before, based on the Wife of Baths tale in British poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was performed at Irvine Auditorium in 2009.
“One of the special things about opera is that people can sing together and you can get different points of view about a situation expressed at exactly the same moment,” Steiner said. “In literature, it’s linear so you can only get one [viewpoint] at a time.”
“Also because opera is traditionally over the top — you can be fanciful in a way that’s hard to get away with in other kinds of writing,” she added.
Professor of South Asia Studies Michael Meister, who attended the opera’s opening night, called it a “farce with nice singing, amusing lyrics and dedicated and talented performers.”
He noted, however, that not too many people from Penn seemed to be in attendance at the opening performance.
Though Steiner retired from Penn this past January, she said “it would be lovely to bring the opera to Penn’s campus…but I don’t have a production company and resources.”
“I’ve created an opera and now the world has to perform it,” she added.