People are Strange: Inside the Operatic World of the Brothers Quay

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Twin filmmakers and occasional opera designers Stephen and Timothy Quay — better known as the Brothers Quay — maintain public personas much like their films: Deliberate, enigmatic, with a fetish for the surreal so long as it masks a deeper meaning discernible by few while beguiling many.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1947 and based in London since 1969, the Quays — who are celebrated with a new retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art which runs through January 2013 — seem to be cultural collectors. They take no small influence from Eastern European animation, are artistic soulmates with fellow Yank-turned-Brit Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python animation fame) and logged some time in the Netherlands in the 1970s. They have contributed to films as wide-ranging as Julie Taymor’s Frida Kahlo biopic, Frida and documentaries on Janacek and Stravinsky.

Likewise, they acknowledge that their family history — rife with European immigrants boasting skills of tailoring and carpentry — was all an amalgamation of influences and skills that led them to their signature animation style, based heavily in puppetry and found objects. Theirs is a bizarrely realistic and mythically sane world, as you'll see in this excerpt from their film Street of Crocodiles:

Writing for, James Rose described a Brothers Quay experience by noting that “each decaying environment and the emaciated characters that populate these labyrinths are handmade constructions, bastard combinations of technology, found materials and tailoring who, more often than not, fall prey to arcane and seductive mechanisms, all carefully choreographed to the sparse geometry of music.”

MoMA’s associate curator in the department of film, Ron Magliozzi (who organized the museum’s Quay retrospective, aptly-in-only-a-Quay-way subtitled: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets) identifies four components to the Quay's work: "disguised meanings, creative accident, marginalia and collage."

If those four elements seemed like appropriate descriptors for opera as well, you’re right on the money. In addition to their best-known films like The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, Stille Nacht and The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, the Brothers Quay have also logged a number of live performance designs under their belts. They earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway revival of Ionesco’s The Chairs in the late ‘90s. 

But it’s in the field of opera that we can perhaps get some valuable insight into the two brothers behind the enigma of Quay. MoMA's retrospective includes a 30-minute video compilation featuring clips from The Love for Three Oranges, Mazeppa and Richard Ayres’s The Cricket Recovers. Do these three operas provide greater illumination into the Brothers Quay? Or do they further shroud the mystique? Perhaps both cases are true (what are twins if not the symbol of dichotomy?).

Uncovering the Surreal in Opera

Mazeppa, Tchaikovsky’s 1884 opera about a Ukrainian nobleman’s daughter falling in love with an older Russian military official, breaking Russian Orthodox taboo in doing so and spiraling into a story of madness, love, politics and revenge, has the obvious Eastern European appeal to the Quays, who designed a production directed by Richard Jones for the Bregenz Festival and Netherlands Opera in 1991.

In her paper, “Shifting Realities… Between Live Action and Animation,” the University of Zurich’s Suzanne Buchan writes that the Quay Brothers' films take a fragmentary approach to literary subjects. This can involve adaptation (Street of Crocodiles was based on a short story by Bruno Schulz) or homage (The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer is named for a noted Czech director, whose Faust made my own top 15 opera references in film). So, in a way, Mazeppa — a work Tchaikovsky based in turn on a Pushkin poem in turn based on historical events — expresses the Quays’ own love for working preexisting material into a new medium. Tchaikovsky, like the Quays, took liberties with the source material so that it would work harmoniously with his dramatic and musical vision. However, the beating heart of the work, the message, still remains.

Also key to the Quay sensibility is an element of madness. This takes over the plot of Mazeppa almost from the beginning, after Mariya agrees to leave her family and run off with her much older beloved (and godfather, which is considered stronger than a familial tie in the Orthodox church). It’s Mariya’s own madness that leaves her abandoned by her husband, cradling the dying body of her childhood friend, mistaking him for an infant and singing an eerily calm lullaby. Buchan later cites in her book The Quay Brothers: Into a Metaphysical Playroom, that the “subversion of perception” is another prominent aspect of Quay works, which often deal with mentally unsound characters.

There’s a reflection of that madness in the Quay Brothers’ sets, which were rife with angularities, unsettling, oversaturated colors, and (in keeping with a recurring theme in their works) tram cables. Several elements from this production would pop up later in their 1995 film, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream That One Calls Human Life, a prime candidate for an operatic makeover in its own right.

A few years before Mazeppa, the Quays had their first collaboration with the iconoclastic director Richard Jones in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, a 1988 coproduction between Opera North and English National Opera. It was one of those moments in which there existed a perfect marriage between designers and text. Institute Benjamenta starts off (underscored by Carl Orff) in a plane of suspended reality, what Buchan calls “a dreamlike voyage through an eerie, metaphysical fairy tale world.”

In turn, Prokofiev’s 1919 opera had some surreal elements of its own (its 1921 premiere in Chicago left one critic to remark: “it left many of our best people dazed and wondering”) in the story of a prince whose hypochondria is cured by laughter and who marries a woman birthed from an orange. That’s the ultra-condensed version of a plot that has brides turned into rats, fairy princesses dying of thirst, a female cook with a basso voice, and a failed regicide subplot. The Quays were like kids in a candy shop. A candy shop littered with severed doll heads.

There’s a similar fantastical element in the Quay's stage designs for Richard Ayres’s 2005 anthropomorphic opera The Cricket Recovers, staged at the Aldeburgh Festival and London’s Almeida Opera. However, taking the Quays’ operatic works as a triptych, you’d have to also look at their opera-related installation, She So Beloved. Commissioned for the Leeds City Art Gallery, this 2007 work was part of Opera North’s celebration of what many consider to be the first great opera, Monteverdi’s 1607 Orfeo. The piece brought the brothers back to Leeds nearly 20 years after they first worked with the company, and it was a way for them to combine their loves of visual art, film, music and dance.

But at the same time, this early Baroque work with its source plot, experimental score and surreal blend of characters and plot points, is perhaps also the best metaphor for the work of the Quays themselves. Mythos abounds, but it comes wrapped up as a product of the zeitgeist and the underground, embracing the strangeness of truth to convey beloved works of fiction. It’s best to not dwell on the individual confounding intricacies, and rather to love it as a whole.