“Where the Wild Things Are.”
“In the Night Kitchen.”
“Outside Over There.”
The “Nutshell Library.”
These classic illustrated children’s books by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012), one of the most influential and highly acclaimed children’s book authors of the 20th century, have engaged and entertained generations of children and their parents.
The Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Sendak created a wide array of more than 100 books, illustrating many written by other prominent authors from Ruth Krauss to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner.
In the books he wrote, with their whimsical imagery and fantastical storytelling, Sendak is credited with capturing the delights of childhood while also confronting its darker and fearful moments.
Less familiar to many is Sendak’s decades-long body of work in the world of opera and ballet as a designer of exquisite theatrical sets and costumes. It was a kind of second career that emerged in a flurry of commissions beginning in the late 1970s, when Sendak, in midlife, was already well established as a children’s book author and artist.
This summer, Boston area fans have the chance to explore this wider lens of Sendak’s art in “Drawing the Curtain: Maurice Sendak’s Designs for Opera and Ballet,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston through Sept. 11. A companion catalog was published by the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, where the exhibit originated.
The exhibit includes more than one hundred of Sendak’s illustrations, watercolors, storyboards, dioramas, and costumes for four stage productions: Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” Prokofiev’s “The Love for Three Oranges,” Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” and Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”
It’s a dazzling show of his wondrous and meticulously created designs that will delight multigenerational museum goers.
The exhibit reveals the ways in which Isabella Stewart Gardner and Sendak, both native New Yorkers who lived at different times, shared common passions – for music and opera, literature, and for the Old Masters.
In the first gallery, as selections from “The Magic Flute” play in the background, visitors discover that Mozart’s opera was beloved by both Gardner and Sendak. One of Sendak’s earliest designs, it was commissioned by director Frank Corsaro and debuted at the Houston Opera in 1980. Sendak’s artistic genius jumps off the paper in a wall of sketches for various scenes from the opera.
Display cases and sliding drawers include the concert program and musical score for the opening of the museum in 1903 with a performance of the overture to the opera by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
His design for the opera adaptation of “Where the Wild Things Are,” another of his earliest set designs, is where you most clearly see Sendak’s Jewish identity, according to Diana Seave Greenwald, the Gardner’s curator for the exhibit.
The book is about a boy named Max, whose mother sends her naughty son to bed without dinner. Alone in his room, Max imagines setting sail on an adventure to an island where he’s greeted by menacing-looking monsters whom he tames. After commanding a wild rumpus, he longs for home and returns to his room and mother.
“Wild Things” was “rooted in his experience of growing up in a Yiddish speaking, Jewish immigrant home in Brooklyn,” Seave Greenwald told the Journal in a phone conversation. His drawing of the ravenous wild things reflected his childhood memories of extended family members descending on his home around a dinner table, she said.
As a child, Sendak was frail and often sick and bedridden, where he took to drawing, He grew up during the Depression and came of age during World War II and the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of many of his European relatives. From an early age, he was aware of being gay, at a time when homophobia and discrimination were pervasive. Vulnerability and death were a formidable presence, lightened by Sendak’s lifelong love of comics.
Seave Greenwald was struck by “how his characters resonate with people who may feel marginalized … and how powerful his work is as a result of that,” she said.
The very dramatic nature of opera offered Sendak a chance to push the creative boundaries of those darker themes beyond his children’s books, said Seave Greenwald. Growing up in Jewish family in New York, she was most attracted to Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen,” a nighttime cityscape adventure that evokes his urban Brooklyn roots.
In the opera version of “Where the Wild Things Are,” Sendak named one of the monsters, Moishe, his Hebrew name, as an avatar for himself. A diorama of Moishe is on view.
Sendak’s masterful storytelling stand out in a delightful watercolor storyboard for “Wild Things,” a series of drawings that gives curious young viewers a peek behind the scenes into Sendak’s motion-driven art making.
The gallery includes a reading nook as well as a play stage to act out the roles.
The Gardner is offering expanded weekend open studios on both Saturday and Sunday afternoons for art making projects related to Drawing the Curtain.
For more information and tickets, visit, gardnermuseum.org