The Archivist’s Nook: Embodiment – Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera

Sample of Novak’s North African/Moorish/Al-Andalus image study for Lakmé

Joseph Novak was The Chief Scenic Artist of The Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City, from 1910 to 1952—an approximately 40-year tenure. His archival papers consist of a collection of artistic works and associated documents that were originally donated to The Catholic University of America’s School of Music to become a part of the Luce Library in 1976; however, the collection was housed, processed, and exhibited at the Mullen Library. The collection consists of approximately 500 sets of opera models, 100 photographs, 600 drawings, uncounted numbers of clippings, and associated documents produced by Novak. Among the many intriguing projects undertaken by Novak was his set and costume design for the 1932 revival of Lakmé —a tale of the Orient…

Embodiment: Becoming the Spectacle of the Opera.

In 2013, Gerard-Georges Lemaire wrote a compendium titled Orientalism: The Orient in Western Art. He opens the monograph with a meditative preface by Genevieve Lacambre who ponders: “Where exactly was the Orient that was so vividly depicted by the Orientalists?…we ought more accurately speak of the Orients”—a place of multiple iterations. The Orient is difficult to define because of the supernumerary of cultures that were swept up by Europe’s non-stop quest to capture the ontological essence of The East and to become the author of its authenticity. The Orient was an imaginative state, channeled by nearly the whole of Western society, across an astonishing temporal reach, in which “For over two thousand years the Orient has exercised an irresistible fascination over Western minds…” The Orient meant different things to different Western cultures and within each respective culture there was a great deal of intra-cultural variegation as to who and what were referred to as Oriental.

Orientalist art was the materialization of the push and pull between a Europe that was arrested by its profound fascination with the other and a Europe whose cultural mythos had set it diametric to the vast array of cultures that comprised world around it. These opposing energies engendered the desire to recreate other cultures through the visual arts and imposed a layer of cultural semantics through the establishment of a visual vernacular that was steeped in decadence and violence.

Orientalism penetrated the visual realm from fine art to advertising. This advertisement blends the emerging trendiness of art deco with the continuing rage for all things Oriental.

The orient was conjured by those who had visited the regions that unwillingly carried the pseudonymous “Orient” moniker and was remixed by those who had never visited beyond the borders of Europe. By the 19th century, Orientalist art entered a grotesque stage—a semiotic shift that arose in response to new geopolitical occurrences. European’s Colonial expansion had created a new impetus through which “Some of the first nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings were intended as propaganda in support of French imperialism, depicting the East as a place of backwardness, lawlessness, or barbarism enlightened and tamed by French rule.” The striking paradox of the French artist’s use of the Orientalist genre to create sociological delimitation, was that Europe’s obsession with the Orient had driven its artists into a memetic state, wherein Europe began to see itself as the embodiment of The East: the owner of its peoples, its lands, and its luxuries.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art notes that “Male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination, populating opulently decorated interiors with luxuriant odalisques, or female slaves or concubines (many with Western features)…” It was quite a twist, as Europeanized women began to appear as subjects in Orientalist works that were less about the patriarchal exercise of choreographing women’s sexuality and more about the prismatic renderings of whiteness and the subjugation of dark skinned persons. Whiteness had become an actor on the Orientalist stage, signifying a shift in the political attitude towards The East—from one of fascination, to one of possession and control. Darker skinned women began to be depicted as naturally born to please the European subjects in such works as the blandly titled Works Odalisque and Slave.

The desire to subvert other cultures while simultaneously consuming their artistic, intellectual, and cultural capital, in what The Metropolitan Art Museum notes as “…architectural motifs, furniture, decorative arts, and textiles, which were increasingly sought after by a European elite”, is the precarious intersection at which Joseph Novak undertook the task of creating the world of Lakmé —an operatic revival of the story of an Indian woman who viciously gives her life—and by extension her nation—in the name of Britain, embodied as a solider. According to Lakmé ’s father, the British solder is an oppressor who must be expelled from the native lands; however, the fantasy transfigures British oppression by dressing it in drag and having it masquerade as a mechanism that can grant Lakmé  love, freedom, and power.  

How did Novak imagine an Orient that would match the gravity of the vocal, symphonic, and narrative spectacles of the operatic stage? Not only would Novak need to imagine an already imaginary world, he would have to play upon these contortions to manufacture the woman who would inhabit it—the singer Lilly Pons, a European woman, would have to become the fantasy, of the fantasy, of the fantasy– a perpetual, indefatigable figure who was without a past and without a future. A mythical other—embedded in a tortuous hierarchy of somatic servitude but blissfully trapped in her prison of sensuality, luxury, and the desires of Western men for her.

Enter the World of Lakmé…

One of hundreds of photos used by Novak to develop costuming for Lilly Pons (right) as Lakmé circa 1932..

The final 1931 Lakmé set featuring the cast with Pons seated center. Bottom from the left to right: Shwe Dagon in Burma; Ruins of the Al-Hakeem Masque in Egypt; The Moorish Architecture of the Great Mosque in Cordoba; Unlabeled. The final set for Lakmé is a fusion of Moorish and South East Asian architectures.

Click here to see a Pons performing The Bell Song from Lakmé, as was featured in the 1935 movie “I dream too much.” Apart from Pon’s brilliant Coloratura performance, in which she gave the audience everlasting life, the finalized Lakmé set can be seen, as well as, extras donning clothing that appears to be a fusion of Moorish and South Asian, as is consistent with Novak’s visual studies of North Africa, Moorish, South Asian, and South East Asian peoples’ textiles.         

The Archivist’s Nook: The World is My Parish – James Magner

MagnerAd_1958
Advertisement for tour through Mexico and Guatemala, 1958.

One particular character looms large at the American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives: the Rev. Msgr. James Magner (1901-1995). Born in Illinois, he attended Saint Mary of the Lake Seminary, was ordained in 1926 and completed his higher education in Rome at the Urban College of the Propaganda Fidei and the Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Magner joined The Catholic University of America community in 1940, where he held many roles over the years including Assistant Secretary Treasurer, Director of the University Press, and Vice Rector for Business and Finance, as well as occasionally lectured. Retiring in 1968, he gave 28 years of service to the University.

That short biography fails to encompass the wide-ranging interests and hobbies of this unique – dare I say quirky – priest. An avid traveler and collector, the Archives received his estate in 1995, including many museum objects brought back from abroad. As Magner explained in his memoirs, “Travel has been among the most rewarding experiences of my life. I have regarded it, not merely as a holiday or change from my regular occupations, but really an opportunity to broaden and deepen my knowledge of the world and its people.” His lifelong love of travel began in the 1930s, as he explored Mexico. In the 1940s, Magner began organizing and leading seminar group tours of Mexico for Catholic University students. Today, the Archive’s Magner Museum Collection includes over one hundred Pre-Columbian objects brought back from Mexico and several other Central and South American countries, a selection of which are currently on display in the Archive’s reading room.

A page from James Magner’s collection of Soviet stamps.
A page from James Magner’s collection of Soviet stamps.

In the 1950s, Magner expanded his travels and tours to all over the world. In July of 1951, he conducted a world tour utilizing the latest exciting development in commercial travel: the airplane. As he explains in his memoir My Faces & Places Volume II, 1929-1953:

“I undertook this tour around the world by air, as something of a stunt, but it turned out to be one of the most exciting and educational experiences in my life. It was like a review of the history of the great cultures of the world compressed into a page. I truly felt that I have gone Jules Verne one better.”

Upon his return, Magner gave a lecture, “Around the World in Forty Days”, on his experience. This lecture gives a tantalizing glimpse into the politics and headlines of the time, including the rising tensions in Palestine and between Pakistan and India.

Riding an elephant in India, 1978.
Riding an elephant in India, 1978.

By the 1960s, Magner had added quite the roster of countries to his summer tours, including many under the sway of the Soviet Union. Magner had personally been traveling within the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc since 1956. When asked why he made these daring trips, he explained he wanted to see for himself what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. These excursions occurred largely without incident, with one exception. Prior to his 1965 tour of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, the Polish consular office initially declined to give Magner a visa. According to Magner, “apparently they feared that I might be on a secret mission or wondered why a Catholic priest had to go with the group.”

James Magner, priest, scholar, collector, traveler, and university administrator, retired to West Palm Beach, Florida in 1968. Not one to sit ideally by even if retired, he served two parishes in the area as a visiting priest, wrote his memoirs, and continued to amass a collection of books, art and artifacts. December 30, 1994, Rev. Msgr Magner passed away at the ripe old age of 93. He shared his experiences abroad not only with those he brought on his tours, but also the many attendees of his lectures where he often shared films of his travels. His legacy lives on at the Archives through his personal papers and museum objects as well as his donation of the historically significant Iturbide-Kearney Family Collection. On The Catholic University of America campus, a building bears his name in the Centennial Village residential community.