Arts campus arts

Museums, miniatures, and the Met

MIT Arts Scholars visit New York

Last weekend the MIT Art Scholars, a group of about 30 students with interests in various artistic disciplines, traveled to New York City. The weekend included an exploration of Indian art, a performance of Rusalka at the Metropolitan Opera, and a tour of a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was the Art Scholars’ fourth annual trip to NYC, supported by Council for the Arts at MIT.

Art Scholar Linh N. Vuong ’13 said the trip felt “like New York Fashion Week for MIT students who are passionate about the arts.” She thought it gave students the unique opportunity to appreciate art outside the MIT bubble. “Being able to travel with the Arts Scholars to watch Rusalka in New York just shows how there are tons of resources at MIT to help us learn and grow as individuals, both inside and outside the classroom,” said Bruno D. Tambasco ’15, one of several scholars who had never seen an opera before the weekend.

The trip began with Tarun Kumar Jain’s guided tour of his family’s gallery of Indian and Tibetan art on Saturday morning. Jain, a graduate student in Course 2, highlighted a collection of exquisite miniature paintings dating back to the fifteenth century during the tour. These miniatures, depicting religious and historical scenes, were intended for the personal enjoyment of royalty and were so detailed that they required a magnifying lens to be properly appreciated.

Saturday evening, the Scholars were joined for dinner by opera experts Gregory Fortner and Professor Emily Richmond Pollock. Fortner is assistant stage director of the current production of Rusalka at the Met, where he’s worked since 2006. He spoke with the Arts Scholars about the responsibilities of a stage director, and discussed his recent collaboration with theater artist Robert Lepage (former MIT McDermott Award recipient) on a new opera. Pollock, Assistant Professor of Music at MIT, told the group about the history, plot, and nuances of Rusalka. She also spoke of her research in opera from the bel canto era to the present, twentieth-century concert music, and the politics of musical style.

The opera, Rusalka, was composed by Antonin Dvorák at the turn of the 20th century, and was immediately hailed as the pinnacle of Czech opera. It’s based on the same fairy tale as Disney’s The Little Mermaid. A water nymph (“Rusalka” in Czech) falls in love with a human prince. In order to adopt a mortal form, she must renounce her brethren and her ability to speak. Unlike the Disney version, Rusalka ends in romantic tragedy, as the lovers must ultimately accept eternal damnation as the price of remaining true to each other.

The Met’s beloved production of Rusalka has remained essentially unchanged since its premiere in 1993. The title role was played by Renée Fleming, one of the world’s foremost operatic sopranos, who recently appeared in the 2014 Super Bowl to sing the national anthem. Rusalka is considered to be Fleming’s signature role, and her rendition of the “Song to the Moon” on Saturday brought an immediate ovation from an audience.

Several other notable singers were cast alongside Fleming. Dolora Zajick appeared as the witch Ježibaba, as she did twenty years ago in the opera’s Met premiere. Pollock and several students praised the powerful, yet gentle voice of the Prince (Piotr Beczala). The singers danced and swam through a beautiful fairy-tale set, artfully painted to represent a lush forest, complete with a marvelously realistic pool of gauzy green fabric. The audience was charmed by a coterie of cutely costumed children, who hopped around the stage as frogs, mice, and insects during the incantation scene.

Off-stage, the opulent opera house was its own spectacle, from the exhibit of past costumes to the enormous crystal chandeliers, which were raised at the beginning of the performance. “The size and structure of the Met, along with the decorations and lighting, amazed me. It’s majestic,” said Tambasco.

As the last event of the weekend, the Arts Scholars were treated to a tour of a special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, displaying treasures from the 5th century Silla kingdom of Korea.

Overall, the Arts Scholars thought the trip was a fantastic opportunity. In spring they will continue monthly arts excursions closer to home, in Boston. Interested students can apply online for admission to the program; application for admission for fall 2014 is due at the end of February.