Man and Boy: Dada

Schwitters Agonistes: Opera Takes on a Radical

Kurt Schwitters. Merz Picture 32A (The Cherry Picture). 1921. Cloth, wood, metal, fabric, cut-and-pasted papers, cork, gouache, oil, and ink on cardboard, 36 1/8 x 27 3/4″ (91.8 x 70.5 cm). Mr. and Mrs. A. Atwater Kent, Jr. Fund. (c) 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Theaters, museums and opera houses are conservative by definition: they are dedicated to conserving works of art. In modern times, pieces conceived as challenges to the status quo have been inexorably folded into it.
A new place of conservation, the lovely Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University, opened on Oct. 7, and on Wednesday it presented the first American performance of a new opera about Kurt Schwitters, the radical conceptual artist whose collages and publications, associated with the Dada movement, are now part of the fine art canon. The opera, “Man and Boy: Dada,” by Michael Nyman and Michael Hastings, had its premiere in Germany in March.
But while Schwitters is its subject, the opera shares none of his radicalism. It’s actually a rather conventional little drama posing as something more cutting edge by swathing itself in bolts of Mr. Nyman’s quasi-minimalist music. Schwitters is on exhibition here, but behind a pane of glass. Rather than exploring the issues raised by his art, the opera presents them as curiosities that affect his ability to develop relationships until a boy and his widowed mother penetrate his defenses.
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