“The piece is an opportunity to encounter Mapplethorpe’s work in a theatrical setting,” says Bryce Dessner. “For me, there’s a beauty and a power of seeing those images in community and spending time with them. If it’s in a gallery and you’re kind of skirting around the room, you seek out the image that you want to spend time with and maybe skip others. This is just something more deliberate, where you really spend time with the images we’ve chosen.”
Dessner, frontman for the popular rock band The National (playing The Anthem on June 19), was the instigator and composer for Triptych (Eyes of One Another), a theatrical concert paying tribute to the works of the late Robert Mapplethorpe.
The site-specific work, created for the Kennedy Center’s Direct Current series, will have its World Premiere this Saturday night, April 6. Dessner, 43, worked with 28-year-old writer Korde Arrington Tuttle, who shaped the libretto for the piece, incorporating verbiage from the works of Essex Hemphill and Patti Smith. The Grammy-winning ensemble Roomful of Teeth will perform the piece amid massive projections of Mapplethorpe’s works.
“It’s an abstract piece,” admits Dessner on the phone from Paris. “It’s not a narrative opera [with] a very clear storyline. The piece makes its way through different kinds of musical spaces,” including, at one point, Italian Madrigals.
The evening includes a segment dedicated to the 1990 obscenity trial, in which Cincinnati prosecutors aggressively went after the city’s Contemporary Art Center and its director for displaying certain Mapplethorpe works they deemed as pornographic. (The artist’s most provocative pieces have historically served as a lightning rod for conservative, anti-LGBTQ forces.)
Dessner points out that while Triptych showcases a few explicit works (“We don’t wanna do a Mapplethorpe concert and only show flowers”), the Mapplethorpe Foundation did not permit usage of seven key images from the Cincinnati trial. “They’re very careful about when and how those images are shown,” Dessner says.
Tuttle, currently working on THEM: Covenant, a Lena Waithe-produced horror anthology for Amazon, notes that “the piece is an attempt at resurrecting Mapplethorpe’s life and work through the lens of today, and through my unique and specific perspective. I experienced the archive as a kind of time capsule…. [Bryce has] asked me to perhaps look not where everyone else is looking in order to find the treasure.”
“It’s not easy to make work inspired by another artist,” adds Dessner, “or to layer music within these images, but I hope that we’ve been able to do justice on some level. I can say with confidence that the production itself is a really beautiful way of seeing these images. People will [encounter] a lot of Mapplethorpe’s images that they won’t know.”
Triptych (Eyes of One Another) is Saturday, April 6, at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $19 to $39. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.