Wendy Steiner's "Biennale: A Comic Opera" Playing at the Barnes Foundation

October 4, 2013

Richard L. Fisher Professor Emerita of English Wendy Steiner’s new comic opera, Biennale: A Comic Opera, written with composer Paul Richards, is now at the Barnes Foundation. The multimedia production, co-sponsored by the Penn Humanities Forum, premiered on October 4, with additional performances slated for Friday, October 11, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, October 12, at 2 p.m.

The opera centers around Kate, the beauty secrets editor of a women’s magazine. At the Venice Biennale, she enters an interactive art exhibition where she is dazzled by the multimedia installation and the attention of the artist who created it.

“She can’t tell whether what passes between them is real or merely part of the artistic experience,” Steiner says.

Outside the installation, in a conversation over coffee, the artist reveals his addiction to the video game Assassins’ Creed II. The game’s villain, Caterina Sforza, is based on a 15th-century Italian noblewoman who, like Kate, was a beauty secrets expert.

The idea for the opera came to Steiner four years ago while she was attending a lecture on Renaissance “secrets books” at the Penn Humanities Forum, a program she founded in 1999.

Steiner explains that secrets books, long ignored by historians of science, were collections of recipes for cosmetics, cures, charms, and poisons that contributed to the rise of modern chemistry and medicine.

“The secrets in question sounded to me like the table of contents of modern women’s magazines,” Steiner says. “Biennale sets high art against domestic art and the alchemy of love.”

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