Provocative Viennese conceptual artist Gottfried Helnwein is the lionized subject of Lisa Kirk Colburn’s disappointing tribute. Alone in his cavernous Los Angeles studio, surrounded by huge paintings of bloodied and bandaged children, Helnwein speaks of his fascination with images of innocence betrayed. But even when he arrives in Israel to design an opera based on the similarly themed work of late Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, Colburn’s focus is so single-mindedly laudatory that the whole collaborative process is reduced to people either helping or hindering the visiting genius. Bowed Nov. 23, the docu reps a study in missed opportunities.
Helnwein, whose work encompasses painting, performance art, sculpture, and production design for theater, opera and ballet, is viewed through the narrow prism of his ideal suitability to Levin’s opera “The Child Dreams.” In signature headscarf and shades, Helnwein holds forth at great length on his early recognition of the Holocaust, the hidden horror of which no one in Austria spoke; his fixation on children as victims of man’s inhumanity; and his soul-deep admiration for Levin’s text, so resembling his own vision. Colburn then trots out just about every talking head associated with the Israeli production, each one enthusiastically extolling the perfection of the artistic match.
Once rehearsals begin, however, imperfections start cropping up. Colburn overdramatizes one of them, a disruptive but hardly unusual dispute between prima donnas Helnwein and Bambi, the Israeli Opera’s lighting director. But another, more substantive debate — whether to use an actual child or a small woman in the title role — unfolds without clear exposition: Helnwein passionately insists on a child actor, while the opera’s director struggles to navigate Israeli laws governing child performers. Colburn myopically transforms the conflict into a further example of misunderstood creative brilliance.
Ultimately, aside from some striking examples of set design — one of which features an entirely black stage hung with dead children as broken and bloodied puppets — little is seen of the actual opera, and still less of the process of putting it together. Except for choreographer Gregor Seyffert, whom Helnwein himself brought in, our hero is never shown collaborating with any members of the production team, though all are invited to rhapsodize about him in on-camera interview snippets.
Lensing by Nyika Jansco in Israel and Robert Brinkman in Los Angeles is exemplary, if always in the service of greater aggrandizement.