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1995 production photo from Modern Painters

Modern Painters 1995

July 29 - August 11, 1995

Observe the life and times of a brilliant man…

…John Ruskin, who shaped British art and thought during the second half of the 19th century. His genius and torment are detailed in the first operatic work from distinguished symphonic composer David Lang.  Ruskin’s public acclaim disguises private sufferings as his wife drifts from him to his  protégé, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais.  A tortured relationship with his mother, and a final obsession with the young Rose La Touche, further accelerate Ruskin’s descent into insanity.

Music By
David Lang
Libretto By
Manuela Hoelterhoff


Act I

Modern Painters tells the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, (1819-1900), who was England’s most influential taste maker during the second half of the nineteenth century. Immensely prolific, wide-ranging in his interests, Ruskin caught the imagination of the public with his impassioned defense of historic monuments, the coloristic paintings of Turner and the medievalizing canvases of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. The industrial age (which he loathed) and Venice (which he loved) were subjects that finally stirred within him far deeper emotional responses than his wife Effie. But their unconsummated marriage was only a chapter in a complex and curious life.

Modern Painters is the title of Ruskin’s most famous work, a five-volume extravaganza that spanned much of his life. More than a study of painting, it was Ruskin’s grand attempt to devise intricate formulas to describe nature, people, ideas and relationships. Ruskin’s tragedy was that he could not bring his brilliant mind to the disorder and confusion in his own life. The tortured relationships he forged with his mother, his wife and finally, and most painfully, a thirteen-year-old girl with whom he became obsessed, are at the heart of the opera.

John Ruskin’s legendary work, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, provides the underlying structure for the opera. In the course of exploring the principles behind an architecture that dignifies and ennobles public life, Ruskin identified seven attributes necessary for the creation of a perfect work of art: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience. These concepts, loosely interpreted, hover in the background of our two-act opera in seven scenes.

Scene 1: Sacrifice
A church in London. Perched on a spire, Ruskin sketches a church as it is demolished beneath him. Invoking posterity, he compares the virtues of the historic church to the impoverished monuments of the modern age, “Workers of England, look around you.”

Scene 2: Truth
A Wedding Banquet in the Ruskin Home. Ruskin celebrates his wedding to Effie Gray in the home of his parents. For Effie’s benefit, Ruskin’s meddlesome mother offers the ingredients of happiness in the aria, “Stewed Trout”, his favorite meal. John’s toast, “I dreamt of a woman like an angel,” leads into the wedding night. Effie dreams of a new life, “Galleries in the day, parties at night, that’s my version of art and life.” As she waits for her husband, he keeps to himself, reading from his own book a description of feminine perfection embodied in the Renaissance tomb of Ilaria di Caretto. “She lies on a pillow, a hound at her feet.”

Scene 3: Power
Venice. A “Gondola Ballet.” Tourists sing fragments from Ruskin’s Stones of Venice as Millais steps into view. The rift between Ruskin and his wife becomes visible in a trio in which Ruskin speaks of art, as Effie and Millais discover common feelings. “What an interesting man.” When the couple departs, Millais dreams of rescue, “ln days gone by, I’d have a steed.”

Scene 4: Beauty
A Pre-Raphaelite salon in the 1850s. At a major exhibition of their most recent paintings, the Pre-Raphaelites state their credo in the Modern Painter chorus. After Effie sings of her great unhappiness, Ruskin praises Millais, “The cool eye, the steady hand, Millais, you honor England.” Millais sings of his predicament, “He chills me with his words” and his feelings for Effie.

Act II

Scene 5: Life
Turner’s grave, many years later. As a women’s chorus sings of light, a brooding Ruskin hears his words, “I invented formulas to understand the world and everything in it.” His mind wanders back in time to his great humiliation, the libel case brought by the painter Whistler in 1878 whom Ruskin had accused of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.” Recovering, he sees Rose La Touche for the first time. “Can it be? Is this real? So sweet a face, such angel grace.”

Scene 6: Memory
Millais’ studio. Effie and Millais are married. Millais sings of his philosophy, “What good is world renown a hundred years hence?” as Effie quiet their children with a fairy tale, “Dame Wiggins of Lee was a worthy old soul.” Mrs. La Touche arrives, bringing news of Ruskin’s intent to marry her daughter. Effie sings of revenge.

Scene 7: Obedience
Mr. Ruskin’s tea shop. Ruskin lectures on beauty in the shop he opened for the working poor. Placing glass over the Turner landscape on his easel, he defiles it with the mills and smokestacks of industrialism, “What else does a modern town need to be complete?” The workers sing of their despair. Drifting into madness, Ruskin finds himself alone. He sings of paradise and all he had hoped to accomplish in his life, “I want to hear the universe and sound the clouds.”


François Le Roux headshot

François Le Roux


John Ruskin

Ann Panagulias headshot

Ann Panagulias


Effie Gray

Mark Thomsen headshot

Mark Thomsen


John Everett Millais

Barry Busse headshot

Barry Busse


A Foreman

Judith Christin headshot

Judith Christin


Mrs. Gray

Sheila Nadler headshot

Sheila Nadler


Mrs. Ruskin

Dale Travis headshot

Dale Travis


Mr. Ruskin

John Joseph Concepcion headshot

John Joseph Concepcion


Mr. Gray

Santa Fe Opera

Michael Daniels



Robert Dombrower headshot

Robert Dombrower



Peter Furlong headshot

Peter G. Furlong



Santa Fe Opera

David Ward


Artist/A Judge

Santa Fe Opera

Susan Van Kley


A Servant

Margaret Mack headshot

Margaret Mack


Mrs. La Touche

Benjamin Brecher headshot

Benjamin Brecher


A Student

George Manahan headshot

George Manahan


Francesca Zambello headshot

Francesca Zambello


Alison Chitty headshot

Alison Chitty

Scenic & Costume Designer

Amy Appleyard headshot

Amy Appleyard

Lighting Designer

Daniel Pelzig headshot

Daniel Pelzig


Gary Wedow headshot

Gary Wedow

Chorus Master