Opera designer Robert Israel’s sculptures will cheer sick kids


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Through more than 40 years as a set and costume designer, UCLA professor Robert Israel has often been called upon to help instill sorrow, tension and dread in opera-goers and theater and dance audiences.

But perhaps his biggest and most palpably enduring project, to be unveiled next month in Baltimore, aims for just the opposite effect. Returning to sculpture for the first time since 1968, Israel has created 11 giant, colorful pieces designed to cheer sick or injured children and their families.

The sculptures will debut April 12 at the dedication of the new $1.1-billion Johns Hopkins Hospital, where 500 artworks have been commissioned from more than 70 artists. Israel’s are in the 205-bed pediatric wing, the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center.

His past credits include Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Verdi’s “Macbeth” and operas by Philip Glass. His previous creation in Baltimore was the set for a 2005 production of “King Lear” at Baltimore Center Stage.

Now comes his cow who jumped over the moon -– and other fanciful, brightly colored works. Hanging in the atrium of the children’s wing is Israel’s 22-foot-tall, muliticolored ostrich made of fiberlglass, its big blue egg deposited on a counter below. A school of yellow puffer fish (pictured) swims in air above a central staircase, and a 20-foot-high aluminum baby rhino grazes outside the building’s glass facade. The flying cow with the purple, Lego-like body, yellow head and nine-foot wing span (pictured) soars above an information desk, intent on vaulting a ring of 28 orange and brown moons.

Speaking Friday from Milan, Italy, where he’s creating sets for the March 31 La Scala premiere of “L’altra Meta del Cielo (The Other Side of Heaven),” a ballet choreographed and directed by Martha Clarke and set to music by Italian rock star Vasco Rossi, Israel said the hospital sculptures are a way of using his talents to help families -– and an homage to his late father, Barney Israel, a Detroit physician and surgeon who’d hoped his son would follow him into medicine. The opportunity came out of the blue more than a year ago, Israel said, when Nancy Rosen, the curator for the hospital’s big art component, asked if he’d like to enter a competition to create some of the works that were being commissioned with help from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a John Hopkins University alumnus and major donor to the children’s hospital, which is named for his mother. Israel said he got the invitation “because they wanted something theatrical.”


The completed pieces were fabricated in Seattle and recently trucked to Baltimore. Israel said he couldn’t oversee their installation because he had to be in Milan, but he will attend the opening ceremony (the 12-story hospital’s adult wing is the SheikZayed Tower, named for SheikhZayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, founder and first president of the United Arab Emirates).

Big as they are, Israel’s sculptures are not the hospital’s largest art components. That would be the 250,000 square-foot colored glass curtain wall designed by Brooklyn artist Spencer Finch that envelops the building.

Israel said that as a boy he sometimes accompanied his father on his hospital rounds. “He always wanted me to be a doctor. I was accepted at the University of Michigan in pre-med, but it wasn’t in my heart, so I went to art school in New York. I’m sure it was a disappointment for my parents, but they came around” –- and got to see his career take off in the 1960s when he made his name doing costumes and sets for operas at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.

In approaching the hospital commission, Israel said, “I just tried to put myself in a child’s frame of mind and proceeded from there. There’s something about kids, the vulnerability of it all, but also the fantasy of it all.’

While he’d never worked in children’s theater -– Israel doesn’t count a Christopher Hampton adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” he worked on for London’s National Theatre, because “it wasn’t really for children” -– he had plenty of first-hand kid’s-eye experience he could apply to the children’s hospital assignment.

“Oh, did I ever,’ he said. ‘I had an appendectomy, tonsillectomy, pneumonia. I think I had a gland removed from my neck -– everything a kid could want. It was not fun, but I came through it OK.”


When his son, Alexander, was about 9, he injured a knee wrestling with a friend and had to have surgery, so Israel had the parental end of the experience covered as well.

The aim for the children’s hospital art commissions, said Magdalene Sim, spokeswoman for Bloomberg Philanthropies, was to “make it less frightening, less institutional. They want to make it welcoming and calming.”

Israel is no stranger to having his work perceived not just as an element of stage productions, but as stand-alone visual art. In 1975, he had a solo show, “Design for Opera,” at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, displaying costumes, props and set pieces he’d done for productions at the Guthrie dating back to 1966. New York’s Museum of Modern Art owns several of his drawings from the early 1980s -– sketches of costumes he created for Glass’ “Satyagraha.”

The cow, rhino, ostrich and puffer fish would have been a high-profile debut for Israel-as-sculptor, but he’s already had one. In 1968, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York exhibited his ‘Vinyl Progress 100,’ a 40-foot sculpture made of inflated vinyl tubes.

“I can’t even remember how it came about,” Israel said. “It was a huge, knotted piece that took up the whole room. It had a pump attached to keep it completely inflated. It was never for sale because vinyl cracks and disintegrates. I think it went into a closet and disintegrated.”

Why didn’t he follow up his sculptural debut before now? “I think I just got more involved in theater,” he said. “I can’t juggle everything.”



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For the record, 2:10 p.m.: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Israel’s ostrich is red and pink and made of balloon shapes; that description fit a preliminary mock-up of the sculpture, but not the finished work.

-- Mike Boehm