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Salvador Dalí

Divine Dalì's opera on birth, death, and Catherine the Great in her underwear

Opera conceived by Salvador Dalì in 1927 recorded in 1974, is released on CD

Salvador Dalì has been resurrected as an opera singer. This month sees the international launch of "Etre Dieu", an opera-poem created by the master of surrealism. The opera, which has the Divine Dalì playing himself, is recorded on three compact discs, sold in an exquisitely kitsch box covered in royal-blue suede and embossed in gold.

Eurostar, the German recording company, claims "Etre Dieu" (Being God) represents "the quintessence of Salvador Dalì's creative work". But as with anything with Dalì's name, nothing is necessarily quite as it seems. Did Dalì's genius really extend to opera?

"Etre Dieu"'s plot is certainly Dalinian. The opera opens with a flourish as Dalì creates the world. An angel tears five million religious pictures out of their frames. Dalì paints passports for astronauts. Catherine the Great and Marilyn Monroe do a strip-tease. Brigitte Bardot appears dressed up as an artichoke. Burning giraffes gallop down New York's Fifth Avenue. Santa Claus begs, autographs books and eats caviar. In the background one hears the sounds of mirrors cracking and ticking Camembert clocks, while Dalì murmurs Catalan folk-songs and the refrain of "Singin' in the Rain". The opera climaxes with the Vatican being inundated by the waters of Niagara Falls. For listeners who may end up baffled, Eurostar helpfully explains that it is all about birth, death and reincarnation.

The surrealist artist plays the role of the Divine Dalì spluttering out his part in stilted French, with his own inimitable, bizarre enunciation. Sometimes he lapses into Catalan, occasionally into song, and frequently into obscenity. The other characters include an angel, two androgynous Dalìs (male and female), Anne of Brittany and a speakeress (played by "Last Tango in Paris" starlet Catherine Allegret).

Although Dalì claims credit for conceiving the opera, fortunately he had some assistance in its execution. Barcelonan poet Manuel Vazquez Montalban wrote the libretto and the music is by Igor Wakhevitch, a French composer who later retreated into Indian mysticism.

How then did the Divine Dalì turn into an opera star? It all began at the Café Regina, in Madrid, where the young Dalì was drinking with his poet friend Garcia Lorca on a sunny day in the spring of 1927. Dalì later recalled: "We both developed a plan for a highly original opera. This opera became our common passion, opera being the only art form in which the lyrical arts can be connected into a perfect and triumphal unity. This opera would enable us to transpose artistically the confusion, the colossal chaos, the ideology of our times. On the day I received the news of Lorca's death - a victim of the blindness of history - I determined to complete the opera on my own. Since then I have never given up the idea of realising this project one day, in my riper years".

It was not until the 1970s, after Dalì had developed an insatiable taste for dollars, that his ambition was finally realised. As with most of Dalì's business affairs, the contractual arrangements were labyrinthine. According to Eurostar, the initial deal was struck with Oriol Regas, representing a company associated with Compania Fonografica Espanol. Dated 20 July 1971, the contract has Dalì's bold signature sprawled along the bottom. "Etre Dieu" was recorded in Paris in 1974, Dalì was seventy, but the artist apparently became ill and lost interest and it was not commercially released at that time.

It is curious that after so much money had been lavished on the opera, the recording then simply languished in a vault. In 1984 Compania Fonografica Espanola contracted the rights to Distribution d'Art Surrealista, run by Barcelona publisher Eduard Fornes, a business friend of Dalì. Then on 12 April 1991, over a year after the artist's death, Distribution d'Art Surrealista signed a contract with Dragan Matic, a Yugoslav businessman based in Frankfurt. He in turn licensed the rights to German music company Eurostar, which is now selling the set of CDs on their Sine Qua Non label at £89.

Plans are now being made to arrange the first live performance of "Etre Dieu" next year in St Petersburg and the German recording company hopes it will be staged in the Hermitage, which depends on whether the Maryinsky Theatre's conductor, Gyorgyev is prepared to conduct it. Tokyo and London could be the next venues. The challenge will be to find a performer sufficiently outrageous to play the Divine Dalì.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Divine divo Dalì'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 34 January 1994