“Oh, I always knew I was gay,” laughs illustrator Maurice Vellekoop, rhyming off a familiar shopping list for poofters-in-training. “I was into Barbie, all my friends were girls….
“I had no gender appropriate interests. The closest I came was the time I got this model car. But all I could get excited about was the purple glitter paint I used.”
Vellekoop has called the Toronto Islands home for 15 years, residing in a sunlit cottage that our grandmothers would have referred to as “old world bijou.” It’s quaint, cozy and has some pretty surprising art on the walls: Naked men cavort in glee, their ecstasy captured in Vellekoop’s graceful black lines. From this delightfully surreal sanctum Vellekoop plies his trade as a commercial artist and created his whimsical new book A Nut At The Opera, a satirical yet affectionate homage to opera, his latest artistic obsession.
The book is drenched in classic Vellekoop style: Apple-cheeked heroines with bowed lips, darkly glamorous villainesses and effete popinjays leap off the pages in vivid colours and dramatic shadows. It’s a wealth of character and personality conveyed in a modesty of line and form that is part Disney and part Edward Gorey, yet ultimately something entirely original.
Vellekoop manages to create utterly distinct characters for his imagined productions of famous operas. Fictional divas like Noxima Plasticena and Dame Formalda Hyde storm across the pages with accompanying captions explaining each singer’s particular claim to fame and infamy.
One page details Russian powerhouse Olga Pickuptruckskaya’s misguided transition from a lower mezzo to full soprano, characterized as rising from “an ambition more potent than wise.” Another finds countertenor Philip Diller flaming it up as Oberon in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Diller’s caption is positively Liberace-esque, detailing the story of a fortune partied away through Bentleys, vacation villas and a palimony suit brought by his “longtime chauffeur.”
The book is filled with sly parodies of opera’s real-life performers as well. Joan Wonderland makes an appearance as a forgetful coloratura maniac, and the regally haughty Leonyne Flyte greets a congratulatory costar with a withering, “I’m sorry, I’m not giving lessons at present.”
If A Nut At The Opera pokes fun at the musical artform, it does so with a light heart.
Vellekoop is an avid fan: He cites friend and teacher Paul Baker as the inspiration for his devotion. (Those with long memories might recall Baker’s gossip column appearing in the very first issues of Xtra under the pseudonym Lotta Dish; Baker was also once a member of The Body Politic collective, forerunner of Pink Triangle Press, Xtra’s publisher.)
A renowned opera buff, Baker taught at the Ontario College Of Art (as it was then known) and it was here that the friendship between student and instructor flourished over a shared admiration for old movies and screen icon Hedy Lamarr.
“‘Finally, someone just as obsessed about all this stuff as I am,'” Vellekoop remembers thinking. “We became friends instantly.”
Baker and partner Martin Roebuck (Xtra’s current theatre reviewer) became important fixtures in the young artist’s life, both artistically and personally.
“Paul would have hated this, but he and Martin were like parents to me,” Vellekoop says. “They really helped me come out. I was struggling with Christianity and family, and their home was such an escape for me.”
Initially resistant to Baker’s operatic obsession, Vellekoop tentatively began to explore his friend’s collection of classic recordings. “I had always associated opera with my parents’ eccentricity,” says Vellekoop. “It never occurred to me that it could be something to be obsessed with. I was a huge David Bowie and Blondie fan.”
The New Wave enthusiast came to share his mentor’s passion, attending live performances and learning all he could about the world on and off the opera stage.
“We went to see my first Tosca, and I was devastated by the ending,” says Vellekoop, referring to the heroine’s suicidal jump off castle ramparts.
“Puccini operas are like movies and composed like film scores. I’ve been obsessed with movies all my life, so that was the one that did it for me. When you think about it, movies basically took over from opera as popular drama.
“Paul told me the story of this one singer in Tosca who jumped off the battlements at the end and bounced back into view because the foam she landed on was so thick.”
The all-too-true scenario found its way into a card that Vellekoop painted for Baker, transposed to a Janácek opera and a plunge into the Volga River. Fictitious diva Milka Vulpius remarks after the incident: “Hoy, that water was cold!”
This type of painted greeting card became a tradition between Vellekoop and Baker, with each special occasion bringing a new satirical painting to life. As the cards accumulated, the two began plans to collect the pieces in book form, with Baker supplying the text.
Unfortunately, Baker died in 2001 and the project was set aside. Vellekoop focussed on commercial accounts and publishing two books – a collection of comics and pictures entitled Vellevision and an illustrated work of erotica called ABC Book: A Homoerotic Primer.
Vellekoop illustrations have cropped up in publications everywhere: Vogue, New York Times, A&F Quarterly, Wallpaper, Saturday Night, even Today’s Parent. Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face beauty book featured his instructional drawings on how to turn the sourest of bitches into a glamourpuss.
But always in the back of his mind was the little collection of painted opera cards that Baker had bequeathed him.
Fate intervened in the form of Drawn And Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros, calling Vellekoop to ask if he had any projects available for publication. Vellekoop, a frequent contributor to Drawn And Quarterly’s Anthology series, pitched the opera book idea and Oliveros quickly gave him the go ahead.
“We’ve been publishing Maurice’s work for many years,” says Oliveros. “You could certainly say he’s inspired by some of the old New Yorker cartoonists, and yet there’s something else there that doesn’t come from that era.”
Fleshing out the text, and adding new pieces to the collection took the better part of three years. Ironically, the newer pieces took far longer to create than their predecessors.
“I really tortured myself over the newer ones,” laughs Vellekoop. “What normally would have taken me a day ended up taking weeks. I did maybe six or eight versions of the cover — it’s basically stolen from Cecil Beaton’s 1960s production of Turandot at Covent Garden.”
Next up for the busy artist is a collection of erotica entitled A Men’s Room Reader, new versions of the dirty chapbooks originally published by Ian Phillips’ Pas de Chance.
(Conflict of interest? Vellekoop’s boyfriend just happens to be the arts editor of Xtra. Of course it’s deliciously tempting to imply that a cover story in his sweetheart’s magazine may be regarded as nepotism. Well, let the tainted tongues wag; Vellekoop’s work speaks for itself.)
Vellekoop continues to ply his trade in the little island cottage, and hopes his book may encourage neophytes to look past the horned helmets and shiny breastplates to a rich, enduring artform.
“One of Paul’s favourite quotations was Maria Callas: ‘Music is so vast,'” says Vellekoop. “And really, opera is so vast: It is concentrated feeling that expresses our inner lives on a scale that is so huge.
“You identify with it somehow, even if you can’t always understand it.”