One artist’s vision embraces a community — Breitenbach produces his musical

“If you wish a flying fish, you can do it with imagination….” Hieronymous Bosch sings to Anna in the musical fantasy written by T. E. Brietenbach. The production will be filmed for WMHT when it plays on Aug. 18 at Proctors in Schenectady.

T.E. Breitenbach uses a term that Richard Wagner, the German opera composer, used in the middle of the 19th Century: Gessammtkunstwerk.

“It means ‘all the arts together’ — that’s what a musical is,” says Breitenbach.

He has written a musical about an artist not unlike himself. The medieval artist, Hieronymous Bosch, lived in the Netherlands and is best known for his triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” This year is the 500th anniversary of Bosch’s death.

My wife says, “Everybody knows it’s autobiographical,” said Breitenbach of his musical.

Over the years, as he worked alone in the castle where they live — yes, a castle on the edge of the Helderbergs that he built with his own hands — she would ask, “How can you stand to be here alone all the time?”

“I’m not here,” he would reply. “I’m in the places I create.”

The world in which he lives is one of vivid imagination made real. So, too, with his portrayal of Bosch. “People don’t get him,” said Breitenbach.

He depicts Bosch as an artist who lives in his own world, in a home peopled with creatures he has painted, creatures who have come to life.

“When he falls in love with a girl from the real world, he has to hide the creatures,” says Breitenbach. “Everyone close to him gets wound up in his world.”

Breitenbach himself created what he calls “Nu Creatures” and wrote a “field guide” for them, with both Latin and common names, grouping them into families based on Aristotle’s discourses on virtues and vices.

Breitenbach talks about Gessammtkunstwerk as he stoops inside the arch of a cathedral taking shape in the garage next to his castle. Constructing the set is the architectural part of Gessammtkunstwerk. Massive doors with black hinges that look like wrought iron stand to one side of the cathedral arch, flanked by tall pointed spires.

Medieval-style furniture he built for his castle home will also be used on stage, he said.

Breitenbach picks up masks that will be worn by “live gargoyles” in the musical. Other parts of the Gessammtkunstwerk, he says, are the music, the painting, the lyrics, the storytelling, the poetry, and the costumes — all created or overseen by Breitenbach.

 

A cathedral stage set is taking shape now in the garage next to Thom Breitenbach’s castle.

 

Quick learner

Producing a musical was “definitely on my bucket list,” says Breitenbach, who is 65. Two other items remain — creating a painting as large as Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” to be called “Pure Imagination,” and writing a symphony.

“I get bored really easily,” said Breitenbach. “I learn quickly.”

His mother taught him to play the mandolin and piano when he was a child and both she and his father, an architect, were involved in community theater. Breitenbach wrote songs in high school and played lead guitar in rock and jazz bands.

He started painting as a senior at Guilderland High School. A classmate gave a presentation about Salvador Dali and Hieronymus Bosch, whom he’d never heard of, and he was intrigued.

Breitenbach had built a grandfather’s clock and a harpsichord, which he still has, and decorated them by painting but he hadn’t painted on canvas.

In his castle, above the harpsichord, hangs the painting that made Breitenbach famous, “Proverbidioms,” which cleverly depicts over 300 common proverbs and clichés. Hundreds of thousands of posters and jigsaw puzzles of “Proverbidioms” have been sold, and now there’s an app with 60 different sound effects.

He came up with the idea for the painting after reading a review of Pieter Bruegel’s 16th-Century painting of Dutch proverbs that said the language was more colorful then. Breitenbach thought otherwise. He noted, too, that Bruegel himself had copied the allegorical style.

Breitenbach finished “Proverbidioms” when he was 24 and it has supported him since.

As a student at Notre Dame, he became bored with architecture, which he had already learned from his father, he said. He turned to study fine arts, then left for Italy when he won a Rome Prize Fellowship in visual arts. He studied at the American Academy in Rome with scholars, painters, and sculptors.

Breitenbach says, in addition to being inspired to build his own castle by the ones King Ludwig built in Bavaria, he spent three days gazing at Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” at the Prado Museum in Madrid.

The triptych shows paradise, with Adam and Eve, on the left panel; hell, with sinners being punished on the right panel; and, in the center, earthly delights with birds and fruit and many human figures. When the two outside panels are closed, a scene of God creating the world is visible.

“I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” he said. “It’s so detailed.”

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Thom Breitenbach, with his own artwork in the background, holds a copy of Hieronymous Bosch’s Medieval triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”

 

“The ultimate challenge”

Breitenbach was inspired to write a musical in 1995, he said, when he was given a ticket to “The Snow Queen.”

“It’s completely different than going to a movie. You feel drawn into it,” he said of live theater.

Just as a presentation in high school had inspired him to pick up a paintbrush, seeing “The Snow Queen” led him to write his own musical. He called it “the ultimate challenge.”

He bought books about musicals and pored over scripts. “Every discipline has rules…I don’t doubt myself,” said Breitenbach, as he plunged into the task. “I worked on that for a year.”

In 1999, the Guilderland Players put on a “workshop” version of the musical, which both of his children were part of. He said it was well received at Guilderland High School.

Now, more than a decade-and-a-half later, Breitenbach is putting together a full-scale production of “Hieronymus: A Musical Fantasy.”

“My idea was to make it a large community arts project, all with volunteers, no salaries,” he said.

“Hieronymus” will be performed at Proctors in Schenectady just once, on Aug. 18. Breitenbach will be sitting in the third row with his wife, their son, and their daughter.

It will be filmed by Nevessa Production for WMHT so he is hoping for a full house, noting it is hard to fill 2,600 seats. “My ultimate goal was to film it so it can go as far as it will go…internationally would be great,” he said.

High school art students from Bethlehem, Guilderland, Ichabod Crane, Schenectady, Shenendehowa, and Voorheesville created creature masks for the production. The kids were rewarded with posters of his artwork.

Breitenbach created two paintings that he estimates are worth $10,000 each for those who created the best two masks. Since one of the winners was made by eight students, he now plans to paint eight small pictures — one for each of them.

“I needed a Dutch tile stove that would come to life. The Voorheesville students did a great job with that. It’s gorgeous, with stamped metal edges,” said Breitenbach.

 

 

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
The sky turned brown when his wife set out to bake brownies in an oven where this painting was drying, said Thom Breitenbach, left. His painting is a prop in the musical “Hieronymous,” meant to represent the heroine’s first attempt at art.

 

Beth Rumen is creating medieval costumes, largely from scratch, and difficult to make, said Breitenbach.

The Schenectady Light Opera is supplying most of the cast. Medieval re-enactors from the Society for Creative Anachronism are portraying warriors.

Kelsey Jessup, a Scotia-Glenville student, plays Anna, the wealthy patrician’s daughter who falls in love with Bosch. William Heatley, a student at The College of Saint Rose, plays Bosch.

Denise Baker’s dance school is providing dancers with Baker and her daughter, Kyle Hatfield, doing the choreography. Breitenbach first envisioned ballet dancers to portray a storm Bosch creates as he paints furiously. Denise Baker’s dancers were so good, he said, they are now performing throughout the show.

“It’s a perfect family show…They’ll be scared in some parts and laugh their heads off in others,” said Breitenbach.

The scary part comes from the villain, Erasmus, whose role is rooted in history. Just as the heroine, Anna van Meer, is inspired by the real-life Aleyt van de Mervenne, who married Bosh in 1478, Erasmus of Rotterdam was a young scholar who criticized as heretical a morality play in which Bosch had a hand.

Breitenbach notes that, before the Reformation, sorcery, heresy, and magic inspired public hysteria. His play depicts Erasmus as a jealous rival of Bosch, seeking Anna’s affection.

At first, Anna is frightened by the creatures she discovers in Bosch’s home. She tells him his imagination is too large and threatens to leave him, not wanting to raise a family in such a setting.

He tries then to paint ordinary things so that his home will become normal. His outcast creatures go away, very hurt. In the end, Anna pleads with him to use his imagination again.

“‘Imagination’ is the song people will go away humming,” said Breitenbach.

“Close your eyes; it’s no surprise…,” Hieronymus Bosch sings to Anna. “If you wish a flying fish, you can do it with imagination….”

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“Hieronymus: A Musical Fantasy,” by T. E. Breitenbach will play at Proctors Theatre at 432 State Street in Schenectady on Aug. 18. Tickets, available at the box office or online at OurMusical.com range in price from $17.50 to $27.50.