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‘Vermeer’ a study of home harmony

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NEW YORK — Johannes Vermeer's modest output of quiet, domestic masterpieces has inspired numerous works imagining him and his world — most recently a flurry of novels and, now, an opera.

"Writing to Vermeer," which recently had its U.S. premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival, is primarily a study of domestic harmony. Its libretto was written by filmmaker Peter Greenaway, better known for provocative, often rough material in movies such as "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover," "Prospero's Books" and the recent "8 1/2 Women."

Greenaway was trained as a painter and says his interest in the 17th-century Dutch painter is longstanding.

"I don't feel I'm part of the current wave of Vermeer enthusiasm," Greenaway says. "My enthusiasm started when I was an art student." He noted that his 1985 film, "A Zed and Two Noughts," touched on Vermeer "as a master of light."

"Writing to Vermeer" grew out of a lecture that Greenaway gave at a showing of Vermeer paintings in the Hague in 1996. The same exhibition, which showed in Washington, D.C., the year before, also inspired the authors of four recent novels: Tracy Chevalier, who wrote "Girl With a Pearl Earring"; Susan Vreeland, "Girl in Hyacinth Blue"; Deborah Moggach, "Tulip Fever"; and Katherine Weber, "The Music Lesson."

Vreeland, whose novel traces the provenance of a painting through the generations, speculates that Vermeer's appeal lies in his works' serenity.

"It has to do with our fast-paced lives and the calm and tranquility of the lives that he is picturing," she says. "He presents, very often, a woman in a contemplative moment, alone in her house, with gorgeous, honey-colored light coming in from a window, bathing her and an object."

Greenaway's libretto emphasizes similar themes.

For his lecture at the Hague, Greenaway wrote 18 fictional letters to Vermeer from his wife, mother-in-law and a model while the painter was away from his home in Delft in 1672.

For the lecture, Greenaway and colleague Saskia Boddeke used three actresses to portray the women and read the letters. In the audience was Pierre Audi, head of the Netherlands Opera, who suggested that Greenaway turn the work into an opera.

Greenaway and composer Louis Andriessen had had a success with their first opera collaboration, "Rosa," at the Netherlands Opera in 1994. It told the tale of a South American composer of Westerns who loved his girlfriend and his horse, especially the horse. All three met gory ends. Nonesuch Records released "Rosa" on CD in May.

Greenaway says he and Andriessen saw "Writing to Vermeer" as a gentle answer to "Rosa."

Andriessen used about a third of the text from the letters for his one-hour, 40-minute opera.

"They were low-key, about domestic matters, about the children," Greenaway says. "We think Vermeer was a very domestic man. He had 11 children. They were about the price of canvas and where to buy good ultramarine" for paint. Vermeer himself isn't a character in the opera.

"Our starting point was celebrating the domestic serenity Vermeer was so successful at capturing," Greenaway says. "His paintings show women who have their own space and dignity. Our job was to make a worthwhile work of art about domestic harmony which had some profundity about it and wasn't stupid.

"But harmony is difficult to show."

According to Greenaway, Boddeke rightly realized that "to understand harmony, you oppose it with its opposite."

Boddeke, who directs the opera, inserted additional scenes depicting the harshness of the outside world, in contrast to the Vermeers' family life.