‘HILMA’: 20th-century queer visionary artist inspires 21st-century opera

Evan Spigelman headshot
Evan Spigelman.

The Wilma Theater is set to reintroduce theatergoers to a 20th-century queer artist who was many decades ahead of her time with the world premiere of “HILMA,” June 4-23.

“HILMA” brings to life the story of the Swedish artist and mystic, Hilma af Klint, who is considered one of the first modern abstract artists. If you aren’t familiar with af Klint’s work and story, you can be forgiven considering she was born in 1862 and worked in obscurity for most of her life. We can hardly blame her considering she was part of a collective called “The Five” that embraced theosophical teachings and the inspiration for her paintings were messages she channeled from seances and otherworldly forces. 

To drive the point home that she was an artist far ahead of her time, when she died in 1944, she left all her abstract paintings to her nephew and her will instructed him to keep her works a secret for at least 20 years after her death. Her artwork finally surfaced in the 1970s and reached an international audience in the 1980s.

The Wilma Theater’s production “HILMA” explores af Klint’s life and works of art as a contemporary opera. Out performer and lighting designer, Evan Spigelman, said using music and dance, as well as visual representations of af Klint’s artwork, is the ideal way to tell her story.

“As an abstract artist, it would be a disservice if we only used realistic literal methods to explore her work,” they said. “In a way, we’re not just telling her story. We’re trying to transmit some of the experience, both of what it’s like to witness her art and what we think it might have been to create this work. An opera allows you to access the realistic space because we do tell some of the stories from her life. But there are also segments that delve much more into the mystical experience she tried to access when she was making her work. Opera gives you the opportunity to approach it in a non-literal metaphorical sense as well, which for an abstract artist is really key.”

Spigelman added that they wanted the production to be more than just af Klint’s paintings coming to life on stage. 

“We’re not just trying to show her work because there are other places you can go for that,” they said. “You can go online or see it in person. What we’re trying to do is use the language of theater and dance and music to transmit the experience of her work. We are morphing our experience of witnessing these paintings and hearing her story into theatrical language. So it is a complete visual delight. What you are going to be seeing is our interpretation of the work, not the literal work itself.”

Hilma af Klint’s sexuality was not exactly well documented during her lifetime, but Spigelman said that there are signs pointing that direction in her artwork and af Klint definitely lived her best queer life as much as someone living in her era could at the time.

“There’s a lot that is definitely queer about her life,” they said. “She had several female lovers. There’s one of her lovers that has written directly about that experience. Others, we’ve learned through history in this sort of ‘they must have been very good friends or roommates’ way. All evidence points to these being explicitly queer relationships. And so in the piece, we make that explicit. We feature one of her longtime lovers and close confidants and collaborators Anna Cassel, who’s also an extraordinary painter herself. She’s heavily featured in the play. The central romance in our piece is a queer romance, which I love. 

“And then in her work, she is often playing with gender. She depicts binaries either comping together or being complicated to achieve higher non-binary states of consciousness. To me there’s nothing queerer than that expansive view of gender. She also often identified with male figures in her work. So, she was always interested in an expansive view of gender and that is in the piece as well.” 

“HILMA” will play June 4-23 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit wilmatheater.org or call 215-546-7824.

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