interview: Bay Area artist Naomie Kremer shares how her gardens grow—she created the digital sets for the new opera “The Secret Garden,” at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall through Sunday, March 10, 2013
San Francisco’s Opera’s new opera for its spring season, “The Secret Garden,” which had its world premiere last Friday in Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is an exciting adaptation of the classic children’s novel The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Directed by Jose Maria Condemi with music by Petaluma composer Nolan Gasser, libretto by Carey Harrison, and visual design by multimedia artist Naomie Kremer, the entire project has been captivating since its inception. Following in the footsteps of its visually intoxicating 2012 production of “The Magic Flute,” the SFO’s first opera to fully incorporate digital projection technology, this co-production with Cal Performances also fully capitalizes on digital technology for its set design. Video technology has moved opera in a new direction—visual design, always thought to be somewhat static and subservient to the musical component, now has the chance be dynamic and just as compelling as the music. Naomie Kremer created all of “The Secret Garden’s” digitally-projected sets—a prologue and 13 scenes—and she agreed to talk about what went into visually styling this two hour production.
Written in 1910, the timeless story is about a spoiled young girl who finds herself alone in a bleary and unfamiliar land, until she discovers the hidden wonder of a secret garden and experiences the healing power of nature. While it has been adapted to the stage and screen many times, the classic struck SF Opera general director David Gockley as perfect for opera and in 2010, he began to talk publicly of developing it as a family opera. Naomie Kremer captured his attention with her masterful one hour video backdrop for the Berkeley Opera Company’s 2008 production of Béla Bartok’s 1918 opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” (A kékszakállú herceg vára). This was the painter’s first stab at video projected stage design but, based on its strength, the choreographer Margaret Jenkins invited Kremer to create a video backdrop for “Light Moves,” a production of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company involving a synthesis of dance, live music, poetry, animation and recurring cycles of light, which premiered at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in November 2011.
Partly because of the success of Light Moves, Gockley’s attention turned to Kremer again when The Secret Garden opera was developed, and he asked her to submit a proposal. Soon after, she was hired to do the entire visual design for the production.
ARThound first discovered Naomie Kremer last September through her detailed FAMSF (Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) blog posts where she wrote about using FAMSF portraits in the opera’s set design to “hint at Mary’s venerable family made up of generations of proud landowners and beautiful women.” For the pivotal scene where Mary hears moaning sounds and decides to explore the hallway, she planned to line a dark and flickering hallway with portraits of William Turner by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Kilderbee (ca 1757) by Thomas Gainsborough. “Making this video set, I knit together a fabric to support the action of this opera,” wrote Kremer. “The play between reality and fantasy, realism and surrealism, is fluid and wide open. My goal is to stretch reality but not so much that the fabric tears” Indeed, that very elasticity, is what makes digital sets so intoxicating.
The Secret Garden had its world premiere last Friday (March 1, 2013) to a sold out house and I had the privilege of talking with Naomie Kremer about her otherworldly digital set designs. Below is our conversation—
Give us an overview of what you were responsible for and the types of materials you used as source materials.
Naomie Kremer: As the visual designer, I was in charge of all aspects of the set design, including the props. This is my first assignment for SF Opera. They contacted me in July 2011, I presented a proposal in November 2011, and was hired at the beginning of 2012. I started shooting video right away. It’s really been a long and involved process which morphed as I was working on it. I started by creating a lot of raw material— footage that I shot in England, Spain, France, here (CA) and New York, a few things from the Internet, some of my own paintings, and portraits lent by the FAMSF—and then, I began to mix manipulate it all. My process involves layering a lot of different content to arrive at a slightly unreal vision that you would not see in the real world but that is familiar. I call that “enhanced realism.”
What are some previous productions that you’ve worked on and some techniques that you’ve developed that you apply to digital design?
NK: This is my third experience with set design. It all started with Béla Bartok’s“Bluebeard’s Castle,” which the Berkeley Opera Company’s did in 2008. It’s a one hour opera, notoriously hard to stage because the story involves seven doors that open onto 7 completely different worlds that include a torture chamber, a garden, “the realm.” I was introduced to Jonathon Khuner, director of the Berkeley Opera, by the composer Paul Dresher. I showed Khuner some of my painting animations, and he invited me to do a video-based set for Bluebeard. He didn’t expect me make it as comprehensive as I did—I basically did a one-hour music video, with a continuous flow of moving visuals, essentially turning Bluebeard’s Castle itself into an actor in the production.
It was a consuming process that took nine months. The visual design was very well received, and I was very intrigued with the process and the results. I ended up with many many hours of footage and content that was not used, and it led me to develop a whole new body of work that I call “hybrid paintings.”
These “hybrid” works consist of paintings or works on paper onto which I project video, transforming them into mysterious, luminous objects that challenge our perception of surface, space, depth, and materiality through a hybrid of painting and video. I think of the experience as one that “both orients and disorients. The viewer is uncertain which part is paint and which is projection until the spot where the gaze is resting starts to move. I’m interested in the ambiguity of the relationship between projection and reality, stillness and motion. The stillness is that of the painted canvas. The motion is an animation I create, sometimes by selecting and choreographing segments of a finished painting, sometimes by manipulating video footage. All of that came out of working on Bluebeard’s Castle.
Margaret Jenkins saw the opera, as well as my hybrid paintings in an exhibition at Modernism (my gallery in San Francisco), and became intrigued with the idea of creating a hybrid of dance and video. She invited me to do a set for the work that became Light Moves, which premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in November, 2011, and subsequently toured to Maryland and Chicago.
When you heard about the opera, what’s the first image that popped up for you visually?
NK: Many images came into my head. I traveled in India in my early 20s, and this story begins in India. I also lived in England for three years subsequent to that trip, and had strong visuals in my mind of English gardens, with their incredible, softly lit lushness. And, of course, the importance of identifying a forbidding, almost haunted manor house, of which there are many in England!
The thing I was always looking for in shooting footage for the opera was movement. Without it, you would think you’re just looking a photograph—so wind and rain and weather were a very important component. The importance of motion to the set can’t be under-estimated. I think it’s critical to simulating reality, because in the real world there is always motion in our peripheral vision, whether or not we are aware of it. But I wanted the motion not to be so compelling that we are distracted from the action on the stage. There was a balance to be struck.
What role did music play in this for you and in your visual choices? Since Nolan Gasser was in the process of writing the music and everything was coming together at once, how did that work? Were there particular pieces of the opera, or instruments, or natural sounds that were particularly important?
NK: The music was not done until December 2012, and I had to have most of the video long before that. But the atmospherics of the music were definitely in my mind as I put together the imagery. I had parts of the music to refer to, and I felt instinctively that my own snippets— the content that I was gathering—would work with the rhythms and sonorities of Nolan Gasser’s score. Once I heard the music played by the orchestra (which didn’t happen till the rehearsals began in February!) I was delighted with the instrumentation and how well it worked with the visual rhythms I had created.
Were there particular images that you prepared for specific instrument solos?
NK: The appearance of the robin was always associated with a certain musical passage. Intricate cuing is required to make the video and the stage action and the music come together at critical moments. The sets have to perform over the whole course of a scene, so I had to stay very sensitive to the coordination of the music, the stage action and the video.
The robin is key to the novel. How does that play out in the opera?
NK: The robin was my biggest challenge, because you just can’t stage direct robins. In a funny coincidence, a robin built a nest in the courtyard at my house a couple of years ago, and laid gorgeous blue eggs (I wasn’t aware robin’s eggs were blue!). I shot lots of video of that, but it wasn’t quite the action needed for The Secret Garden. Then, I discovered a grove in Central Park populated by a whole bunch of tame robins, so they didn’t run away as I approached to videotape them. Then, one day it dawned on me to Google English robins and I found out that they look completely different than American robins, so I wasn’t able to use any of the footage I had! In desperation, I went to the internet and found some footage that I was then able to modify by deleting the extraneous background content.
How does the ability to paint a scene with digital media change things for you as an artist? Before you had very static sets, painted on boards, and used limited props. Of course, you can still have the best of those but you’ve got this whole other element that brings unlimited opportunities.
NK: It’s incredibly exciting and it’s wide open. You can really visualize and paint a whole world, constructing it from different locations, using diverse content to invent a scene that couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. It’s an incredible extension of the medium of painting.
The garden is of course KEY to the unfolding and mystery of the story. What were specific inspirations for the garden you created both time-wise and the style of garden you created? Frances Hodgson Burnett was a Victorian looking back at the Romantic-era gardens which were so wild and poetic. How did you approach this?
NK: I travelled quite a bit in the course of the past year. I had to come up with two gardens—the house garden, which is the one that is first seen when Mary goes out to play, and the secret garden, which she discovers later. I wanted to make the house garden appear distinctly different from the secret garden and was looking for a formal and very structured garden to use. I ended up videotaping in Grenada at the Alhambra, as well as in Yorkshire, and a combination of the two became the formal garden. For the secret garden, I traveled to Norfolk and Yorkshire in England, as well as videotaping in my own and friends’ gardens. I then created video collages of this footage. The secret garden also needed several versions. When Mary first discovers it, it’s overgrown, seemingly dead. Then, it transitions into early springtime and ultimately into full bloom in the final scene. I masked out certain areas of content in the video and reinserted paintings that I had done so there’s a look that you could not achieve by simply videotaping. To create specific moods and seasonal changes I used color and light.
I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly. Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors. I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.
As in C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I am struck by the contrast in this story between these dark repressive interiors and the bright and vital outdoors. And that’s what heals the little boy, coming out into the light and the garden air. How do you handle those contrasts and mood shifts in the opera?
NK: I actually ended up inserting a layer of the outdoors into the indoor scenes so that the wallpaper has a component that moves very slightly. Since the mood and psychological content is so much about the outdoors, I thought it would be very neat to bring an outdoor component indoors. I adjusted brightness and contrast and content to create gloomy interiors at first, which become more upbeat as the story develops.
You’ve included several portraits from the Fine Arts Museums’ collection to hint at Mary’s venerable family. Can you talk about a scene where these are particularly important for setting a mood.
NK: There’s a particular scene where Mary decides to venture out into the hallway to investigate this mysterious wailing sound that she hears, which no one will explain except to say it is the sound of the moors. It was interesting to me to try to create some sense of family history in that hallway and to capture that foreboding mood, so I have the hallway lined with venerable family portraits. To emphasize the progress she’s making, it’s scrolling by as she walks, and to set the mood for this slightly scary journey, it distorts and kind of comes out at her.
You’ve been working in fragments, visual fragments for some time…When did you first see your work joined with the music and what was your reaction?
NK: I was very pleased…It really all came together quite recently, basically when it was in rehearsal. Before that, I had to hold all these fragments together in my head, though I created detailed storyboards as reference points.
The last step was to program the video the MBOX, a performance management system which permits the video to be cued to the stage action. I worked with the team over the past month to adjust brightness, contrast, speed, and so forth so when that the opera’s live the content matches what’s happening on stage. It’s quite complicated!
Naomi Kremer’s exhibition “Sightlines”— An exhibition of Naomie Kremer’s artwork is on display work at Modernism Gallery, 685 Market Street, San Francisco, through April 27, 2013. For more information, call 415.541.0461
DETAILS: There are 2 remaining performances of “The Secret Garden,” Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall. Tickets: The Sunday matinee is sold out. There is limited availability for Saturday evening. Tickets start at $30. To purchase tickets and check availability, phone 510.642.9988 or click here.
Zellerbach Hall does not have a street address and is located on the lower U.C. Berkeley campus, directly across the street from “The Musical Offering,” 2430 Bancroft Avenue, Berkeley, CA.
Parking is very difficult to find near curtain time, so plan on arriving 30 to 40 minutes prior to your event to ensure getting to your set on time.
Finding the Ticket Office and Will Call: The Ticket Office/Will Call is located at the northeast corner of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Hours: Sat & Sun, 1 pm – 5 pm and approximately one hour prior to curtain. Tuesday-Friday, noon-5:30 pm. Closed Mondays
San Francisco Opera honors its top scenic artist, Jay Kotcher, with the San Francisco Opera Medal, SFO’s highest award
Those of us who attended the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s Tosca yesterday were in for a treat. Right after extended rounds of applause for Patricia Racette, who delivered a scintillating Tosca, and for Brian Jagde, who played her lover, the artist Mario Cavaradossi, SFO’s fall season closed with a special ceremony awarding Jay Kotcher, SFO’s top scenic designer, the San Francisco Opera Medal. The award was established in 1970 by former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler and is the highest honor the Company bestows in recognition of outstanding achievement by an artistic professional. Kotcher is the first scenic designer to receive the prestigious award.
Kotcher was offered a position with SFO as a scenic artist in December 1977 and began work in early 1978. He has since worked on nearly every SFO production in the past 35 years and has a hand in all the styles that have evolved in the past 4 decades. Kotcher’s all-time favorite production to work on was SFO’s 1985 Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen). This was SFO’s third Ring Cycle, and it was directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, designed by John Conklin and conducted by Edo de Waart. This was the first time Bay area audiences experienced the Ring with Supertitles, then a new technology, and the experience of following the text in a language they understood was revolutionary.)
Kotcher was given the award by SFO’s General Director David Gockley and present on stage were members of the cast of Tosca. Fittingly, the award was given against the dazzling backdrop of a set Kotcher had worked on—Thierry Bosquet’s recreation of the towering Castel Sant’Angelo in Pacrco Adriano, Rome, where Tosca takes her fatal leap in Act III.
In accepting the award Kotcher said that he was “here to serve the music, to enhance the music and never to overwhelm it.” The visual aspects of opera design have become increasingly important— and celebrated—and can make or break an opera. I would like to hear more from Kotcher about his creative process.
The first SFO Medal laureate was soprano Dorothy Kirsten. While many vocalists (such as Leontyne Price in 1977, Joan Sutherland in 1984, Plácido Domingo in 1994, and Samuel Ramey (2003) have been so honored, other laureates have included stage director John Copley (2010), conductor Donald Runnicles (2009), chorus director Ian Robertson 2012.
San Francisco Opera Medal Recipients
1970 – Dorothy Kirsten
1972 – Jess Thomas
1973 – Paul Hager (house stage director)
1974 – Colin Harvey (chorister and chorus librarian)
1975 – Otto Guth
Alexander Fried (San Francisco Examiner music critic)
1976 – Leonie Rysanek
1977 – Leontyne Price
1978 – Kurt Herbert Adler
1980 – Geraint Evans
1981 – Matthew Farruggio (production supervisor and house stage director)
1982 – Regina Resnik
1984 – Joan Sutherland
1985 – Thomas Stewart
1987 – Régine Crespin
1988 – Philip Eisenberg (music staff)
1989 – Pilar Lorengar
1990 – Janis Martin
1991 – Licia Albanese
1993 – Walter Mahoney (costume shop manager)
1994 – Zaven Melikian (concertmaster)
Michael Kane (master carpenter)
1995 – Charles Mackerras
1997 – Frederica von Stade
1998 – Irene Dalis
2001 – Lotfi Mansouri
2003 – Samuel Ramey
2004 – Joe Harris (dresser)
2005 – Pamela Rosenberg
2008 – Clifford (Kip) Cranna (director of music administration)
Ruth Ann Swenson
2009 – Donald Runnicles
2010 – John Copley (stage director)
2012 – Ian Robertson (chorus director), Jay Kotcher (scenic artist)
interview: Marin artist Michael Schwab talks about his latest poster for San Francisco Opera’s “Nixon in China”
Well before John Adams’ opera Nixon in China opened San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season, a striking poster featuring Richard Nixon’s silhouette in profile set the mood across the Bay Area. That artwork was created by Marin artist Michael Schwab, one of our country’s leading graphic artists, whose iconic posters, images and logos for the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, Robert Mondavi, Peet’s Coffee, Muhammad Ali, Nike, and others dynamically capture our lifestyle. With his signature use of large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives, and bold, graphic images of archetypal human forms, Schwab’s work also lends itself perfectly to opera. His Nixon in China poster was especially commissioned by San Francisco Opera to celebrate the first time San Francisco Opera is presenting the work, the 25th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, and the 40th anniversary of the historic trip that President Nixon made to Communist China in 1972. The artwork, which also graces the opera’s program cover and appears as a huge three-sheet outside War Memorial Opera House, completely transcends Nixon’s dubious post-China legacy and is destined to become a classic.
Schwab’s sense of color is integral to his memorable compositions. Nixon’s huge silhouette is executed in a subdued gray-red-mauve, an unusual color, that is set against a vivid orange-red background, evoking the red field of the Chinese flag. As Nixon hovers in the background, the viewer’s eye is directed to the expectant figure in a black suit at the bottom, on stage, with outstretched arms, beckoning. Behind him, in a darker hue of that unique gray-red-mauve, there’s a crowd of onlookers, in silhouette, that form a strong horizontal. Together, they evoke a poignant scene in the opera’s last act. Blazoned across the top in a custom typeface, in a bright yellow gold that recalls the stars of the Chinese flag, is “John Adams Alice Goldman Nixon in China,” set against a black backdrop. And on the bottom, in gray text, surrounded by black, is “San Francisco Opera June July 2012.” In terms of mood, the poster has an ominous feel and lends itself to endless reflection on the fascinating personalities associated with this historic trip, primarily Nixon, but also Kissinger, Chairman Mao, Pat Nixon, and Chaing Ch’ing (Madame Mao) and their aspirations as individuals and as public figures.
Twenty years ago, in 1992, San Francisco Opera commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Mussorgsky’s great Russian opera, Boris Godunov, and last year, after interviewing several artists, SF Opera again commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Francesca Zambello’s new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). And did he deliver! His poster features a striking image of the heroic Brünnhilde, silhouetted against a fiery orange background evocative of the final immolation scene in Götterdämmerung, the cycle’s concluding opera.
“People came to the Ring from the four corners of the globe,” said Jon Finck, SF Opera’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs. “They bought that poster and took it home and it serves as reminder of that extraordinary experience they had here in San Francisco. We’re looking at these posters as artworks, not advertising and we don’t include a lot of wording, we don’t need that. Michael’s work has a lot of energy in it and it marks with a punch, evoking the drama and splendor of our operas. There’s just no second guessing that this is Michael Schwab’s work. His palette is bold and the typography is exciting and is a combination of a contemporary look that also harkens back to a more classic look from the 1930’s and 40’s, so it’s very classic but contemporary.”
San Francisco Opera has also commissioned Schwab to create three additional posters, so that there will be a set of five posters, not counting the Boris Godunov poster, that will mark the final five years of David Gockley’s tenure as General Director of San Francisco Opera. In addition to The Ring (2011) and Nixon in China (2012), Schwab will create a poster for Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene that has its world premiere at SF Opera next summer and two additional, yet to be named, commissions. “There will be not only local but national and international attention on Adamo’s work,” said Jon Finck. “It will be a very daring and provocative opera given the libretto which suggests a particular relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus. This will be powerful on stage and David Gockley felt that we needed to have a powerful counterpart in terms of the image and Michael’s our guy, no question.”
After last Sunday’s riveting performance of Nixon in China at the War Memorial Opera House, I caught up with Michael Schwab in the Opera Shop, where he was busy greeting audience members and signing the poster he created to commemorate San Francisco Opera’s production. Earlier in the week, I had conducted a phone interview with him about his artwork for San Francisco Opera. Below is our conversation—
Are posters really influential in people’s decision to go to an event?
Michael Schwab: Absolutely. A poster is like a label on a bottle of wine―it’s visually representing what’s inside. There’s creativity in that bottle – and the label, like the poster for the opera, should evoke the personality of the wine. It’s an integral part of the opera. It’s exciting to arrive dressed for the evening and walk up the steps of the War Memorial Opera House. The 3-sheet poster out in front and the program that you are handed are the first creative impressions of the evening and should reflect the excitement, thrill and integrity of the opera.
What makes a really effective poster? And, why are so many posters today so bad?
Michael Schwab: Simplicity. There’s way too much visual noise out there. Graphic messages are conveyed much more effectively when the design is simple, bold and efficient.
What was your conception for the Nixon in China poster and how did you approach a design project like this?
Michael Schwab: I started out attempting to portray the two men, Mao and Nixon, shaking hands in that historic moment. I eventually realized that the image of Nixon alone was more intriguing. It was more powerful to have the big Nixon head as opposed to two men with more detail, shaking hands. It was a more effective composition. More dynamic.
My designs work better when they are very singular in subject matter. People typically want to say too many things with one design – rarely the best strategy. You’ve only got one or two seconds to earn someone’s attention. For me, less is more.
Because this was a poster for opera, was there anything inherently different about it?
Michael Schwab: As a graphic artist, I have much more freedom with these projects. The artwork should be lyrical and unique. It’s like an album cover—it’s part of the event. If I wasn’t a graphic designer, working on posters and logos, I would probably be involved in theatre somehow. Part of the success of my work is drama – there’s some theatre in my artwork. At least, I hope so.
Did you listen to the opera or music from Nixon in China while working on the poster?
Michael Schwab: Yes, and it is a great opera. I was able to watch the video of the Vancouver Opera (VO) production (March, 2010) whose physical sets, scenery and costumes are the ones that San Francisco Opera is using in its production. I usually listen to music in the studio. Typically jazz.
What types of source materials do normally you use?
Michael Schwab: When appropriate, I work with models—human or otherwise. I pose and shoot my own photos myself. For Nixon, of course, there was no model, so I had to rely on historic photographs.
How much of your work is done on a computer and how has that changed over time? Do you start with freehand drawing?
Michael Schwab: When computers first came out, most of my illustrator and designer pals were going over to the digital world. I knew that I really enjoyed working at the drawing table – not a keyboard. I decided to go in the opposite direction and keep my work very hand-drawn, with obvious craftsmanship. And I still work at a drawing table, with pencil and paper, and then pen and ink. I first draw rough pencil sketches, then create technical pen and ink drawings that eventually get digitally scanned. We then work with Adobe Illustrator fine tuning the colors and shapes precisely.
How did you settle on the colors?
Michael Schwab: For the Nixon project, I knew up front that my poster was going to be a very strong red with golden yellow evoking the Chinese flag.
After you’ve nailed the image you’ll use, how do you decide on a font and it’s size and positioning?
Michael Schwab: Many times, I use my own font, “Schwab Poster,” created back in the ‘90’s. I work with that typeface a lot. It’s not commercially available but I have it here in the studio. I used that for the National Parks series. For the Nixon poster, I used an old wood block font because it just felt right. We altered several of the letters to make it just right.
In your creative process, do you work up several different images, or, focus on just one?
Michael Schwab: I usually work up two or three ideas for myself and typically show those to the client. With Nixon in China, I shared 3 or 4 sketches with Jon Finck and David Gockley and told them why I thought the singular image worked best and they agreed.
What is your lead time in developing a poster like this?
Michael Schwab: Is this case, I had a month or two, so it wasn’t too bad. Sometimes deadlines are two weeks and sometimes two years. There are no rules.
When I see some of your images, the word ‘bold’ comes to mind, but there is also a romantic/nostalgic aspect as well, harkening back to old woodcuts. I get that sense from the color, strong line and the overall energy in a lot of your works.
Michael Schwab: My heroes were always the old European poster artists—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre, from France, and Ludwig Holwein, from Germany, and the Beggarstaff Brothers from England. There’s lots of graphic romance and drama in those images. I also have a deep respect for old Japanese woodcuts.
What’s the first poster you made?
Michael Schwab: My first professional poster was for Levi’s, back in 1975, for creative director, Chris Blum. I’ve been a graphic artist now for almost 40 years. My first opera poster was for San Francisco Opera’s Boris Godunov in 1992. Talk about bold and simple—that was extremely bold and simple.
Yes, not much more than a silhouette but it really communicated the pagentry of that opera.
Michael Schwab: Next time you look at it, tell me if you’re in the audience looking at him from the audience or if you feel like you’re on the stage behind him. That was a silk-screen poster with gold metallic ink border, which was probably toxic as hell…but it was gorgeous. A couple of decades went by and here I am, at the opera again and thoroughly enjoying it.
Is silk-screen still used?
Michael Schwab: Yes, but it’s so much easier and cleaner to create a digital print. They can really match colors beautifully on archival paper. However, I still love serigraphs (silkscreen prints). They are like paint on the paper.
Do you do your own print work as well or do you work with a printer?
Michael Schwab: I work with several printers, but for the opera posters, I work with David Coyle at ArtBrokers Inc. in Sausalito. He is a master printer and publishes many artists and photographers. He and his staff did a stunning job.
Your website has a fabulous gallery of work, which are your favorites and why?
Michael Schwab: It’s kind of like asking which children I like the best. I’ve had a few home runs, not everything works incredibly well, but the images for the Golden Gate Parks are a favorite. I’m also proud of the work I’ve created for Amtrak over the past several years. Several individual logos I feel very good about—the Robert Mondavi corporate logo, Pebble Beach, David Sedaris, to name a few. And the opera posters—Nixon is my third. I have a commission for the next 4 years with them.
What are you working on right now?
Michael Schwab: The big project on my drawing table now is the poster for America’s Cup 2013. It hasn’t been printed at the time of this interview, yet but it’s been approved, and everybody seems to like it. I’m also working on the graphic for a highway project up in British Columbia—The Sea to Sky Highway. It seems like I always have a wine label project going on too. Currently, it’s Area Code Wine Company.
Information about Purchasing Schwab’s posters:
Michael Schwab’s Nixon in China poster is printed on archival fine art paper and is available as an unsigned 16″x24″ poster ($75) and a signed 24″x36″ collector’s poster ($150) through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House and online at www.sfopera.com . A limited number of his out of print Boris Godunov posters, 24″ x 36″ are available for $625 through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House.
To visit Michael Schwab’s website, click here.
To read ARThound’s previous coverage of Michael Schwab, click here.
Details about Nixon in China performances: San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China runs for seven performances June 8-July 3, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets and information: www.sfopera.com or call (415) 864-3330.
Those attending the Marin Chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s annual Champagne Gala this Sunday were serenaded by the voices of angels— San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows —in an intimate program of opera arias and ensembles. The gala is the Chapter’s only fundraising event and takes place every August with a performance by the Adler Fellows at the San Domenico Music Conservatory in San Anselmo. Ninety-two people attended Sunday’s concert, which raised over $4500 to fund the Guild’s two most popular programs—the Opera à la Carte music education program for Marin County schools and the Guild’s popular Opera Previews, featuring renowned musicologists and the occasional degree-less deadbeat offering an in-depth look at the season’s operas.
The festivities began as the Guild’s chapter president, Camille Morishige, introduced special guests Ellen Kerrigan and Baker Peeples, who spoke passionately and humorously about their long-time involvement in the Opera à la Carte music education program for Northern California schools. This engaging Opera Guild program brings 45-minute adaptations of San Francisco Opera’s main stage operas to over 130 schools annually with a small travelling team—frequently including Kerrigan and Peeples—and works with students to actually produce an opera. Students learn first-hand about performance, technique and scenery and are given speaking roles, which they must memorize. The Marin Guild has been instrumental in funding the Opera à la Carte program for local schools that cannot afford the annual $300 participation fee. Since its inception 23 years ago, Kerrigan estimated that the program had introduced over 600,000 Northern California students to opera and launched a few careers in music. Several of the program’s initial donors, including George F. Lucas, were in the audience.
The crowd burst into laughter as Peeples quoted his favorite letter from a student: “Dear Opera à la Carte, Before I saw Opera à la Carte’s Die Fledermaus, I thought opera was the worst thing to happen to civilization. Since then, I have changed my mind.” This fall’s program will feature a charming adaptation of Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love.
Each year, long-time opera patron and past Marin Chapter president, Vivienne Miller, enthusiastically helps organize the Adler Fellows’ Marin performance. The five Adler Fellows performing this year included Nadine Sierra, soprano; Daniel Montenegro, tenor; Ao Li, baritone; Ryan Kuster, bass-baritone; and David Hanlon, coach and accompanist. What a pleasure to see these rising opera stars perform in an intimate and informal setting and to have the chance to speak with them about their onstage roles in SF Opera performances this fall.
The Adler Fellows represent the finest young operatic voices in the country. Each year, only a few of the 20 San Francisco Opera Merola Opera Program participants—who themselves are selected from a pool of over 800 candidates—are invited to continue on as Adler Fellows. Under the guidance of San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley and Opera Center Director Sheri Greenawald, the Adler Program offers intensive individual training and roles of increasing importance in San Francisco Opera’s main-stage season.
Sunday’s program included several popular and very demanding arias and ensembles that were especially selected by the Fellows. Before each piece, the Fellows set the scene, explaining what they liked and imbuing the plots with a modern and often humorous spin. The highlights included Daniel Montenegro and Ao Li singing the friendship duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” from Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers); Ryan Kuster as Don Giovanni in the duet “La ci darem la mano” with Nadine Sierra, as Zerlina, in a scene from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Ao Li performing Dandini’s aria from Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). Ryan Kuster gave a moving Blitch’s aria, or “Blitch’s Prayer of Repentance,” from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and a special treat was Daniel Montenegro performing the rarely heard beautiful aria “E la solita storia,” known as “Lamento di Federico,” from Francesco Cilea’s L’Arlesiana (The Woman from Arles).
Nadine Sierra was resplendent singing the aria “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and as Adina in the wonderful duet, “Una parola, Adina” (“One word, Adina”), with Daniel Montenegro as Nemorino, in Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore” (The Elixir of Love). After the performance, she told me how excited and honored she was to be singing the role of Juliet Barbara, representing all women who suffered loss after 9.11, in the world premiere of Heart of a Solider, which opens Saturday, September 10, 2011 at SF Opera. Ryan Kuster will sing the role of a Mandarin and Daniel Montenegro will sing the role of Pong in Puccini’s Turandot, which opens SF Opera’s season on September 9, 2011.
The afternoon program closed with Daniel Montenegro and Ao Li singing one of the greatest tenor-baritone duets of all time, the rousing: “Dio, che nell’alma infondere,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, in which Don Carlo and Rodrigo pledge themselves to the cause of liberty and to eternal friendship, to the backdrop of a militaristic march. Their duet was full of bravura and showcased these two young men, at their finest, clearly loving the chance to perform for such an enthusiastic audience.
After the performance, guests mingled with the artists and enjoyed champagne and savory hors d’oeuvres and desserts in the conservatory’s idyllic setting. Several gift baskets were raffled off and won by guild members. Verna Parino, 94, one of the Marin Chapter’s former presidents,
won one of the prizes and, gift bag in hand, was delighted to tell me all about her engrossing and in-depth research for Heart of a Soldier and her plans—already formalized– to attend the Ring cycle in Munich in 2012. (Click here to read ARThound’s interview with Verna about SF Opera’s Ring Cycle.) Susan Malott, Managing Director of the SF Opera Guild Board, was delighted with the turnout and enthusiasm and contributed several of her excellent photos to this article. ARThound will be following the Adler Fellows in their various performances this fall, so stay tuned.
Opera Previews Sponsored by the Marin Chaper of the San Francisco Guild for the 2011-2012 Season:
|Mon Aug 29, 2011, 8 p.m.||Turandot: Giacomo Puccini||Dr. Timothy Flynn: Olivet College, Assistant Professor of Music, Music Program Director|
|Thurs Sept 8, 2011, 8 p.m.||Heart of a Soldier: Christopher Theofanidas Donna DiNovelli||Dr. Mitchell Morris: Professor of Musicology, UCLA|
|Mon Sept 19, 2011, 8 p.m.||Lucrezia Borgia: Gaetano Donizetti||Dr. Mary Ann Smart: Professor of Musicology, U.C. Berkeley|
|Mon Oct 10, 2011, 8 p.m.||Don Giovanni: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart||Dr. Simon Williams: Professor & Chair, Theatre & Dance Dept., U.C. Santa Barbara|
|Mon Oct 24, 2011, 8 p.m.||Serse (Xerxes): George Frideric Handel||Dr. Bruce Lamott: Director, Philharmonia Chorale|
|Thurs May 31, 2012, 8 p.m.||Nixon in China: John Adams||Dr. Stephen Hinton: Professor of Music, Stanford University|
|Mon June 4, 2012 8 p.m.||Attila: Guiseppe Verdi||Dr. Alexandra Amati-Camperi Dept Chair, Professor of Music, University of San Francisco|
All Opera Previews at held at Villa Marin, 100 Thorndale Drive, San Rafael. Time: 8 PM lecture; 7:30 PM complimentary tea/coffee and refreshments. Admission: $10 per lecture or $60 for series. For information, contact Tenki Davis at 415. 457.1118 or firstname.lastname@example.org.