Geneva Anderson digs into art

Interview: Marin artist Michael Schwab discusses his artwork for Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” at San Francisco Opera through July 7, 2013

Marin artist Michael Schwab was commissioned by San Francisco Opera to create the commemorative poster for Mark Adamo’s opera “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” which has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera June 19-July 7, 2013. Image courtesy: Michael Schwab

Marin artist Michael Schwab was commissioned by San Francisco Opera to create the commemorative poster for Mark Adamo’s opera “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” which has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera June 19-July 7, 2013. Image courtesy: Michael Schwab

While mixed reviews pour in for Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, at San Francisco Opera through July 7, 2013, Marin artist Michael Schwab’s commemorative poster for the new opera, is a huge hit.  It features a bold image of Mary Magdalene wearing a golden halo against a warm brown background.  Her triangular silhouette, framed by long flowing black hair, is like a mountain and her glowing halo is like an orb—the sun.    Depending on where you perceive the horizon line, the sun is either rising or setting on her.  The artwork has a strong psychological impact and is long-remembered.  But that’s what Michael Schwab does best—he uses bold color and simple shapes to create iconic images.

From his studio in Marin, Michael Schwab has established a reputation as one of America’s leading graphic artists. His work is easily recognized by his signature use of large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives and bold, graphic images of archetypal human forms.  He has created award-winning images, posters, and logos for numerous clients, including the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, Robert Mondavi, Muhammad Ali, Nike, Robert Redford, and most recently, the poster for the America’s Cup 2013 in San Francisco.  His previous collaborations with San Francisco Opera include posters for the Company’s 2011 Ring Cycle, Boris Godunov in 1992 and Nixon in China in 2012.

His Mary Magdalene artwork is available as a limited edition poster, reproduced in two sizes, and is also featured on the cover of the Company’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene program book. Schwab also created a special version of his poster with a red background which San Francisco Opera General Director David Glockley presented to Mark Adamo following the Tuesday, June 25, 2013 performance.

Just before the opera opened, I had the pleasure of talking with Michael Schwab about his creative process, something like a studio visit by phone.

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.

The story and music were very much in the works when you were asked to create this poster for SF Opera, so what was your conception for the design?  How did you form an image in your mind of Mary Magdalene?

Michael Schwab:  My designs work better when they are very singular in subject matter.  It was pretty obvious that it needed to be a portrait of Mary Magdalene.  I tried not to bring a lot into the background, I didn’t want to tell too much of a story.  I wanted her to appear as downtrodden and troubled and to do that in a very graphically dynamic way.  Last year, my wife and I spent 10 days in Rome and we were seeing all of this amazing religious art work–images with gold, lots of halos and all of the rich colors in that old work.  I was very inspired. I kept thinking I want my Mary Magdalene to look like that, so the trip played a big role in how it looked.  I wanted the poster to look like opera, but in my style—very bold and simple.

What type of source materials do you normally use? 

Michael Schwab:  SF Opera has commissioned me to do five posters for them and this is my third.  In the past, I’ve been given the music to listen to and a lot more visual information.  Mark and I talked about it and I got a good taste of what he was looking for and how he wanted the opera to come across.  I was provided with photographs of the singers and I knew I was going in the right direction.  I was given a lot of freedom and that made the whole project so enjoyable.

You use color very dramatically, but there is also a very nostalgic feel to your works that harkens back to the idea of the woodcut.

Michael Schwab:  Several of my heroes were Japanese woodcut and old European poster artists—there’s a lot of graceful movement as well as drama in those works. I was never very painterly in my style.  I enjoy working with big bold shapes and it’s a challenge for me to get a message across using as few shapes and colors as possible.  I’ll continue working with the colors, combining them and fine-tuning, until they’re right to me. Mary’s skin is a French-blue purple and we lightened it and darkened it until it was just right and the same with the gold for the halo.  I tried to evoke gold leafing and the color was gradated to create that.

I really enjoy working on these opera posters because I can get very dramatic with them.  There’s no commercial client telling me to make them look happy or a certain way and I can really put down what the opera is about.  I’ve always felt that if I were not a graphic artist I would somehow be involved in theatre.

Michael Schwab’s limited edition giclée print poster for the 34th America’s Cup.  Image courtesy: Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab’s limited edition giclée print poster for the 34th America’s Cup. Image courtesy: Michael Schwab

You’ve endowed Mary with a halo, which is a sacred gesture.  According to tradition, she came from a family in high social standing but strayed from the good path.  She then transformed and it is her penance and devotion, and detachment from her past that make her worthy of that halo.  In Adamo’s opera though, her human urges are strongly emphasized.  What was it like putting a halo on her? 

Michael Schwab:  I was especially excited about putting a halo on someone.  I’ve been intrigued by halos ever since I was a little boy sitting in the Presbyterian Church back in Oklahoma.  There’s something about halos that say so much but you’re not even sure what.  Mark and I actually spoke about putting a halo on her and he gave the ok on that.  Here, it’s a symbol that can evoke a lot of meanings.

How did you go about other aspects of the design, like the font?

Michael Schwab: I wanted a typeface that felt historic, ancient and a little beat up.  Sometimes, I use custom fonts but here, I used “historical fell” and really like it.  Aside from that, I wanted it to balance really well, so it’s about stacking words you need to fit in.  “Mary” ended up large and it just worked.  “Magdalene” is a long word that filled the second line.  Mark Adamo’s name is quite small.   I love working with the opera.  They give me freedom to be a creative as I can and therefore it lets me do what I do well.

Details: San Francisco Opera’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene runs for seven performances June 19-July 7, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House.  Tickets and information: or call (415) 864-3330.

July 1, 2013 - Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , ,

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