ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

interview: Marin artist Michael Schwab talks about his latest poster for San Francisco Opera’s “Nixon in China”

Marin artist Michael Schwab signs copies of his “Nixon in China” poster at the Opera Shop at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on June 17, 2012. Schwab has created three posters for SF Opera and has been commissioned to create a poster for Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” which has its world premiere at SF Opera next summer. Photo: Geneva Anderson

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.”

Michael Schwab’s “Nixon in China” artwork is available in two sizes as a poster; it appears as three-sheet outside the opera house and it graces San Francisco Opera’s program cover for “Nixon in China.” Image: Michael Schwab.

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.

Michael Schwab’s first commission for SF Opera was a poster for Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” in 1992. Image: Michael Schwab.

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’s 2011 poster for Francesca Zambello’s new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” was an instant hit. 15 x 21 inches, digital studio print on archival paper. Image: Michael Schwab.

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.

Michael’s Schwab’s popular series of posters for the National Parks are synonymous with Northern California. “Golden Gate Bridge,” 1995, 22 x 30.75 inches, 7 color, silk screen. Image: Michael Schwab

 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.

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June 24, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crawling Out of Bed for René Pape—Saturday’s Spectacular Met Opera Live in HD performance of Boris Godunov

Bass Rene Pape’s repertoire of wounded power figures reaches new heights with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Musorgsky's Boris Godunov. Pape perfectly embodies the role of the tormented Russain tsar, Boris Godunov, whose guilt whittles away his essence. Photo Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

It takes dedication to make it to a 9 a.m. opera in a blustery rain storm; when that performance is 4.5 hours long and tackles a complex historical theme, it discourages all but the die-hard.  Count me among the dedicated and the lucky.  I was one of 217 other Sonoma County opera devotees who turned up early Saturday morning at Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theatre for the Metrpolitan Opera’s  “Live in HD” simulcast of “Boris Godunov,” the most riveting performance of its season so far.  Whether you like the opera or not, the performance itself was one of near perfection—singers, chorus, orchestra, conductor and director came together in a perfect fit.  And with director Stephen Wadsworth’s late entry to the new production, just 5 weeks before it opened, that is a fete.  With an opera of this complexity, I really appreciated the riveting close-ups and back stage interviews that accompany the HD Live transmissions.   The chance to literally crawl out of bed and into my car in yoga pants and to the theatre without the typical drama around what to wear makes it all about the music too. 

The Met’s new production is based on Mussorgsky’s final (and fullest) version of the opera.  It features German celeb bass René Pape in his Met debut in this role and a host of Russian and Slavic Eco-stars—Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina), Aleksandrs Antonenko (Dimitri), Oleg Balashov (Prince Shuisky), Evgeny Nikitin (Rangoni), Mikhail Petrenko (Pimen), Andrey Popov (Holy fool), and Vladimir Ognovenko (Varlaam)—who all worked together like clockwork to keep the drama high in this epic story of the tormented unravelling of 16th Century Russian tsar, Boris Godunov.  The opera really involves three embedded stories, the most important of which is Boris’ complete disintegration brought on by the psychological burden of the guilt he carries for murdering the rightful heir apparent, Dimitri, the young son of the late Tsar, Ivan the Terrible.   The second story is that of succession—the grab for the throne that carries the drama through 4 acts.  An ambitious young monk named Grigori realizes that he’s the same age as the murdered young heir apparent Dimitri would have been and he schemes to take over Russia himself while pretending to be the late czar’s son.  As Grigori and his army march on Moscow, Boris is forced to battle the inner demons unlocked by his guilt.  These chip away at his faculties, leaving him physically drained and demented, a short step from his death which occurs in the final act.  The third story is that of the immiserated and fickle-willed Russian people themselves who are beset by religious and political separatism and poverty.  As Director Stephen Wadsworth explains “In a bigger sense, the opera is about history repeating itself—in the beginning the people resent a leader who took power through deceit and violence, and in the end they celebrate a new leader who does the same.  And they themselves celebrate with violence. It’s frightening.”

I love the opera because it explores just what is “Russianness,” and does the quality come from its peasants or its nobility, from Europe or from Asia?  In real life, part of how the actual Boris Godunov meets his end is that he is not himself in the Romanov line.  Instead, he was the orphan of a boyar (a citizen whose rank was just under than of the ruling class) who grew up in the household of Ivan the Terrible and became a very powerful regent who instituted the system of serfdom and helped secure Russia’s borders.  When Tsar Ivan killed his son and successor Ivan, another of his sons, preferably from his current wife Anaztasia Romanova, had to take the crown.  Fyodor, who was married to Boris’ sister Irina, was chosen but he had mental problems and proved an unfit Tsar.  Throughout Fyodor’s reign, the Russian government was contested between his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, and his Romanov cousins.  When Fyodor died childless, the 700-year-old line of Moscow Ruriks came to an end.  The Assembly of the Land elected Boris tsar in 1599, though Ivan the Terrible had another son, Dimitri, who to some seemed the true heir to the throne.  Dmitri was born to one of Ivan’s earlier wives who preceded Anastasia Romanova.  When Dimitri died of a throat-cutting at age 10, it was speculated that Boris was behind it.  Modern historians tend to dismiss this but Boris Godunov has carried the stigma ever since and the story motivated Pushkin to write the play on which Mussorgsky based his opera.  Once tsar, Godunov sought swift revenge on the Romanovs–all the family and its relatives were deported to remote corners of the Russian North and Urals, where many met starvation or were imprisoned.  Like in opera, the Romanovs’ fortunes would again dramatically reverse with the fall of the Godunov dynasty in 1605.

The press hype around bass René Pape, set designer Stephen Wadsworth, and conductor Valery Gergiev has been phenomenal but well-deserved.  Pape was born for this role and anchors the drama throughout despite his appearance in just a few scenes. With his Eurasian looks, dark expressive eyes, and long unkempt mane–which grew more tangled as the performance progressed– Pape looks as if he came right from very line of Tatars bent on breaking tsarist Russia.  Pape’s plush bass gives Samuel Ramey, whose majestic 2003 performance as Boris at the the San Francisco Opera was the talk of the town, a run.  Pape’s repertoire includes a spade of crumbling authority figures with huge issues–King Marke in Tristan und Isolde, Méphistophélès in Faust, Gurnemanz in Parsifal, and King Philip in Don Carlo–and these at the Met alone.  What is brilliant about this performance is that Pape doesn’t overact the part.  In fact, he downplays the physical drama, and through stunning vocal delivery gives us a Boris who is battling intense inner demons but remains vulnerable and tender.

Mikhail Petrenko as the old monk, Pimen, chronicling Russia’s history in a huge manuscript which is central to the story. In the background is Rene Pape performing the title role in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godinov. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Because of Director Stephen Wadsworth’s last minute entry to the production, it’s hard to know what exactly he is responsible for and what he accepted from his predecessor Peter Stein, who left in a reputed protest over an immigration issue.

The stage design is sparse but spectacular.  Central to the drama from the very beginning and visible downstage in every scene is a huge (about 6 x9 feet) and beautiful book of Russian history, being penned at the Chudov monastery by Pimen (Mikhail Petrenko), an old monk who knows or thinks he knows the history surrounding Boris.  I was completely smitten with Petrenko after his emotive Act 2 solo which he express both intense rage and compassion.  When Pimen tells his young novice Grigori (Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko) that power hungry Boris murdered Ivan’s successor and son, Dimitri, so that he could become tsar, Grigori (the same age as Dimitri would have been) is motivated to take justice into his own hands by pretending to be Dimitri.  From that point on, the book’s centrality is emphasized by many of the main characters actually standing and performing on it.  In one scene, The Holy Fool, played splendidly by Andrey Popov, wraps himself in a page of this book, illustrating how a part of Russia’s history will be forgotten and lost and that the drama that is unfolding on stage reflects history being written before our very eyes.  The book motif is even carried through in the scene at the Polish court with the large maps that foretell the future expansion of Marina’s empire.

According to the program notes, this new production is based on Mussorgsky’s final and fullest 1872 version of the opera with the 1869 version guiding the beginning of the final act and Boris’ monologue in the Act II Kremlin scene.   The main thing about this long version is that it includes the Polish court scene in Act III, which I appreciated but some consider a lengthy distraction from the main story of Boris.  Balarus mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk in her debut as the conniving Polish vixen Marina was fantastic.  Her voice was rich and, with her fiery wavy long red hair and ample curves, she played the aging princess to the hilt.  It was very credible that power-thirsty Marina is aching to become tsarina and is trying to steer her lover

Ekaterina Semenchuk as the manipulative and power-thirsty Mirina and Aleksandrs Antonenko as Grigory/Dimitri conspire at the Polish court. Marina needs Grigory to ascend the throne of Russia. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Grigori towards the throne.  The bizarre sensual relationship between Marina and her Jesuit confessor, Rangoni (baritone Evgeny Nikitin), who extols her to support the Catholic cause, was so over the top that it became farcical.  What irony too, that I came across with such disdain for Marina and pretender Grigori/Dimitri  while Boris, just as much the conniving murderer, pulled at my heart strings. 

Valery Gergiev, using the original orchestration, did an awesome job of drawing out the very best musically from all of the performers from the main characters to those in the glorious chorus.  The chorus, stand-in for the fickle Russian people, had a major part in the opera— they initially hail Boris as symbol of hope and later revile him as a Herod who has brought the wrath of heaven down on them.  The chorus was especially effective when they were pleading for bread and later, when total anarchy occurs.

The HD experience can be a blessing and curse.  Its biggest plus is that the camera precision is so fine that we can see things that can’t be seen even from the very best seats at the Met.  It became very clear, for example, that large portions of Ekaterina Semenchuk’s face had been rendered immobile by Botox which may not have been visible to those at the opera house but produced some humorous close-ups of the outermost regions of her eyebrows moving expressively.  On the other hand, we are captive to the cameraman’s framing and Saturday’s filming included a big blunder.  We never got to see the actual grand and triumphant court entrance on horseback by Marina and Grigori, which was so disappointing since our appetites had been whetted during the second intermission when we got to watch these magnificent white horses being led through the corridors of the opera house as they readied for that symbolic entrance.  What the HD audience saw instead—the horses as a static tableau, after the entrance had been made. Ahheemmnn.   What is so wonderful about the HD performances though is the additional commentary that we are privy to at intermission.  Saturday’s hostess was Patricia Racette.  She lacks the verve of Rene Flemming, but she conducted informative interviews with Pape, Semenchuk, Popov, and chorus members.  She didn’t ask Wadsworth what he inherited from Stein and what he did to imprint his signature on the performance. 

 The Metropolitan Opera’s HD live broadcasting is now in its fifth season.  The opera series of 12 live transmissions is sponsored in Sonoma County by the Sonoma County Jewish Community Center by arrangement with Rialto Cinemas.   There are two Sonoma County transmissions for each opera—a Saturday morning performance that is a live simulcast as the opera is performed in New York at the Metropolitan Opera House and a Wednesday evening encore performance.

October 26, 2010 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment