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Italian Maestro, Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s Music Director, will step down in 2018

Maestro Nicola Luisotti during a SFO performance. Photo: Terrence McCarthy, SFO

Maestro Nicola Luisotti during a SFO performance. Photo: Terrence McCarthy, SFO

Nicola Luisotti will end his term as music director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) when his contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season. He delivered the news Wednesday at War Memorial Opera House before the full company of staff, musicians, chorus, dancers and crew.

Announced by SFO General Director David Gockley as the Company’s third music director in 2007, Mr. Luisotti took the position in September 2009, replacing Donald Runnicles 17 year run. Since his Company debut in 2005 leading Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, the Tuscan-born maestro has led over 30 SFO productions and concerts to date.  He is beloved by audiences world wide.

“I believe that close to a decade is about the right time to be leading a company,” said Luisotti in a press statement. “I want the company’s general director designate, Matthew Shilvock, to be able to move freely into the future with his ideas, his artistic interests and to take San Francisco Opera into a new direction”

In an interview that appeared on the popular opera blog, Operachic, on January 14, 2010, Luisotti, who had just taken the SFO position, explained his feelings at the time

I’ve nurtured a great love for San Francisco, an almost visceral appreciation.  The first time I arrived here in San Francisco, I had come from Los Angeles where I had just conducted a production of Pagliacci.  After staying a month in Los Angeles, I needed to spend two months in San Francisco for (Verdi’s) la Forza del Destino.  I was tired, and really, I just wanted to go home to my house in Tuscany.  But I think it was totally love at first sight when I saw the city of San Francisco. I was living in an apartment in Pacific Heights, practically with a bay view and one also of the Golden Gate Bridge, and thankfully because of the perfect weather, I was able to enjoy a gorgeous view from one of my very first days there. San Francisco’s Opera House revealed itself as a pure environment for music. The enthusiasm, the unity of the professionals in the house, and the love of the art form can generate extraordinary things. Therefore, I fell in love with the city, with the opera house, with the people, and everything that this place – for me, quite magical – offered.  I asked myself if one day I’d ever be lucky enough to become the Musical Director of an opera house that was so special like this one.  So when David Gockley [SFO’s General Director] proposed the position to me, I didn’t hesitate for a single second. My response was immediate without a doubt whatsoever.  That was the place where with Rita, my wife, I was to spend the next part of my life.

Luisotti will lead this summer’s Don Carlo followed by opening SFO’s 94th season in September 2016 with a new Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts co-production of Andrea Chénier. Photo: Terry McCarthy, SFO

Luisotti will lead this summer’s “Don Carlo” followed by opening SFO’s 94th season in September 2016 with “Andrea Chènier,” a new co-production of Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Terry McCarthy, SFO

Shilvock, who succeeds David Gockley as general director on Aug. 1, says he was “deeply saddened” by Luisotti’s decision.

David Gockley said: “I can think of no other person who embodies the love and passion of opera as much as Nicola Luisotti. I’m particularly heartened to know that Nicola will be returning to guest conduct and will continue to maintain his association with the Company. I wish him great success in his future endeavors and know that he will continue to affirm his status as one of the great conductors of his generation.”

Acknowledging the unique artistry of the SFO Orchestra and Chorus, Maestro Luisotti thanked them for their role in the realizing memorable productions of Luisa Miller, the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara (Two Women), Mefistofele, Lohengrin, Salome, Norma, the trio of Mozart-DaPonte operas, and the Verdi Requiem in a historic combined performance with the Teatro San Carlo of Naples.

Luisotti will lead this summer’s Don Carlo followed by opening San Francisco Opera’s 94th season in September 2016 with a new Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts co-production of Andrea Chénier and the annual Opera in the Park concert at Golden Gate Park.  Later in the season, Luisotti will lead a new production of Aida and a revival of Rigoletto.  Throughout his tenure at SFO, the maestro has always had a full plate of international appearances too.  This past season, he scored great acclaim for his conducting engagements at Madrid’s Teatro Real, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, London’s Royal Opera House and most recently in Paris for a new production of Rigoletto.

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May 18, 2016 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”─ Soprano Albina Shagimuratova subs as Lucia and is spectacular!

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Tuesday, October 28th like she was born to the role. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Wednesday, October 28th. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

The footnotes for Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova’s fall 2015 season at San Francisco Opera (SFO) might read “The Queen rises,” affirming that the last minute drama that occurs behind the scenes in opera can be as exhilarating as what we see on stage.  Before the curtain rose on Wednesday night’s final performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, SFO’s General Director, David Gockley, unexpectedly appeared on stage to deliver “goods news and bad news.”  Soprano Nadine Sierra , who had been getting rave reviews for her Lucia, was suddenly ill.  (Sierra herself was a late replacement for German soprano Diana Damrau who withdrew unexpectedly in September citing personal reasons.)  The good news was that Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, knew the role of Lucia by heart and had agreed to sub, just hours ago, for Sierra.

Shagimuratova had wowed audiences with her dynamic Queen of the Night in the 2012 world premiere of SFO’s The Magic Flute. She, however, had very recently been ill herself and had been too sick to sing Queen of the Night in last Sunday’s matinee performance of the company’s Magic Flute, which was just two and a half days earlier.  Many of us who are devoted Sierra fans were sad that we would miss her but elated that Shagimuratova, the beloved Queen, had risen from her bed to take on one of opera’s most demanding roles.

Shagimuratova, who most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, did more than seize the moment─she was on fire.  She took us all along with her on Lucia’s tumultuous descent from fragility into madness and executed the famous third act Mad Scene with mesmerizing finesse.  Her co-stars, too, delivered the goods, particularly the dazzling Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s secret lover and baritone Brian Mulligan as Lucia’s brother, Enrico.  And after Sunday’s performance, we’ll all be watching out for the gorgeous Latvian mezzo soprano Zanda Švēde, a second year Adler fellow, whose lovely voice and stunning red hair made the most of her small role as Alisa, Lucia’s handmaid.

Presiding at the podium, Nicola Luisotti brought a stirring and lush performance from the SFO orchestra and chorus that incisively captured Lucia’s emotional fragility and supported the characters’ most passionate moments.  Of the dozen or so Donizetti operas that are considered masterpieces, Lucia is the pinnacle─it contains opera’s most gorgeous and powerful music and abounds with opportunities for vocal embellishment, lush harmonizing and drama.  It’s no wonder that this bel-canto (literally “beautiful singing”) masterpiece has been performed in 23 seasons at SFO. This new SFO production, directed by Michael Cavanagh and designed by Erhard Rom, the team behind SFO’s wonderful Susannah in 2014 and Nixon in China in summer 2012, is sure to become a more frequent staple in SFO’s repertoire.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Act 3’s Mad Scene─  The main reason for Lucia’s enduring popularity is the Act 3’s Mad Scene.  Great Lucias become one with the music to embody a young woman ripped apart by inner demons.  Lucia, mourning her mother’s recent death, has been coerced by her brother Enrico, her closest remaining relative, into an arranged marriage and has been crushed by the loss of her true love, Edgardo.  On their wedding night, she stabs her new husband to death and wanders delirious amongst the wedding guests in a bloody nightdress with her hair a tangled mess.  Shagimuratova’s singing had been so captivating for the first two acts, particularly Act 1’s “Quando rapito in estasi,” which brought me to my feet, we knew we were in for a treat.  Indeed, she left nothing in the tank.  Her interpretation of  “Il dolce suono…Spargi d’amaro pianto” was chilling, embellished with amazing trills and cascades that showcased the power and sheer beauty of her voice in its highest register.  The cadeneza passages, played evocatively by Principal Flute Julie McKenzie from the pit, were very well-coordinated, as if it had been practiced several times.  It rightfully earned an ovation with prolonged whistles and whoops and left me with the impression that, for this Lucia, her final exit was a form of victory over the men who had controlled her in one way or another.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, oozed with such virility and tonal mastery that now I feel compelled to follow his career.  His initial physical encounters with Shagimuratova/Lucia, a new partner, seemed somewhat stiff though, particularly the scene in Act 1where he is comforted by Lucia and lays his lead in her lap but their passion grew more believable as the opera progressed.  His grappling with what he perceives as Lucia’s betrayal was enthralling and in the richly textured “Chi me frena in tal momento” sextet that ends Act II, when he bursts in insisting that he still loves Lucia, he was blazing.  In the finale, the punishing, demanding Wolf-Crag” scene, Beczala gifted us with rapid, jarring shifts in emotion, bel canto at its best.

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

And pitted against him, as Enrico, was powerhouse American baritone Brian Mulligan, fresh from his masterful lead in SFO’s Sweeney Todd.  And much like that deranged barber, his Enrico also acted from sheer desperation─he was aware of his sister Lucia’s desires and her fragility but torn by his need to save the Lammermore line as well as to ensure his own future.  In Act 3’s tour de force showdown between Enrico and Edgardo, both Mulligan and Beczala seemed to be feeding off of each other, singing gloriously and ratcheting up the drama.

Turning heads─ It was impossible to miss the sleekly coiffed redhead mezzo Zanda Švēde, Lucia’s handmaid Alisa.  The tall slim beauty was a vision in Mattie Ullrich’s Max-Mara like costuming  From the moment she sang her Act 1warning to Lucia to break up with Edgardo, her impassioned voice had me.  She was particularly impressive in Act 2’s sextet against much more seasoned singers.  Also making the most of his small role and SFO debut was French bass-baritone  Nicolas Testè as Raimundo, the Chaplan.

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

For this new production, rather than the 17th century hills of Scotland, Michael Cavanaugh’s staging sets Sir Walter Scott’s story in “modern-mythic Scotland, a dystopian near future where the lines are blurred between family, country and corporation.” The sets relied on clean-cut marble slabs which opened and closed in various configurations and a huge stone obelisk center stage to impart a stark cool ambiance that was accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of rolling ocean waves, thunderous skies and hilly Scottish landscapes.

Mattie Ullrich’s costumes ranged from sleek unadorned dresses in charcoal hues to the wedding party’s traditional long full-skirted ball-gowns in jewel tones with intriguing flower headdresses.  The flowers were so large they enforced the association of women as walking flowers, mere stylized objects.  Poor Shagimuratova presumably had to make do with what was available at the last minute─unattractive Victorian-style dresses with lots of gathers around the waist and bodice, the very worse costuming for a slightly round figure.  Her sumptuous voice was all the adornment this beauty needed to make her mark.

Details:  There are no remaining performances of Lucia di Lammermoor.   You can catch Albina Shagimuratova as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute which has 7 remaining performances and runs through November 20, 2015.  For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

November 1, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

At San Francisco Opera, “The Magic Flute” gets a second run after its big 2012 debut and it’s still magical─through November 20, 2015

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow, Efraín Solís, is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher. Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter. Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" is at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow, Efraín Solís, is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher. Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is designed by Jun Kaneko, directed by Harry Silverstein and features David Gockley’s English translations and is at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Wildly colorful costumes, constantly shifting digital projections, huge puppets, adorable bird-like creatures and kids in contraptions in the sky are a huge part of the fairy tale magic in San Francisco Opera’s sparkling revival of its 2012 co-production, The Magic Flute.  And, of course, there’s the music and singing─at San Francisco Opera (SFO), Mozart’s whimsical masterpiece about the power of love and the forces of good and evil is presented in full splendor with sparkling arias, glorious ensembles, and breathtaking orchestral passages. Designed by Jun Kaneko, directed by Harry Silverstein, with David Gockley’s English translations of Schikaneder’s libretto, the beloved favorite opened on October 20 for a ten performance run.

A lot happens in three years though─the novelty of those groundbreaking digital projections, based upon 3,000 of Jun Kaneko’s tempura and chalk drawings, which so mesmerized me upon my first two viewings of the opera, has begun to fade. These projections, thankfully, are now commonplace in opera and have done more to revitalize staging than anything I can think of. (Read my review for the groundbreaking 2012 production here.)  Having witnessed that magical innovation firsthand, I can now better appreciate the opera’s total package─singing, music, staging.  This review pertains to Sunday, October 25, matinee performance.

Lyric tenor Paul Appleby (front center) makes his San Francsico Opera as Tamino and plays his magic flute for a host of colorful oversized animals of the forest which never fail to delight audiences. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Lyric tenor Paul Appleby (front center) makes his San Francisco Opera as Tamino and plays his magic flute for a host of colorful oversized animals of the forest which never fail to delight audiences. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

 

Animals, working drawing for “The Magic Flute,” 2011, colored pencil on hand-drawn digital template, 8.5” h x 11” w, courtesy Jun Kaneko.

Animals, working drawing for “The Magic Flute,” 2011, colored pencil on hand-drawn digital template, 8.5” h x 11” w, courtesy Jun Kaneko.

Under Lawrence Foster’s baton, Mozart’s opera with its lively arias, thrilling coloratura moments and intricate passages so well-suited to vocal harmonizing was in good hands.  He makes his SFO debut with this production and will go on to conduct The Fall of the House of Usher in December.  Foster, an LA native of Romanian descent, guest-conducts frequently stateside but has mainly worked in Europe.  His tie to War Memorial Opera House is special: when he was just 19, he made his debut conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.  Since 2013, he has been music director of l’Opéra de Marseille and l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille.

On Sunday, as he guided the SFO orchestra in the lush overture, I found myself growing impatient with Kaneko’s hypnotic visuals which seemed to enforce the music’s slow pace making it seem almost static. The overture itself begins quite slowly and winds through various harmonies before it builds to its rousing conclusion. We were watching a series of straight and wavy colored lines, appearing one by one, slowly build an interwoven grid and then shift through blocks of color and various patterns.  It didn’t seem as fresh as it once had.  At other times, when singers were on stage, these projections were an enthralling accompaniment and enforced the mood of the music wonderfully, if only they could be better synced to the music, on a micro-level.

Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina (the Queen of the Night’s daughter), splitting the role with soprano Nadine Sierra. German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter is wise Sarastro (the thought-to-be evil sorcerer) in Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina (the Queen of the Night’s daughter), splitting the role with soprano Nadine Sierra. German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter is wise Sarastro (the thought-to-be evil sorcerer) in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Nimble soprano Sarah Shafer as Pamina, sang her famous Act 2 aria of lament “Oh, I feel it” (“Ach ich fuehl’s”) lyrically and hauntingly.  She sang Rosetta in this summer’s world premiere of SFO’s La Ciociara (Two Women), and is capable of great empathy in her singing and acting.  Her wonderful chemistry with Papageno/Efraín Solís made their Act 1 duet “In men, who feel love,” (“Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”) pure joy, aside from its very vernacular language. Shafer was applauded enthusiastically after each of her solos and given a standing ovation at the end of the opera.  Soprano Nadine Sierra will sing the role in November.

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow Efraín Solís is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher in "The Magic Flute." Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow Efraín Solís is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher in “The Magic Flute.” Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Second year Adler Fellow, tenor Efraín Solís, as Papageno, has such a warm and engaging speaking voice and a natural flair for comedy that he immediately won the hearts of the audience. He imbued his wonderful singing with so much personality that he made his zany character the opera’s focal point.  And his endearing Papagena, second year Adler Fellow, soprano Maria Valdes, made the most of her brief time on stage as well.

Queen of the Night, Soprano Kathryn Bowden, subbing for Russian soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, grabbed my attention in Act 1 with her first recitative and demanding aria, “Oh, Tremble not, my dear son” (“O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn”). The former SFO Merola participant and winner of the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (Florida District sparkled in her high range as she aimed to persuade Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from the grips of Sarastro.  In Act 2, when she is enraged that Tamino and Pamina are collaborating with Sarastro, she let loose full force with the Queen’s more famous aria, “Hell’s vengenace boils in my heart” (“Der Hölle Rache”), singing powerfully, scornfully to Pamina while thrusting a knife into her hands and ordering her to kill Satastro.  While she didn’t quite achieve the raging high drama that completely undoes an audience, she hit all the high notes and pulled off the exhausting passagework with great precision.

Lyric tenor Paul Appleby made his San Francisco Opera as the young Prince Tamino.  His expressive voice was wonderful in his Act 1 aria “Oh heavenly and rare image” (“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”) but his acting not as expressive.

German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter, as wise High Priest Sarastro, had a very imperial manner and put his rich deep voice to great use in the lower ranges called for by his role. On the other hand, Greg Fedderly’s Monostatos looked and acted like a character straight out of The Cat in the Hat.

The Three Ladies (from left) played by Zanda Švēde, Nian Wang and Jacqueline Piccolino, along with Tamino played by Paul Appleby in a scene from San Francisco Opera's production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Three Ladies (from left) played by Zanda Švēde, Nian Wang and Jacqueline Piccolino, along with Tamino played by Paul Appleby in a scene from San Francisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

While all the singers were special in their own way, I was drawn to two sets of triplets: the delightful Three Ladies─Jacqueline Piccolino (First Lady), Wang (Second Lady) and Zanda Švēde (Third Lady) who sang so harmoniously together, each with a wonderful voice and the adorable three young boys/guiding spirits (Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram Rafael Larpa-Wilson) who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. The boys sang angelically with their delicate high voices while hovering above the stage in brightly colored triangular containers.

(From left to right above stage) Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram, and Rafael Larpa-Wilson) are the three guiding sprits who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

(From left to right above stage) Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram, and Rafael Larpa-Wilson) are the three guiding sprits who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The English translations by David Gockley, SFO’s General Director, with additional material by Ruth and Thomas Martin, were contemporary and very well-rhymed (when called for) but went way too far into vernacular and slangy language for my tastes.  Papageno’s “ Oy vey,” in particular, got to me.

Details: There are 6 remaining performances of The Magic Flute─Wed, Nov 4, 7:30 PM; Sunday, Nov 8, 2 PM; Thurs, Nov 12, 7:30 PM; Sat, Nov 14, 7:30 PM; Tues, Nov 17, 7:30 PM; Fri, Nov 20, 7:30 PM. Tickets: $26 to $381.  For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

October 31, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie!  And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical.  A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015.  It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes.  At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove.  The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers.  Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama.  Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.

In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season.  Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base.  During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.  By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.

The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had.  But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive.  Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner.  The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.

At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.

From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting.  Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar.  As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut.  The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak.  Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.

Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan,  “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos  “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.

There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober) who has became a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober), now a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s bakehouse. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s oven. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4:  Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015.  For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.

Sweeney Todd Details:  There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM.  Both will be conducted by James Lowe.  Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.

September 26, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saturday, November 9, is Open House at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera is reaching out to families to build future audiences.  SFO hosts its second Community Open House on Saturday, November 9 and on November 24 and 30th, SFO will host “The Barber of Seville for Families,” a special two-hour long family-friendly production of Rossini’s hilarious opera.  Photo by Marie-Noelle Robert/Theatre du Chatelet.

San Francisco Opera is reaching out to families to build future audiences. SFO hosts its second Community Open House on Saturday, November 9, and on November 24 and 30th, SFO will host “The Barber of Seville for Families,” a special two-hour long family-friendly production of Rossini’s hilarious opera. Photo by Marie-Noelle Robert/Theatre du Chatelet.

San Francisco Opera (SFO) will host its second Community Open House at the War Memorial Opera House this Saturday, November 9, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  Free to the public, this special community event is structured for individuals and families who have a curiosity about opera and are interested in learning more about the world of opera, including production and artistic elements.  Children are welcome.

*  Musical presentations at 11:20 a.m. and 12:50 p.m. will feature music from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville conducted by Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi and vocal selections featuring Adler Fellows Laura Krumm and Joo Won Kang.

* Musical presentation at 12:10 p.m. will feature the San Francisco Opera Chorus, led by Chorus Director Ian Robertson

*  Activities include sing alongs with the Adler Fellows (10:30 & 11:20 a.m.), stage combat workshops (10:40 & 11:20 a.m. and 12:50 & 1:40 p.m.),  costume demonstrations (12:50 & 1:40 p.m.) and an opportunity to meet General Director David Gockley (1:40 p.m.)

*  Other activities in the opera house lobbies will include arts and crafts projects, a table exploring San Francisco Opera’s archives, a costume photo booth, opera videos on demand and wig and makeup demonstrations.

*  Attendees can enter to win tickets to SFO’s “The Barber of Seville” (11.13.2013 – 12.1.2013) or “The Barber of Seville for Families” (11.24.2013 and 11.30.2013).

Details: War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a delay on Highway 101 South due to ongoing road expansion work.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up, especially when the San Francisco Symphony is performing on the same day.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block) (Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

November 8, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at San Francisco Opera through November 15, 2013

American baritone Greer Grimsley is the Dutchman and American soprano Lise Lindstrom has her San Francisco Opera debut as Senta in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at SFO through November 15, 2013.  The production underwent a dramatic scenic overhaul with the last minute firing of its director/set designer and features bold video projections of turbulent waves, leaping flames and a myriad of abstract images.  Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

American baritone Greer Grimsley is the Dutchman and American soprano Lise Lindstrom has her San Francisco Opera debut as Senta in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at SFO through November 15, 2013. The production underwent a dramatic scenic overhaul with the last minute firing of its director/set designer and features bold video projections of turbulent waves, leaping flames and a myriad of abstract images. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

In Richard Wagner’s early opera “Der Fliegende Holländer” (“The Flying Dutchman”), a ship’s captain is satanically cursed to roam the seas for centuries and is allotted just one chance every seven years to dock and come ashore and find redemption through the love of a woman.  San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production, intended to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth, features lyrical music and beautiful singing but the over-abundance of video projections in constant churning motion detract from the music’s splendor.  Aside from this, last Sunday’s matinee performance featuring American bass baritone Greer Grimsley as the Dutchman and American soprano Lise Lindstrom as in her SF Opera debut as Senta, with Patrick Summers conducting and Ian Robertson at the helm of the chorus, was highly enjoyable.Behind the scenes, the waves had been quite choppy at SFO before the Dutchman opened. Petrika Ionesco, the original director and set designer of this co-production with Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie, was sacked by SFO General Director David Gockley just one week before the SFO premiere, with Glockley citing artistic differences.  A written statement from Gockley in our press kit mentions eliminating 40% of Ionesco’s scenic pieces, simplifying the staging, cutting down the use of supernumeraries, and providing more clarity.  Assistant Director Elkhanah Pulitzer stepped in and did the best she could.  Production designer S. Katy Tucker worked rapidly to refine and expand the video projections.

The production starts out quite promising.  While the orchestra’s lush Overture poetically conjures the turbulence of the tossing sea, captivating projections of surging waves fill the screens. In another early scene, Senta, who will become the focus of the Dutchman’s salvation, is by the sea with a toy boat and a lovely impressionist mood is evoked with. This scene foretells her sacrifice.  But very soon, it becomes too much. Coming from all sides of the stage; the projections are bold, immense, colorful, dizzying and far from simple.  Except maybe the color coding—red waves signified the Dutchman and his deathly realm while gray ones the bleak real world.  In Act I, we witness these projections whipping a violent storm and clouds while Daland (Kristinn Sigmundsson) stands in front of the chorus of roughly 25 sailors who are singing and swaying from left to right while the Steersman above them grips the ship’s wheel —I chose to close my eyes and just listen!  How far we’ve come though.  We used to complain about how static the sets were.  Now, with so much technical infrastructure at our disposal, it’s easy to get carried away.

The Dutchman, Wagner’s second opera, is full of lush passages and its dramatic music anticipates his future works. His leitmotifs are all introduced in the overture and it’s fun to listen for them as the performance progresses. Patrick Summers drew excellent playing from his orchestra throughout but, on Sunday, there were some occasional balance problems where singers were overpowered by orchestral sound.

Greer Grimsley is the Dutchman and Lise Lindstrom is Senta in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at San Francisco Opera through November 15, 2013.  This year marks the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth.  Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Greer Grimsley is the Dutchman and Lise Lindstrom is Senta in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at San Francisco Opera through November 15, 2013. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Strapping Wagnerian Greer Grimsley sang the title role with passion.  He made his mesmerizing entrance in a tight black t-shirt with his long hair slicked back and sported a huge dangling pendant and provided most of the energy in the performance.  From his Act I duet with Daland/Sigmundsson, “Wie? Hör’ ich recht?” (where the treasure/daughter exchange is made), to his duets with Senta/Lindstrom, his voice reflected anguish, tenderness, power and clarity.  At intermission, I met a couple who had travelled from Seattle just to hear him sing again.  Originally from Hamburg, they remarked that his German pronunciation was impeccable.

Kristinn Sigmundsson’s strong bass as Daland is the first voice we hear.  Bold, deep and gravelly, it projected the maturity and evil-edged nature of his character—a father who is supposed to be protecting his daughter but instead sells her off to a stranger for a trunk of treasures.  Tenor and Adler Fellow, AJ Glueckert, as his Steersman, had a lovely lyrical tenor.  We’ll get a chance to hear more of Glueckert on November 27, when the current crop of Adler Fellows perform their always spectacular “The Future is Now” concert of opera’s greatest hits.

Tenor Ian Storey sung passionately as Erik, a lone hunter amongst a community of sailors, who is devoted to Senta and who tries to woo her at every turn.  Storey made his SFO debut in the Company’s 2011 Ring cycle as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung.  On Sunday, not only was his singing impeccable, he came across as a young man sincerely in love.

Ian Storey is Eric, the huntsman, who is jilted by Senta in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at SFO through November 15, 2013.   Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Ian Storey is Eric, the huntsman, who is jilted by Senta in Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” at SFO through November 15, 2013. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Lise Lindstrom’s SFO debut as idealistic Senta, was strong in the singing and so-so in the acting.  On Sunday, she sang Senta’s ballad with vibrancy and her voice exhibited a lovely range.  As a young woman who is psychologically obsessed with an idealized love, and experiencing inner turmoil, she was wanting though.  As the opera’s lynchpin, her character has to channel those conflicting core emotions that drive the drama to her final sacrifice.  In this regard, she was flat as was her dramatic jump off the cliff into the icy waters, which was more of a hop.

Saturday, November 9, is Open House at SFO—SFO will host its second Community Open House at the War Memorial Opera House this Saturday, November 9, from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.  Free to the public, this special community event is structured for individuals and families who are interested in learning more about the world of opera, including production and artistic elements.  Children are welcome.

The 2013 Open House will feature onstage musical demonstrations including highlights from Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” with the SFO Orchestra conducted by Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi and vocal selections (sung in English) featuring Adler Fellows Laura Krumm and Joo Won Kang.  The SFO Chorus, led by Chorus Director Ian Robertson, is also featured in an onstage musical demonstration.

Other activities include sing-alongs with the SFO Chorus and Adler Fellows; stage combat workshops; costume, wig and makeup demonstrations; a costume photo booth; an opportunity to meet SFO General Director David Gockley; and hands-on family activities throughout the opera house.  Costumes will also be on display.  Attendees can enter to win tickets to SFO’s “The Barber of Seville” (11.13.2013 – 12.1.2013) or “The Barber of Seville for Families” (11.24.2013 and 11.30.2013).

Details:  There are three remaining performances of The Flying Dutchman—Thursday 11/7 at 7:30 PM*; Tuesday 11/12 at 7:30 PM* and Friday 11.15 at 8 PM (* OperaVision performance: HD video projection screens in the balcony).  Tickets range from $30 (Balcony) to $385 (Box) and may be purchased at www.sfopera.com , at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, or by phone at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.  One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places.  Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

 For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, including Falstaff, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx

Free Pre-Opera Talks:  55 minutes prior to curtain time, music educators give 25-minute overviews of the opera.  These informative talks are free to ticketholders and take place in the Orchestra section with open seating.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute delay on Highway 101 South due to ongoing road expansion work.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up, especially when the San Francisco Symphony is performing on the same day.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block) (Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

November 7, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Last minute shuffle for SF Opera’s new Steven King opera, “Dolores Claiborne”—Dolora Zajick withdraws, Patricia Racette steps up

American mezzo Dolora Zajick was slated to sing the title role in Tobias Picker’s new opera “Dolores Claiborne” which has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera on September 18, 2013.  Photo: Cory Weaver

American mezzo Dolora Zajick was slated to sing the title role in Tobias Picker’s new opera “Dolores Claiborne” which has its world premiere at San Francisco Opera on September 18, 2013. Photo: Cory Weaver

Late night Monday, San Francisco Opera (SFO) announced that mezzo Dolora Zajick, cast in the title role of Tobias Picker’s new opera Dolores Claiborne, slated to have its world premiere on September 18, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House, had withdrawn from the production due to her ongoing knee problems and the vocal demands of the role.

“The opera proved to be more challenging physically and vocally than I had anticipated and, exacerbated by my knee problems, I feel it is best to withdraw at this point rather than try to push forward. I sincerely wish the cast, the incredible production team and Tobias good luck with the remaining rehearsals and the opening. I will miss being part of it.

American soprano Patricia Racette, who is currently in San Francisco preparing for her dual roles as Marguerite and Elena in Arrigo Boito’s Mephistopheles, will now assume the Dolores Claiborne assignment for the first four performances—September 18, 22, 25 and 28. Ms. Racette will continue to sing all eight of the regularly scheduled Mephistopheles performances.  Fresh from those SFO performances, the energetic soprano will then perform “Diva on Detour” a cabaret program of Gershwin, Sondheim and Porter at San Francisco’s JCCSF on October 4.

The final two Claiborne performances, on October 1 and 4, will be sung by Catherine Cook, who is role cover, in rehearsals since Aug. 9, and having sung the role in last year’s workshop performances.

The sixth commissioned work by SFO General Director David Gockley, Dolores Claiborne is the first Stephen King novel adapted for the lyric stage. The libretto is by J.D. McClatchy and the opera tells the story of a feisty Maine housewife who kills her husband after learning that he molested their daughter.  The role was memorably played by Katy Bates in the 1995 movie.

David Gockley commented, “We were aware earlier this summer that there was a problem when Dolora cancelled her engagement at the Orange Festival and had hoped her pain and mobility issues would be less problematic here. We’ve been working on how to adjust the Dolores Claiborne staging and production in order to find a middle ground, but it ultimately proved to be too physically demanding. This decision for Dolora to withdraw from the project was mutually agreed upon and she regrets having to bow out at this late date.”

Patricia Racette has just agreed to take over the title role in “Dolores Claiborne.”  She will now sing three roles in two operas this September at San Francisco Opera.  Photo: Cory Weaver

Patricia Racette has just agreed to take over the title role in “Dolores Claiborne.” She will now sing three roles in two operas this September at San Francisco Opera. Photo: Cory Weaver

Gockley also expressed his gratitude to Racette for stepping in at this late date in the rehearsal period and agreeing to take on this very demanding role, especially while she is also performing in Mephistopheles.  Racette is familiar with Tobias Picker’s works having performed in two of his earlier operas Emmeline and An American Tragedy.

The Dolores Claiborne cast includes soprano Elizabeth Futral as Vera Donovan, Susannah Biller as Selena St. George, Wayne Tigges as Joe St. George, Greg Fedderly as Detective Thibodeau and Joel Sorensen as Mr. Pease. In his Company debut, conductor George Manahan leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus in this two-act opera sung in English.

Details:  Tickets for Dolores Claiborne range from $23 to $385 and may be purchased at www.sfopera.com , at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, or by phone at (415) 864-3330. Performances—Sept. 18 (7:30 p.m.), Sept. 22 (2 p.m.), Sept. 25 (7:30 p.m.), Sept. 28 (8 p.m.), Oct. 1 (8 p.m.) and Oct. 4 (8 p.m.). Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance for $10 each, cash only. Casting, programs, schedules and ticket prices are subject to change. For further information about Dolores Claiborne and San Francisco Opera’s 2013-14 Season visit www.sfopera.com.

Free Pre-Opera Talks:  Music Educator John Churchill converses with Dolores Claiborne’s Composer Tobias Picker and Librettist J.D. McClatchy before the Sept. 18 performance, and one-on-one with Picker before the performances Sept. 22 through Oct. 4. These 25-minute overviews of the opera are free to ticketholders and take place in the Orchestra section 55 minutes prior to curtain.

August 27, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Naomie Kremer, visual designer "The Secret Garden," photo" courtesy Naomie Kremer

Naomie Kremer, visual designer “The Secret Garden,” photo” courtesy Naomie Kremer

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. 

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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

March 9, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera honors its top scenic artist, Jay Kotcher, with the San Francisco Opera Medal, SFO’s highest award

Jay Kotcher (Left) gets an ovation along with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest distinction, for his work as a scenic designer at SFO for that past 35 years.  SFO’s David Gockley (Right) presented the award Sunday, at “Tosca’s” final performance.  Photo: SFO

Jay Kotcher (Left) gets an ovation along with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the Company’s highest distinction, for his work as a scenic designer at SFO for that past 35 years. SFO’s David Gockley (Right) presented the award Sunday, at “Tosca’s” final performance. Photo: Scott Wall

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)
Birgit Nilsson
1982 – Regina Resnik
1984 – Joan Sutherland
1985 – Thomas Stewart
1987 – Régine Crespin
1988 – Philip Eisenberg (music staff)
1989 – Pilar Lorengar
Bidú Sayao
1990 – Janis Martin
Marilyn Horne
1991 – Licia Albanese
1993 – Walter Mahoney (costume shop manager)
1994 – Zaven Melikian (concertmaster)
Michael Kane (master carpenter)
Plácido Domingo
1995 – Charles Mackerras
1997 – Frederica von Stade
1998 – Irene Dalis
2001 – Lotfi Mansouri
James Morris
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)

December 4, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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