ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

MTT conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony, mezzo Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus

Grammy winning mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke guest solos with MTT and San Francisco Symphony this week in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.  Cooke appeared this summer at San Francisco Opera in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Seen worldwide as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met Opera and Grammy® Award-winning DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Cooke is renowned for her command of Romantic and Contemporary repertoire.  Photo: Dario Acosta

Grammy winning mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke guest solos with MTT and San Francisco Symphony this week in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Cooke appeared this summer at San Francisco Opera in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Seen worldwide as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met Opera and Grammy® Award-winning DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Cooke is renowned for her command of Romantic and Contemporary repertoire. Photo: Dario Acosta

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in D Minor, the most expansive of his ten symphonies, is a cosmological tour de force.  Full of magic and mystery, it’s the musical journey of Nature coming to life, at first through flowers and animals and then on up to man, the angels and the love of God.  This Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus in this rarely performed epic—in six movements grouped into two parts—which clocks in at roughly 90 minutes, earning it the distinction of the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.   It almost goes without saying that MTT has sealed his reputation on Mahler.  In 2001, SFS and MTT launched the Mahler Project and recorded the balance of Mahler’s major works for voices, chorus and orchestra picking up four Grammys in the process.  The Symphony No. 3 and Kindertotenlieder recording won the 2004 Grammy for Best Classical Album.  Of course, nothing compares to the magic of a live MTT/SFS Mahler performance.  Whether it’s your first or 50th time, each performance reflects a constantly evolving understanding of the composer’s genius and complexities.

Michael Tilson Thomas with the bust of Gustav Mahler at the Weiner Staatsoper (Vienna Opera House) during the filming of the acclaimed "Keeping Score" series in which MTT mapped the actual geography of Mahler’s life. Photo: Courtesy SFS

Michael Tilson Thomas with the bust of Gustav Mahler at the Weiner Staatsoper (Vienna Opera House) during the filming of the acclaimed “Keeping Score” series in which MTT mapped the actual geography of Mahler’s life. Photo: Courtesy SFS

At Monday’s press conference announcing the 2014-15 season, Tilson Thomas, could not recall how many times SFS has played the work during his 19 year tenure as Music Director (3 times—1997, 2002 and 2011) but he did speak about the joys of revisiting Mahler— “I think of these pieces, these big symphonies, like the Mahler, are like National Parks that we love and we come back to.  We all know the map of the park.  I have the complete map and others on stage have the intricate trail maps of one path or another.  But no matter how much you look at the map of that, when you are actually on the trail, it’s a different thing every time—the nature and character of the piece will vary according to where you are in your life and what you’ve experienced and with whom you are on the trail.  Sometimes, you’ll stop and smell the mimosas and other times, you’ll press ahead to get to the view of the glacier.”

The San Francisco Girls Chorus includes 400 singers from 45 Bay Area cities.  In 2008-2009, the Chorus sang at the swearing in of President Barak Obama and can also be heard of several SFS recordings, including the Grammy winning Mahler Symphony No. 3.  Photo:  SFS

The San Francisco Girls Chorus includes 400 singers from 45 Bay Area cities. In 2008-2009, the Chorus sang at the swearing in of President Barak Obama and can also be heard of several SFS recordings, including the Grammy winning Mahler Symphony No. 3. Photo: SFS

Mahler wrote his Third Symphony between 1893 and 96, when he was in his mid-thirties.  When the German composer and conductor Bruno Walter, visited Mahler at his composing hut in Steinbach am Attersee, Austria (some twenty miles east of Salzburg), he wrote in his memoirs that he looked up at the sheer cliffs of the colossal Höllengebirge and Mahler told him “No need to look up there any more—that’s all been used up and set to music by me.”  This immense rockface inspired the introductory theme of the first movement—a grand unison chant for eight horns evoking the primitive forces of nature.  A offstage horn, also figures prominently in the third movement.  Heard floating in the distance, a melancholy haunting solo imitating an old posthorn or valveless coach horn creates one of Mahler’s soulfully nostalgic moments.

Grammy winner, mezzo Sasha Cooke, was radiant as Mary last summer in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera.   In the summer of 2013, she performed Mahler’s Second Symphony with MTT and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Her expressive and rich voice should be a good match for the dark fourth movement, a Nietzsche text that is sung against heavy strings.  By contrast, the fifth movement is light and will feature the voice of angels—women of the SFS Chorus in three part chorus, joined later by the San Francisco Girls Chorus who enter creating lovely bell like noises and join in the exhortation “Liebe nur Gott”(“Only love God”).   The symphony ends with an adagio, softly walking the edge of the sound and silence.

Cellist Margaret Tait joined SFS in 1974 and is one of the orchestra’s most tenured musicians.  When she plays Mahler’s No. 3, she pulls out her personal card which has markings and memories from previous performances and then “gets down to teaching her fingers how to do that.”  Tate especially likes the middle sections of No. 3 which are “light and very songful.”  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cellist Margaret Tait joined SFS in 1974 and is one of the orchestra’s most tenured musicians. When she plays Mahler’s No. 3, she pulls out her music which has markings and memories from previous performances and then “gets down to reviewing the part and honing the upcoming performance.” Tait especially likes the middle sections of No. 3 which are “light and very songful.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cellist Margaret Tait (Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair) has been with SFS since 1974 and currently heads the SFS Players Committee.  At Monday’s press conference, she said.  “We in the orchestra have a deep pool of shared experience, of performing this repertoire on world stages.  When we come to a piece again like the Mahler’s Third Symphony, we can enter the performance with a feeling of security, of asking ‘What can we bring to the work right now that is new and fresh?’  We rely on our deep knowledge of the piece and our understanding of it over years.  This is the only time I’ve had a relationship with a music director that has lasted 20 years.  The orchestra and MTT have been through a lot together and it’s been a wonderful journey for the orchestra. There’s a sense that what we do is deeply American and very adventuresome. ”

Details: “MTT Conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony” is Thursday (Feb 27) at 8PM; Saturday (March 1) at 8 PM and Sunday (March 2) at 2 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  Tickets: $30 to $162; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000.  For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— 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)

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February 25, 2014 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes a really effective poster?  And, why are so many posters today so bad?

Michael Schwab:   Simplicity.  There’s way too much visual noise out there.  Graphic messages are conveyed much more effectively when the design is simple, bold and efficient.

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

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

What type of source materials do you normally use? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 1, 2013 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Marin artist Michael Schwab created a special “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” artwork for composer-librettist Mark Adamo—to be presented at the Tuesday, June 25th, performance at San Francisco Opera

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

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

Immediately following the Tuesday, June 25th performance of San Francisco Opera’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, San Francisco Opera General Director David Glockley will present composer-librettist Mark Adamo with a special commemorative artwork by Marin artist Michael Schwab.  Commissioned by SF Opera, Adamo’s opera had its world premiere at War Memorial Opera House last Wednesday.  And while the opera may have opened to mixed reviews, Schwab’s commemorative poster, featuring a bold image of Mary Magdalene with a golden halo against a warm brown background, is a huge hit.  The artwork is available as a limited edition poster, reproduced in two sizes, and is also featured on the cover of the Company’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene program book.  Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Michael Schwab about his creative process and will be publishing that shortly.

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

Michael Schwab “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” (2013) commissioned by San Francisco Opera as a special gift to composer-librettist Mark Adamo.  Image courtesy: Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” (2013). Image courtesy: Michael Schwab

Schwab’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene poster is printed on archival fine art paper and is available as an 16″x24″ unsigned poster OR 16″x24″ signed and framed ($250) OR in size 24” x 36” signed, unframed ($150) or 24” x 36” framed, unsigned ($250) OR collector’s poster 24” x 36” signed and framed ($395)—all through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House or online here.

Following the Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 8 p.m. performance of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mark Adamo will be presented with a special version of the poster with a red background.

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

June 24, 2013 Posted by | Art, 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