ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Bellini’s glorious “Norma” opens San Francisco Opera’s 92nd season

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.  Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. “Norma” marks Radvanovsky’s second SFO appearance. She debuted as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in 2009, which was also Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s debut as SFO Music Director. Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Friday evening’s “Norma,” San Francisco Opera’s season opener, with soprano Sandra Radvanovsky  as Norma, was an evening of firsts—my first time attending on SFO’s big gala night and my first live performance of  Bellini’s “Norma.”   And, I was lucky enough to score tickets in the 5th row, close enough to see without even my glasses, also a first.   I had prepped most of the week with YouTube recordings of the great Normas—Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland—and was excited to see how Radvanovsky, rumored to stand in their lauded company, would measure up. Norma is a Druid high princess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has secretly been sleeping with the enemy— a Roman procounsel, Pollione, and has two illegitimate children as a result.  Pollione has grown tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend. The opera is considered to be the gold-standard of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.

SFO’s new production is conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn.  Newbury debuted at SFO in 2103 directing the world premiere flop, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (ARThound wrote about the gorgeous Michael Schwab poster that accompanied the opera.)  Billed as being “rooted in the stone age with a contemporary slant,” the production is inspired by contemporary research on the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul.  With the SFO’s always effervescent Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, in the pit, the orchestra delivered a luminous performance with outstanding woodwind solos.

The British music critic, Andrew Porter, who wrote so insightfully for the New Yorker for some thirty years, said the role of Norma: “calls for power; grace in slow cantilena; pure, fluent coloratura; stamina; tones both tender and violent; force and intensity of verbal declamation; and a commanding stage presence.”  Joan Sutherland said of the role “[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine.”

By all measures, Radvanovsky was an astounding Norma.  She has a radiant stage presence and a powerful voice, full of sparkling color.  The minute she began singing, I immediately liked her velvety tone and her innate musicality, especially her ability to convey tenderness and vulnerability.  On Saturday, though, there were some issues with her top range and extended notes.  On a handful of occasions during the three hour marathon, her voice broke or became scratchy.  And, importantly, that forceful gale wind dynamism and power that we associate with the hypnotic Normas, was not there.  From all I’ve read, she’s capable of it and I am sure it will emerge in subsequent performances.  Her “Casta Diva,” the famous first act cavatina, a prayer to the moon goddess, asking for peace, was gorgeous but I had the impression that this finely-tuned Ferrari had one more gear that was not present in this rendition.  She’s so passionate and immersed in the role though and so secure and nimble in her upper middle range that it was pure pleasure to both listen to her and watch her.  I particularly enjoyed her conflicted “Oh non tremare” which completes the first act, where she slams Pollione for his betrayal and exhibited her exceptional range.  The audience went wild over her “Casta Diva” and carried its ebullience to the funeral pyre (which came some three hours later and was a quick unsatisfying flash.)

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Image: Cory Weaver

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Image: Cory Weaver

They were equally enthusiastic over mezzo soprano Jamie Barton’s inspired Adalgisa.  Barton, in her SFO debut, seemed completely at ease in the difficult role and her nimble voice was warm and alluring.  Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has gone on to impress audiences ever since.  She so believably conveyed the dramatic emotional twists that come with loving a man who is also her friend and superior’s lover that my eyes gravitated constantly to her, troubled pure soul that she was.  We’ve all felt the tug of dangerous love and had to make difficult choices between loyalty and following your heart and they played out with compelling drama on Friday.  The shivers in this “Norma” were evoked by the girl power moments—by the lush lyricism of Radvanovsky and Barton’s voices blending in the duos—rather than by Norma’s solos of torment and passion.

Italian tenor Marco Berti delivered a wonderful Pollione and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Oroveso with a power that matched his height.  We’ll be seeing a lot of Van Horn this season as he appears as Count Ribbing (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Alidoro (“La Cenerentola”), Colline (“La Bohème”), and Narbal (“Les Troyens”).

David Korins’ set design, which many found confounding, had a single silvery snow-covered tree trunk elegantly hovering from chains in front of an enormous gray wall as a representation of the Druid forest. Blustery snowfall was visible through the doors evoking a Druid winter wonderland. Towards the end of the opera, a giant Trojan horse-like creature slowly overtook the stage and its crescent-shaped horn descended from the sky until it landed in place on its head. The funeral pyre was a mere flash in the pan. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were unfathomable to me—they appeared to come from several different eras and, with the exception of Radvanovsky’s, were unflattering, uninteresting and unattractive.

After the performance, drowsy couples exited the opera house raving about losing themselves in the music and comparing the great divas who have defined Norma.  There was a warm buzz about Jamie Barton.  SFO’s 92nd season was off to a brilliant start.

Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with one intermission

Details:  There are six remaining performances of “Norma”—Wednesday, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM, Sun, Sept 14 at 2 PM, Friday, Sept 19 at 7:30 PM, Tuesday, Sept 23 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Sept 27 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept 30 at 7:30 PM  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   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

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September 10, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview—The Fillmore Jazz Festival turns 30 this weekend and ARThound chats with its legendary poster artist, Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab created the poster for this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival, his third for the legendary free music festival.  Schwab is an internationally-renowned artist whose latest commission is the logo design for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for 2016.  Image: courtesy Michael Schwab

Michael Schwab created the poster for this year’s Fillmore Jazz Festival, his third for the legendary free music festival. Schwab is an internationally-renowned artist whose latest commission is the logo design for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for 2016. Image: courtesy Michael Schwab

You’ve seen them across San Francisco— striking posters and banners featuring a wavy haired female vocalist in silhouette against a fiery orange background.  Her arms are outstretched and beckoning.  Less obvious is an old-fashioned gray stand microphone that runs up from the floor to her heart, reinforcing a strong vertical.  Behind her, blazoned across the top in a hand-lettered, earthy cream custom font is “Fillmore Jazz.”  The message is simple, transcendent—jazz is here.  The artwork was created by Marin artist Michael Schwab, one of our country’s leading graphic artists.  His dynamic posters, images and logos for the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, America’s Cup, Robert Mondavi, Peet’s Coffee, San Francisco Opera, Muhammad Ali, Nike, and others are icons of our lifestyle.  Schwab’s signature visual groove lends itself perfectly to jazz—large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives, and bold images of archetypal human forms.  He created his first Fillmore Jazz poster in 2006—a standing base player in silhouette against an intense teal.  His 2010 poster of a trumpeter playing up into a blue night sky journeyed right into the roots of jazz.  Both artworks became classics.  I caught up with Michael earlier this week to discuss his third poster and his creative process.

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.

You’ve had a long involvement with this festival.  What is it about jazz lends itself to visual expression? 

Michael Schwab:  I love all kinds of music but jazz in particular inspires me.  I love this project because I’ve had complete freedom do whatever I want, provided it worked on banners.   The base player I created eight years ago was my first Fillmore Jazz poster and I envisioned him as a Ray Brown-like bass player.   If you’re driving down the street, you’ve only got a second or two to get the message, so I wanted to evoke the romance and history of Fillmore Street Jazz.  Four years later, they called me again.  At the time, I was really into Miles Davis and was playing Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, his soundtrack for the Louis Malle film, a lot.  I made a Miles Davis-esque horn player.  I wanted a really cool color so I went with a deep blue that evokes that late evening jazz atmosphere that’s so special to Fillmore Street.  Now, four years later, I realize that I’ve been slowly creating my own jazz band here and it was time for a singer and a woman.

What was your conception for this year’s festival poster?

I was inspired by the great romance of Billie Holiday.  Initially, I had just the singer there in silhouette and then I realized that she needed a microphone, which was the last element I added.  That old-fashioned microphone, which harkens back to the 1940’s and 50’s, really pulled it all together.  It often happens that way—that adding something relatively small becomes very important.

What types of source materials do normally you use?  Also, since this year’s festival is all about women of jazz, who do you listen to for inspiration?  

Michael Schwab:  When appropriate, I work with models—human or otherwise.  I pose and shoot my own photos myself.   In this case, there was a model I’d used a while back and I was able to piece together a few polaroids and work from that.   I wanted the hands to be special and they are actually my wife Kathryn’s hands.  As for female vocalists, it doesn’t get any better for me than early Diana Krall.

And what about your bold colors, how did you decide what to go with?

Michael Schwab:  Not all jazz is blue and cool.  This time, I wanted a color that complimented the other two posters and this bold orange red represents the hot side of jazz.  The flat color tones make the images, which are already abstracted by the silhouette, seem mysterious, almost two-dimensional.  I wanted all three to become a triptych and to work well together.

There is a romantic/nostalgic aspect to these images as well, harkening back to old woodcuts.  I get that sense from their color, strong line and overall energy. 

Michael Schwab:  Several of my heroes were Japanese woodcut and 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 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 challenge myself to get a message across using as few shapes and colors as possible.  I’ll keep working with the colors, combining them and fine-tuning, until they’re right to me.  Then, it’s a matter of getting the image and text to work together effectively.  I really enjoy these jazz posters because I can get very dramatic with them.  Speaking of old-school, I begin each project with a pencil and paper and use a Rapidograph pen and ink to create the line work.  In the end, tough, it becomes a digital file so I’m speaking the same language as everyone else.

What’s the first poster you made and what are a few of your personal favorites?

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 and I’ve had a few home runs. The images for the Golden Gate Parks and Amtrak are favorites. I feel very good about some of the logos—the Robert Mondavi corporate logo, Pebble Beach, David Sedaris. I love all of the Fillmore Jazz and San Francisco Opera posters. Frankly, my current favorite is always the one I’m working on, it becomes my child.

What are you working on now?

Michael Schwab:   I just finished the logo design for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee for 2016.   It’s a gold seal design—a silhouette of a football and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Michael Schwab’s current Fillmore jazz poster can be purchased at the festival. His posters for the 2006 and 2010 festivals are available at www.michaelschwab.com.

The 30th Fillmore Jazz Festival is Saturday, July 5 and Sunday, July 6th, 10AM to 5PM on San Francisco’s historic Fillmore Street between Jackson and Eddy Streets.  This year’s theme is “Celebrating Women of Jazz & Beyond.”  For information about the line-up, which unfolds on three separate stages, click here.  A more expansive version of this interview with Michael Schwab appears on the Fillmore Jazz website.

July 4, 2014 Posted by | Art, Jazz Music | , , , , , , , , , , | 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

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

Marin artist Michael Schwab will sign his “Nixon in China” posters following Sunday’s opera

Marin artist Michael Schwab was commissioned by San Francisco Opera to create the poster to commemorate John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China,” which opens San Francisco Opera’s Summer 2012 Season. Image: courtesy Michael Schwab

I’ll be at tomorrow’s matinee performance of John Adams’ Nixon in China which opened San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season to rave reviews on June 8, 2012.  Afterwards, I’m going to meet acclaimed Marin artist Michael Schwab in the Opera Shop, where he will be signing the striking limited edition poster he created especially for this San Francisco Opera production.  His bold portrait of Richard Nixon in profile, against a vivid red backdrop, is elegant in its simplicity.  While focused on Nixon, it implies much more and the closer you look, the more you see.  The artwork is available as a limited edition poster, reproduced in two sizes, and is also featured on the cover of the Company’s Nixon in China program book.  Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Michael Schwab about his creative process, something like a studio visit by phone, and will be publishing that shortly.

From his studio in Marin, Michael Schwab has established a national reputation as one of America’s leading graphic artists. Dramatic in its simplicity, Schwab’s 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 and Boris Godunov in 1992.

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 .  Following the Sunday, June 17, 2012, 2 p.m. matinee performance of Nixon in China,  Michael Schwab will sign posters of both sizes at the Opera Shop immediately following the performance.

Details: 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 16, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , | 1 Comment