Geneva Anderson digs into art

review: San Francisco Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” at San Francisco Opera through July 6, 2013


Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sparkles as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Angela Brower sparkles as Nicklausse, Hoffmann’s friend, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

At last Wednesday’s opening performance of Offenbach’s classic, The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), at San Francisco Opera, it was Olympia (soprano Hye Jung Lee), the mechanical doll,  who stole the hearts of the audience and mezzo-soprano Angela Brower who triumphed in her remarkable company debut as the Muse/Nicklausse.  Lee seemed to flutter magically across the stage, singing gleefully and hitting incredibly high notes with precision.  For Brower, who sings throughout the entire opera, it was an act of wooing the audience with the sheer beauty of her voice. 

This is French director, Laurent Pelly’s new co-production with Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and L’Opéra National de Lyon which had its premiere in Barcelona earlier this year. The libretto is by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré, based on the integral edition of the opera by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.  The story takes real life German poet E.T.A. Hoffmann and places him in three stories of failed love.  Singing the title role is tenor Matthew Polenzani, whom many will recognize from his lead role in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love, the delightful comic opera that opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2012 season and was transmitted to millions via “Live in HD.”   He was joined by the French soprano Natalie Dessay, as Antionia; Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Olympia; mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts as Giuletta in her company debut, and American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend Nicklausse. 

The opera’s staging, with set designs by Chantal Thomas, based on the moody work of the Belgian symbolist painter Léon Spilliaert (1881-1946) was exquisite in its simplicity.  Massive blue walls framed the action and then angularly closed in or moved out, just like the cropping tool in Photoshop, resulting in refreshing new orientations.  Low lighting bathed the set, evoking a dream-like space which lent itself to the dark tone of the story.  Since 1988, Thomas has collaborated with Pelly in roughly 40 productions and two seem to be in harmony.  Her ingenious Act II staging for Olympia the mechanical doll, which employed wonderfully zany machinery to spirit the doll across the stage, brought down the house.

Tenor Mathew Polenzani immediately caught my attention in the Prologue with his Il ètait une fois à la cour d’Eisenach, Hoffmann’s ballad about the dwarf Kleinzach, which sets the stage for his mind to wonder back to beautiful women and his love life.  Throughout the evening he was in top form with lively and powerful singing but less commendable acting—on many occasions, it was hard to actually feel the love whose loss he was lamenting.

The surprise stand-out of the evening was American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower in her company debut as the Muse, disguised as Hoffmann’s dear friend and constant companion Nicklausse.  In a move that is truly operatic, Bower stepped in rather later to replace Alice Coote in the production.  She nailed it from the moment she stepped on stage, showing a real command of the role’s vocal and dramatic requirements and trumping most of the other better-known singers with her powerful voice, capable of such sweet and tender emotion.    Her Act I aria Une poupèe aux yeux d’èmail was lush and energetic.  Sung in the eccentric scientist Spalanzani’s parlor room, it warns Hoffman of a mechanical doll that looked human but fell in love with a copper bird.  Brower comes to San Francisco fresh from her success in the role last season at the Bayerische Staastoper opposite Diana Damrau and Rolando Villazón— a performance that was broadcast on European television and captured for DVD.  She is an ensemble member of the Bayerische Staatsoper.   She was also quite lovely in her Act III duet with mezzo Irene Roberts, Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amou.

If you saw nothing but Act I, Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee’s Olympia, the mechanical doll, it would have been worth the price of admission.  Lee, a Merola Program alumna, dazzled SF Opera audiences last summer with her company debut performance as Madame Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China.  As Olympia, she outdid herself.   Dressed in a silver gown, she fluttered around the stage, legless, leaving the audience to wonder how  it was happening.   She then took to the floor.  Wearing hidden inline skates, she glided all around the stage, literally running circles around Hoffmann, all while hitting notes in the stratospheric range of E and F with precision.  The audience gave her, and the ingenious device which served as her chariot, a well-deserved long ovation with several whoops and whistles.

Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as the mechanical doll, Olympia, and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as the mechanical doll, Olympia, and tenor Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

It’s been six years since Natalie Dessay’s San Francisco Opera debut, and sole Bay Area appearance, in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor.  She was enchanting in Wednesday’s Act II as “Antonia,” and despite a noticeable decline in her upper register; she was lovely in her mid-range throughout the entire performance.  Offenbach intended that the four soprano roles be played by the same singer, for Olympia, Giulietta and Antonia are three facets of Stella, Hoffmann’s unattainable love.  Dessay was originally scheduled to sing all three, a feat that only a few—like Beverly Sills and Edita Gruberoa—had pulled off in the past.  Apparently, she pulled back after re-evaluating where her voice stands.  She was wonderful in C’est une chanson d’amour, her love duet with Hoffmann.  Its drama was heightened by the wizardry of the staging which transformed yet again, pulling them apart from each other into separate balconies where they sang longingly to each other.

There’s just one Dessay.  Anyone familiar with her performances can’t help but love the verve and mettle this petite French dynamo brings to any role, many of which have been made accessible through the Met’s “Live in HD” telecasts.  A special turn of her head, the flash of her eyes, a quick dash—I was living for identifiable “Dessay moves” and there were many.   Her trio with her mother’s ghost (Margaret Mezzacappa) and Dr. Miracle (Christian Van Horn) was also lovely vocally but the creepy projected image of the ghost cast such a dark pallor over the idea of a benevolent spirit, that it was hard to feel the love connection between Antonia and her late mother.  Copyright law prohibits a reproduction of the program cover which features Spilliaert’s intensely dark and oppressive self-portrait from 1907-8 where he seems to be transitioning into an angel of death.  The heavy milieu of this work seemed to fuel this very disturbing and macabre video projection.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as his frail love Antonia, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.”  Photo  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as his frail love Antonia, in SF Opera’s “The Tales of Hoffmann.” Photo ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Tenor Steven Cole imbued his four servant roles (Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio) with distinct personality as did bass-baritone Christian Van Horne, who sang his villainous roles (Lindorf, Coppélius, Miracle, and Dapertutto) with aplomb, especially Dapertutto’s difficult Act III Scintille, diamant.  As Stella, Hoffmann’s Milanese love interest, Adler Fellow Jacqueline Piccolino ended the long evening with a burst of bright energy.

Patrick Fournillier’s conducting was impressive throughout.  He kept the orchestra under rein while evoking a beautiful and vibrant sound.

Details:  The Tales of Hoffmann runs through July 6, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House. 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.

Remaining Performances: The eight remaining performances of The Tales of Hoffmann are June 11 (8 p.m.); June 14 (8 p.m.); June 20 (7:30 p.m.); June 23 (2 p.m.); June 27 (7:30 p.m.); June 30 (2 p.m.); July 3 (7:30 p.m.); and July 6 (8 p.m.)  Click here to see cast scheduling information.  Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

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 a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to 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 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)


Hoffman—Matthew Polenzani

Antonia—Natalie Dessay

Olympia—Hye Jung Lee

Giuletta—Irene Roberts

Stella—Jacqueline Piccolino

Nicklausse, The Muse—Angela Bower

Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf—Christian Van Horn

Frantz, Andres, Cohenille, Pittichinaccio—Steven Cole

Antonia’s Mother—Margaret Mezzacappa

Spalanzani—Thomas Glenn

Crespel—James Creswell

Nathanael—Matthew Grills

Hermann—Joo Won Kang

Schemil, Luther—Hadleigh Adams

Creative Team:

Conductor—Patrick Fournillier

Director—Laurent Pelly

Set Designer—Chantal Thomas

Lighting Designer—Joël Adam

Associate Director—Christian Räth

New libretto version/ dramaturg—Agathe Mélinand

Chorus Director—Ian Robertson


June 11, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Daughter of the Red Tzar,” a new chamber opera exploring Churchill and Stalin’s relationship through the eyes of Stalin’s teenaged daughter—starring Sebastopol Tenor John Duykers as Winston Churchill—has its world premiere tonight at San Francisco’s Thick House

Sebastopol tenor John Duykers is Winston Churchill and baritone Scott Graff is Stalin in the world premiere of Lisa Scola Prosek’s new opera “Daughter of the Red Tzar,” at Thick House is San Francisco through September 2, 2012. Photo: Natalie S. Moran

As Winston Churchill  prepared to meet Stalin face to face for the first time in the summer of 1942, he knew that their encounter would be tense.  Stalin was furious with the Western Allies.  He believed that they were doing little to help the Soviets, who faced the steady advance of Hitler’s army across the Russian steppes towards the oil rich Caucasus.  And although Churchill loathed the Communist state, and was aware of its mass murder, slave camps and starvation, he needed the tyrannical Stalin to hold off the Germans so that England would survive the war.  Probably as an icebreaker, Stalin’s 16-year-old daughter Svetlana, nicknamed “little sparrow,” was present for her father’s historic all-night meeting with Churchill where these two iconic leaders would cut the deal that sealed the fate of the world.   Set against this historic backdrop, another intrigue was unfolding—Svetlana Stalin had fallen in love that same summer with an older married man, Alexei Kapler, a dashing intellectual and screenwriter, whom her father despised.

Stalin promptly exiled Svetlana’s beloved Kapler to Siberia for 10 years, accuisn ghim of being a German spy, and Svetlana’s life took on a trajectory that was nothing short of operatic.  She suffered two failed marriages in Russia and then, when Satlin died in 1952, she lost her wealth and status.  She married a third time and defected to the West in 1967  where she survived an assassination plot, wrote a best-selling novel and became a powerful American propaganda tool in the Cold War, and married the noted American architect William Wesley Peters with whom she had a daughter.  She split from Peters and moved back to Moscow briefly and then on to Soviet Georgia and then back to the States where she lived in relative obscurity as Lana Peters and died from Colon cancer in a sleepy rest home in Wisconsin, in November 2011, at age 85.

Marin composer Lisa Scola-Prosek first envisioned Svetlana’s story as an opera while reading Churchill’s and Svetlana’s memoirs and decided to frame the story around the historic Stalin-Churchill meeting.  Working with director, Missy Weaver, the two drew from historical sources to fashion a libretto for “Daughter of the Red Tzar,” that is poetic, surreal and absurdly comic.  San Francisco’s Thick House Theater, in the Portreo District, will provide an intimate setting for this world premiere love story set amidst paranoid secrecy and wartime intrigue.

Acclaimed Sebastopol tenor John Duykers stars as Winston Churchill and baritone Scott Graff tackles the role Stalin.  Mezzo-soprano Crystal Phillippi is Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, and bass-baritone Philip Skinner, a former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow, plays Kapler, her married older lover.  Mezzo-soprano Valentina Osinskiportrays Nadya, the ghost of Svetlana’s dead mother, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who was found dead in her bed with a revolver in her hand.  Martha Stoddard conducts and Missy Weaver directs.

The modern yet lyrical musical score draws upon the rich cultures of Georgia, Britain and Russia, with folk classics from the Soviet era. A chamber ensemble features violin, cello, mandolin, accordion, piano and percussion.

“I have had a great time creating this role,” said John Duykers.  “It is well written by Lisa Scola Prosek, and exciting to perform with our excellent cast.  The research for this piece has been very eye-opening, learning more about what really happened during the second World War, and gaining a deeper understanding of Churchill and Stalin.  This is a very stimulating project”.

Dukers is well known for his role as Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in the 1987 world premiere of John Adam’s opera “Nixon in China.”  He also created and sang in the opera theatre production “Caliban Dreams,” which had a run at the El Cerrito Theatre for the Performing Arts and was performed twice last August at Sonoma State University’s Person Theatre (Read ARThound’s 8.10.2011 coverage of Duyker’s “Caliban Dreams” here.)  Duykers is respected for his fine acting ability.  When I interviewed him for “Caliban Dreams,” in August 2011, he spoke of opera as an art form in transition and referred to his production as opera theatre rather than traditional opera.  “It’s not about people standing around singing arias and more about theatre.”

Not only is Duykers a principal singer in the opera, he’s also a co-director, along with his wife producer/dramaturg, Missy Weaver, of First Look Sonoma, one of the opera’s presenting organizations.  First Look Sonoma is a new entertainment company devoted to developing new vocal works, especially by emerging composers.

Tiburon-based composer/writer Lisa Scola Prosek talks about the inspiration for her opera, “Daughter Of The Red Tzar,” which has its world premiere tonight in San Francisco.

Details:  “Daughter of the Red Tzar” has its world premiere, Friday, August 24, 2012 at 8 p.m. followed by five repeat performances: Saturday, August 25; Sunday, August 26; Friday, August 31; Saturday, September 1; and Sunday, September 2, 2012—all at 8 p.m.  Thick House Theatre is located at 1695 18th Street (between Carolina and Arkansas Streets) in San Francisco. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at For more information, check

August 24, 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 .  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: 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 .  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:
or call (415) 864-3330.

June 16, 2012 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , | 1 Comment