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Geneva Anderson digs into art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Moby Dick” fans line-up for Jake Heggie and Patrick Summers after Sunday’s “Flying Dutchman” at San Francisco Opera

Carol Upshaw of Walnut Creek was first in line to get her "Moby Dick" autographed  by Jake Heggie and Parick Summers at War Memorial Opera House yesterday.  "Jake's a friend and a great singer."

Carol Upshaw of Walnut Creek was first in line to get her “Moby Dick” autographed by Jake Heggie and Parick Summers at War Memorial Opera House yesterday. “Jake’s a great singer.”

It was an oceanic Sunday at War Memorial Opera House.  Immediately following the matinee of Richard Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” at San Francisco Opera—the story of a cursed ship’s captain, which featured immense video projections of a raging sea—many members of the audience lined up outside the main lobby to meet composer Jake Heggie and Maestro Patrick Summers, who were signing San Francisco Opera’s new Moby-Dick DVD.  Heggie was in high spirits, chatting up fans, and so was Summers, having just conducted a mesmerizing Dutchman—which clocked in at 2 hours and 50 minutes, short for Wagner.

Recorded in October 2012 in San Francisco, Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer’s universally praised Moby-Dick is an adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic novel set for the lyric stage. The opera earned rave reviews at SFO in 2012 and features tenor Jay Hunter Morris in the role of Captain Ahab, Stephen Costello as Greenhorn, Morgan Smith as Starbuck, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg and Talise Trevigne as Pip.  Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.  The SFO presentation reunited Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer with the original creative team of director Leonard Foglia, set designer Robert Brill, costume designer Jane Greenwood, video projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy and choreographer Keturah StickannMoby-Dick was co-commissioned by SFO in partnership with the Dallas Opera, San Diego Opera, Calgary Opera and the State Opera of South Australia.  The opera premiered to accolades at the Dallas Opera’s Winspear Opera House in April 2010 and then moved to San Diego before opening at SFO in 2012.

Six Recordings Planned: On October 29th, SFO also released a DVD-Blu-Ray of the Company’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia featuring Renée Fleming (DVD (RRP $24.99) and Blu-ray Ray (RRP $39.99)).  Recorded live in high-definition at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, the DVD/Blu-ray recordings feature special bonus material including interviews with cast members, program notes, plot synopses and production photographs.  Moby-Dick and Lucrezia Borgia represent the first of six operas to be released by San Francisco Opera in this new collaboration with EuroArts, with an additional four operas expected to be announced in 2014.

Moby Dick and Lucrezia Borgia are now available for purchase directly from SFO’s Opera Shop, and they can be also mailed to you.  Click here for more information about purchasing from SFO.

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November 4, 2013 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SF Opera’s Lyrical Lohengrin—singers, chorus and orchestra add up to music for the ages…meet Camilla Nylund this Sunday when she signs cds

Now in his 4th season with San Francisco Opera, Music Director Nicola Luisotti has proven many times over that when a production is theatrically flat, he will awaken it musically.  And that he did on Saturday, dazzling again, as he energetically tackled Wagner for the first time ever in San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, which runs through Friday, November 9, 2012.  At Saturday’s premiere performance, the lush music coming from Luisotti’s orchestra directed the singers and Ian Robertson’s marvelous opera chorus as they filled the opera house with one of the most musically memorable Lohengrins ever.

But as divine as the music was, British theatre and opera director Daniel Slater’s production itself was disappointing.  Abandoning Wagner’s 10th century Belgium setting and, instead, taking  inspiration from the military and political contexts surrounding the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Slater’s update could have been interesting but failed to fly.  When combined with Robert Innes Hopkins’ dull sets and bland costumes, the result was a visually drab experience that made me wonder if this was the same opera company that had so delighted us this summer with its astoundingly visual Magic Flute, brought to life by artist Jun Kaneko.  With the advent of high-definition video via satellite (HD simulcast), which has become increasingly popular since its introduction in 2006, opera has reached a turning point.  Production values need to be as high as musical values, otherwise the result is major attrition from live local performances to the $23 (cheaper) and sometimes immensely more interesting HD broadcast offerings available at the local movie theatres.

Why see this production then?  Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is one reason.  The entire opera is anchored by his superb and consistently lyrical singing in the role of Lohengrin, the mysterious Knight of the Grail, who appears to defend the princess Elsa who has been accused wrongly of the murder of her brother.  Jovanovich, who delivered a vibrant Siegmund in SFO’s 2011 production of Die Walküre, was again mesmerizing and unfaltering all night long in the vocally grueling role.  While his most notable arias are in Act III— “In fernem Land” and Mein lieber Schwan—his singing throughout was big and yet expressively romantic.  His voice blended beautifully with Finnish soprano, Camilla Nylund, his love interest.  From the moment Jovanovich/Lohengrin came on stage to bid the swan farewell, there was no question that Elsa would agree to marry him and to never ask his name or history.  This tall and strapping stranger was in all ways heroic and the roaring ovation he received from the audience was well-deserved.

In her San Francisco Opera debut, the Finnish soprano, Camilla Nylund, captured the maiden Elsa’s dreamy nature and sung beautifully.  She’s a truly tragic heroine whose idealistic faith and trust are shattered.  She enters in Act I wrongfully accused of murder and spends most of Acts II and III in anxiety, as she is humiliated on her way to the altar.  She then breaks her martial vow and later collapses.  A particularly juicy moment came when Nylund unleashed her considerable vocal reserve on Petra’s Lang’s cunning, showing that she was not all milk toast.  Her voice blended well with Jovanovich, particularly in their Act III duet ‘Das süsse Lied verhallt’ (Love duet).

Mezzo Soprano Petra Lang, who made quite an impression in her 2007 SF Opera debut as the sizzling Venus in Tannhäuser, again brought a dramatic flair to her role that was on par with excellent singing.   As Ortrud, the old-world sorceress who really stirs the drama, Lang seemed to delight in vexing the vulnerable Elsa.  Dressed in a business suit that evoked the bright blue of the old two-stroke East German Trabbi (Trabant), synonymous with the communist bloc, the fiery redhead seemed completely at home in the role, despite the awful costume.  Lang has sung Ortrud in Berlin, Budapest, Bucharest, Vienna, Geneva, London and Edinburgh and will reprise the role later this season at the Bayreuth Festival.  On Saturday’s opening performance, her voice was bursting with energy and her performance far more compelling than Nylund’s.

German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski was outstanding as Ortrud’s husband Friedrch von Telramund, who is duped into wrongly charging Elsa but takes great twisted pleasure in doing so.  Grochowski had his SF Opera debut in November 2010 beside the indefatigable Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as Jaroslav Prus in The Makropulos Case.

While there’s little point in dwelling on the mundane, the sets by Robert Innes Hopkins did nothing for the opera. The beginning action seemed to occur in a large drab room accentuated by shelves scantily filled with books.  The wedding suite was presented as a diorama and looked like a cheap hotel room.  Green garlands covered the wall seams and an oddly out-of- place colonial style lamp hung from the ceiling.

The costumes were worse.  The men of Brabant were in tan military duds and the women recalled droll DDR fashion.  Camilla Nylund, a large woman to begin with, spent most of the evening dressed in long storybook princess style flowing gowns that tended to emphasize her size.
Lohengrin is sung in German with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 4 hours, 20 minutes including two intermissions

Details: Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin is at War Memorial Opera House through Friday, November 9, 2012.   Remaining Performances: 10/28 (1p.m.), 10/31(7 p.m.), 11/3 (7 p.m.), 11/6 (7 p.m.) 11/9 (7 p.m.) Tickets: : $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or online at www.sfopera.com.  Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.

War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

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 near the opera house are the Performing Arts Garage and Civic Center Garage (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

October 26, 2012 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

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

Well before John Adams’ opera Nixon in China opened San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season, a striking poster featuring Richard Nixon’s silhouette in profile set the mood across the Bay Area.  That artwork was created by Marin artist Michael Schwab, one of our country’s leading graphic artists, whose iconic posters, images and logos for the Golden Gate National Parks, Major League Baseball, Robert Mondavi, Peet’s Coffee, Muhammad Ali, Nike, and others dynamically capture our lifestyle.  With his signature use of large, flat areas of color, dramatic perspectives, and bold, graphic images of archetypal human forms, Schwab’s work also lends itself perfectly to opera.  His Nixon in China poster was especially commissioned by San Francisco Opera to celebrate the first time San Francisco Opera is presenting the work, the 25th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, and the 40th anniversary of the historic trip that President Nixon made to Communist China in 1972.  The artwork, which also graces the opera’s program cover and appears as a huge three-sheet outside War Memorial Opera House, completely transcends Nixon’s dubious post-China legacy and is destined to become a classic.

Schwab’s sense of color is integral to his memorable compositions.  Nixon’s huge silhouette is executed in a subdued gray-red-mauve, an unusual color, that is set against a vivid orange-red background, evoking the red field of the Chinese flag.  As Nixon hovers in the background, the viewer’s eye is directed to the expectant figure in a black suit at the bottom, on stage, with outstretched arms, beckoning.  Behind him, in a darker hue of that unique gray-red-mauve, there’s a crowd of onlookers, in silhouette, that form a strong horizontal. Together, they evoke a poignant scene in the opera’s last act.  Blazoned across the top in a custom typeface, in a bright yellow gold that recalls the stars of the Chinese flag, is “John Adams Alice Goldman Nixon in China,” set against a black backdrop.  And on the bottom, in gray text, surrounded by black, is “San Francisco Opera June July 2012.”  In terms of mood, the poster has an ominous feel and lends itself to endless reflection on the fascinating personalities associated with this historic trip, primarily Nixon, but also Kissinger, Chairman Mao, Pat Nixon, and Chaing Ch’ing (Madame Mao) and their aspirations as individuals and as public figures.

Twenty years ago, in 1992, San Francisco Opera commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Mussorgsky’s great Russian opera, Boris Godunov, and last year, after interviewing several artists, SF Opera again commissioned Schwab to create a poster to commemorate Francesca Zambello’s new production of Richard Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).  And did he deliver!  His poster features a striking image of the heroic Brünnhilde, silhouetted against a fiery orange background evocative of the final immolation scene in Götterdämmerung, the cycle’s concluding opera.

“People came to the Ring from the four corners of the globe,” said Jon Finck, SF Opera’s Director of Communications and Public Affairs. “They bought that poster and took it home and it serves as reminder of that extraordinary experience they had here in San Francisco.  We’re looking at these posters as artworks, not advertising and we don’t include a lot of wording, we don’t need that.  Michael’s work has a lot of energy in it and it marks with a punch, evoking the drama and splendor of our operas.  There’s just no second guessing that this is Michael Schwab’s work.  His palette is bold and the typography is exciting and is a combination of a contemporary look that also harkens back to a more classic look from the 1930’s and 40’s, so it’s very classic but contemporary.”

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

San Francisco Opera has also commissioned Schwab to create three additional posters, so that there will be a set of five posters, not counting the Boris Godunov poster, that will mark the final five years of David Gockley’s tenure as General Director of San Francisco Opera.  In addition to The Ring (2011) and Nixon in China (2012), Schwab will create a poster for Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene that has its world premiere at SF Opera next summer and two additional, yet to be named, commissions.  “There will be not only local but national and international attention on Adamo’s work,” said Jon Finck.   “It will be a very daring and provocative opera given the libretto which suggests a particular relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus.  This will be powerful on stage and David Gockley felt that we needed to have a powerful counterpart in terms of the image and Michael’s our guy, no question.”

After last Sunday’s riveting performance of Nixon in China at the War Memorial Opera House, I caught up with Michael Schwab in the Opera Shop, where he was busy greeting audience members and signing the poster he created to commemorate San Francisco Opera’s production.   Earlier in the week, I had conducted a phone interview with him about his artwork for San Francisco Opera.  Below is our conversation—

Are posters really influential in people’s decision to go to an event?

Michael Schwab:   Absolutely.  A poster is like a label on a bottle of wine―it’s visually representing what’s inside.  There’s creativity in that bottle – and the label, like the poster for the opera, should evoke the personality of the wine.  It’s an integral part of the opera.  It’s exciting to arrive dressed for the evening and walk up the steps of the War Memorial Opera House.   The 3-sheet poster out in front and the program that you are handed are the first creative impressions of the evening and should reflect the excitement, thrill and integrity of the opera.

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

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

What was your conception for the Nixon in China poster and how did you approach a design project like this?

Michael Schwab:   I started out attempting to portray the two men, Mao and Nixon, shaking hands in that historic moment.  I eventually realized that the image of Nixon alone was more intriguing. It was more powerful to have the big Nixon head as opposed to two men with more detail, shaking hands.  It was a more effective composition.  More dynamic.

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

My designs work better when they are very singular in subject matter.  People typically want to say too many things with one design – rarely the best strategy. You’ve only got one or two seconds to earn someone’s attention.  For me, less is more.

Because this was a poster for opera, was there anything inherently different about it?

Michael Schwab:   As a graphic artist, I have much more freedom with these projects.  The artwork should be lyrical and unique.  It’s like an album cover—it’s part of the event.  If I wasn’t a graphic designer, working on posters and logos, I would probably be involved in theatre somehow.  Part of the success of my work is drama – there’s some theatre in my artwork.  At least, I hope so.

Did you listen to the opera or music from Nixon in China while working on the poster?

Michael Schwab:   Yes, and it is a great opera.  I was able to watch the video of the Vancouver Opera (VO) production (March, 2010) whose physical sets, scenery and costumes are the ones that San Francisco Opera is using in its production.  I usually listen to music in the studio.  Typically jazz.

What types of source materials do normally you use?

Michael Schwab:  When appropriate, I work with models—human or otherwise.  I pose and shoot my own photos myself.   For Nixon, of course, there was no model, so I had to rely on historic photographs.

How much of your work is done on a computer and how has that changed over time?  Do you start with freehand drawing?

Michael Schwab:  When computers first came out, most of my illustrator and designer pals were going over to the digital world.  I knew that I really enjoyed working at the drawing table – not a keyboard.  I decided to go in the opposite direction and keep my work very hand-drawn, with obvious craftsmanship.  And I still work at a drawing table, with pencil and paper, and then pen and ink.  I first draw rough pencil sketches, then create technical pen and ink drawings that eventually get digitally scanned.  We then work with Adobe Illustrator fine tuning the colors and shapes precisely.

How did you settle on the colors? 

Michael Schwab:  For the Nixon project, I knew up front that my poster was going to be a very strong red with golden yellow evoking the Chinese flag.

After you’ve nailed the image you’ll use, how do you decide on a font and it’s size and positioning?

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

Michael Schwab:   Many times, I use my own font, “Schwab Poster,” created back in the ‘90’s.  I work with that typeface a lot.  It’s not commercially available but I have it here in the studio.  I used that for the National Parks series.  For the Nixon poster, I used an old wood block font because it just felt right.  We altered several of the letters to make it just right.

In your creative process, do you work up several different images, or, focus on just one?

Michael Schwab:   I usually work up two or three ideas for myself and typically show those to the client.  With Nixon in China, I shared 3 or 4 sketches with Jon Finck and David Gockley and told them why I thought the singular image worked best and they agreed.

What is your lead time in developing a poster like this?

Michael Schwab:   Is this case, I had a month or two, so it wasn’t too bad.  Sometimes deadlines are two weeks and sometimes two years.  There are no rules.

When I see some of your images, the word ‘bold’ comes to mind, but there is also a romantic/nostalgic aspect as well, harkening back to old woodcuts.  I get that sense from  the color, strong line and the overall energy in a lot of your works.

Michael Schwab:  My heroes were always the old European poster artists—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and A.M. Cassandre, from France, and Ludwig Holwein, from Germany, and the Beggarstaff Brothers from England.  There’s lots of graphic romance and drama in those images.  I also have a deep respect for old Japanese woodcuts.

What’s the first poster you made?

Michael Schwab:   My first professional poster was for Levi’s, back in 1975, for creative director, Chris Blum.   I’ve been a graphic artist now for almost 40 years.   My first opera poster was for San Francisco Opera’s Boris Godunov in 1992.   Talk about bold and simple—that was extremely bold and simple.

Yes, not much more than a silhouette but it really communicated the pagentry of that opera.

Michael Schwab:   Next time you look at it, tell me if you’re in the audience looking at him from the audience or if you feel like you’re on the stage behind him.   That was a silk-screen poster with gold metallic ink border, which was probably toxic as hell…but it was gorgeous.  A couple of decades went by and here I am, at the opera again and thoroughly enjoying it.

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

 Is silk-screen still used?

Michael Schwab:   Yes, but it’s so much easier and cleaner to create a digital print.  They can really match colors beautifully on archival paper.  However, I still love serigraphs (silkscreen prints).  They are like paint on the paper.

Do you do your own print work as well or do you work with a printer?

Michael Schwab:   I work with several printers, but for the opera posters, I work with David Coyle at ArtBrokers Inc. in Sausalito.  He is a master printer and publishes many artists and photographers.   He and his staff did a stunning job.

Your website has a fabulous gallery of work, which are your favorites and why?

Michael Schwab:   It’s kind of like asking which children I like the best. I’ve had a few home runs, not everything works incredibly well, but the images for the Golden Gate Parks are a favorite.  I’m also proud of the work I’ve created for Amtrak over the past several years.  Several individual logos I feel very good about—the Robert Mondavi corporate logo,  Pebble Beach,  David Sedaris, to name a few.  And the opera posters—Nixon is my third.  I have a commission for the next 4 years with them.

 What are you working on right now?

Michael Schwab:   The big project on my drawing table now is the poster for America’s Cup 2013.   It hasn’t been printed at the time of this interview, yet but it’s been approved, and everybody seems to like it.  I’m also working on the graphic for a highway project up in British Columbia—The Sea to Sky Highway.  It seems like I always have a wine label project going on too.  Currently, it’s Area Code Wine Company.

Information about Purchasing Schwab’s posters:  

Michael Schwab’s Nixon in China poster is printed on archival fine art paper and is available as an unsigned 16″x24″ poster ($75) and a signed 24″x36″ collector’s poster ($150) through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House and online at www.sfopera.com .  A limited number of his out of print Boris Godunov posters, 24″ x 36″ are available for $625 through the San Francisco Opera Shop at the War Memorial Opera House.

To visit Michael Schwab’s website, click here.

To read ARThound’s previous coverage of Michael Schwab, click here.

Details about Nixon in China performances: San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China runs for seven performances June 8-July 3, 2012 at the War Memorial Opera House.  Tickets and information: www.sfopera.com or call (415) 864-3330.

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

San Francisco Opera’s Ring closes today and marks Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle

Ring aficionado Verna Parino, 94 years young, at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House prior to the June 14, 2011 performance of “Das Rheingold,” her 59th Ring cycle. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 As the curtain closes later today on San Francisco Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, it will mark Verna Parino’s 61st Ring cycle and I could not pass up the opportunity to talk with her about what makes a Ring memorable.  Parino, now a spry 94, first heard Wagner on the radio when she was about 16 and was mesmerized but it wasn’t until 1971, when she was 54, that she actually saw her first Ring cycle. 

She made up quickly for lost time.  In the past 40 years, she has travelled to 18 countries and seen 61 cycles in places as far flung as Shanghai and Adelaide, and has befriended Ring “trekkies” all over the world.  Not only did she embrace the Ring, she embraced opera as well and for years headed the Marin chapter of the San Francisco Opera Guild’s Preview Program, retiring just last year.  I caught up with her in mid-June at Das Rheingold of Cycle 1, which marked Ring No. 59 for her, and again a week later at a Wagner Society of Northern California Ring symposium and she was full of exuberance for Wagner’s musical epic.

You’ve see so many Rings now, what type of production do you prefer and what makes it exciting for you?

The first thing to determine is if goes along with Wagner.  Something that is not Wagner, like last year’s Los Angeles Opera production, I didn’t like at all and I complained bitterly about that.  You can be innovative and modernize the setting but make it apply to what Wagner was writing about. 

And if you don’t react to the staging, it’s not a good production.  For me, if I don’t cry when Wotan has to punish his child, then it’s not a good production because as a parent it’s very painful to punish your child and you do cry.   When Speight Jenkins staged his first Ring at the Seattle Opera, I didn’t cry at that father having to punish his child and I didn’t think the production was very good.  With his later productions, I did cry and it all came together.

It’s Wagner’s music that tells you what’s going on, not always the words.  Here, at this Ring, I am trying something that is quite different for me—I am trying to find an ending in the music.  Wagner spent a lifetime searching for the answers to civilization’s problems.  He used the universal language of myth to portray man’s foibles and composed some of the most glorious music ever to represent the deepest emotional reactions of love and parental discipline.  But, after sixteen hours of the most monumental work of art ever envisioned, Wagner was still searching for an ending of how to govern the world.   Several solutions were dismissed and he finally gave us the answer through his music.  It’s the churning music, representing the convoluted story of mankind, that brings about a positive conclusion with a rebirth, a renewal, as indicated in the source materials of the Norse Poetic Edda.   The music itself is so exciting—it tells you that life is really hard and the answers are difficult to come by but that’s why I keep coming back time and time again trying to find the answer.  

Who are the heroes for you?  

Many people say that all the women represent the truth and that ‘love conquers all’ and that it’s Brünnhilde and that it’s the men who let the world down with their greed and negative attributes.   Brünnhilde wasn’t true to herself.  She goes after revenge and that’s not the answer.  Of course, Brünnhilde grew–she understands what has happened but she’s betrayed herself.  She finds out too late what the truth is and by then it’s all set in motion.  Wotan, well, he just accepts that he’s done it all wrong and that he can’t fix it any more. 

It’s interesting to analyze the characters because with each director, in each new production and portrayal, you might see something that has been added that makes sense to you.  I attended a talk last night and was struck with a realization about Alberich.  He was evil, and greedy, and power-driven but he admitted it and he was therefore true to himself, honest about his nature.  It is Wotan who pretends that he is righteous when he’s not–he is really driven by greed and takes advantage of other people and ultimately pays the price.  Siegmund is the only true hero, the only one who remains true to himself and to his love Sieglinde.   That was new to me that Siegmund was the true hero.  

And then, of course, you have to bring your own thoughts in too and ask yourself what you see in it all.  It depends on where you come from and we all have different backgrounds.  I’m Swedish and I married an Italian and I love German and I’ve had many adventures around the world.  Wherever we come from, we bring all that with us when we sit down and watch what’s on stage.  I just can’t wait to see it all unfold again.

What’s your overall impression of Francesca Zambello’s production, now that you’ve seen all three cycles?

Upon reflection today, thinking about the reasons this San Francisco Ring is such a positive success, and why people leave the Opera House smiling and saying it was great, most important is the fact that it is true to Wagner.  It was not some director’s concept of what he thought Wagner might have said.  It was not a ‘glitsey’ controversial, sensationalized staging for the sake of controversy or publicity.  Although Wagner used giants, dwarfs, gods, and dragons, they are symbols or archetypes of the people we know around about our worlds–our neighbors, even ourselves. We identify with them. We read about them in today’s news. 

The direction was humanized. Wotan was bored with his wife Fricka’s complaints so he picked up the newspaper and read. Then Fricka, bored with Wotan’s explanation of the extended view of world leadership, also picked up the newspaper and read. Francesca Zambello welcomed suggestions from the cast so that performers were part of a team, acting in ways that seemed normal.  It seemed as though there was a communal joy and presenting this Ring.

Wagner appreciated the natural world as illustrated many times in this epic story. The destruction of our environment—water, air, earth—has formed the basis for the sets of many productions (Cologne + Rhein River pollution, Berlin + junk yards, Arizona + Colorado River diversion, Oslo and Warsaw + barren trees).  In San Francisco’s Gotterdammerung there were piles of junked plastic bags that the Rheinmaidens picked up.

New questions to ponder:  Was Siegmund really a hero if he was willing to slay his bride and unborn child because they could not go with him to Valhalla?  Was Brünnhilde really a heroine, and really true to her inner self, if she was willing to conspire with Hagen for her husband’s death?   Is a yellow ‘sail’ that balloons into the air and finally dissolves into the river, a likely gold that can be stolen?  If Gutrune is so willing to jump into the king-size bed with Hagen, while waiting for Siegfried to return to marry her, should she participate so prominently in the finale supporting Brunnhilde’s memorial dedication?

And, this being a music-drama, the music itself was simply outstanding.  Leading the outstanding cast was Nina Stemme, today’s world-famous Brünnhilde. Returning to conduct the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was Donald Runnicles, internationally acclaimed for his work with Wagner.  The music of the finale is positive, so that using again a child planting a small tree representing a new beginning, is logical. Wagner’s early revolutionary ideas took many philosophical turns. How should the world’s ending be portrayed?  ‘Tis a puzzlement’ that Wagnerians will continue to ponder.

July 3, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Kevin Rivard, the horn behind Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 3, 2011

Kevin Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, is responsible for the demanding long horn call in Siegfried, the third drama in Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle, at San Francisco Opera through July 2, 2011. Rivard plays the two minute solo backstage on his Conn 8D French horn. Photo: Geneva Anderson

When it’s time for the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon in Richard Wagner’s third Ring of the Nibelung opera, Siegfried, it is Kevin Rivard’s hypnotic long horn call in Act II that draws Fafner out of his cave and ushers in the action.  That two-minute French horn solo, echoed in shorter motifs throughout the Ring, is one of the cycle’s musical highpoints.  It’s also the longest instrumental solo in the Ring.  At 28, Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Principal Horn of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, is the youngest member of both brass sections.  This is Rivard’s first Ring and he was eager to talk about this demanding solo which he plays backstage, in order to create the illusion that Siegfried himself is playing the horn.  Wagner was one of first composers to write extensively for the valved horn and the Siegfried long call, his most famous horn composition, set the bar for all future horn solos in terms of its difficulty and haunting beauty. Rivard plays this horn call for the 4th and last time, next Friday, July 1 in San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 of the Ring

Would you describe your instrument and tell us if you use only one horn throughout the Ring?

Kevin Rivard:  There’s only one horn that I play—it’s a factory Conn 8D horn.  It’s the instrument that is known for the American horn sound—that big, broad, full, dark, beautiful sound that you hear in all of the movies.  It’s the horn most closely matches the sound that I hear in my head for the ideal horn sound.  It fits perfectly with the type of writing that Wagner did for the horn in the Ring Cycle, which is very heroic most of the time… This horn belonged to Julie Landsman, my Juilliard teacher and longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  She always raved about how spectacular this horn is, so when she retired, I talked her into selling it to me. 

Which leitmotifs in The Ring are played by the French horn? 

Kevin Rivard:  When I think about all 17 hours of this, I am pretty sure the horn section plays all or most of the scenes and leitmotifs.  The Valhalla motif, which is heard for the first time in the first Ring opera Das Rheingold, at beginning of Scene 2, is handled by the Wagner tuba section, part of the horn section.  The spear motive, also originating in Das Rheingold, is handled by the horn section. Siegfried’s long and short calls are played a cappella [without accompaniment] by a solo French horn in Act II, Scene 2, of Siegfried.

 The big thing about the motifs we play in this Ring cycle is the variation in their complexity.  There’s such a great span of time between when Wagner composed Das Rheingold and then began Götterdämmerung that it’s completely different music and you can see and hear it.  The orchestral score of Siegfried is so dense and interesting and what I love in particular is that you could listen to this entire opera and have no clue about any of the text and know exactly what’s going on.  It’s so cleverly written with the leitmotifs and altering them slightly that you know what’s going on even before the characters themselves know.

The horn is almost always used by classical composers to signify hunting or at least a kind of hearty, masculine, rural sensibility.  What does the horn signify in the Ring?

Kevin Rivard:  In addition to its use historically for hunting calls, the horn is also the voice of the hero, Siegfried, which is what we most notice. Siegfried lives and hunts in the woods.  Also, because of the way the instrument is made and shaped, and its sound, it works very well with other instruments in blending and creating great sonorities throughout the orchestra.  Composers will write for the horn in a partnering role, using it to join the sound of different instruments together.  If they are writing for the strings and woodwinds, they will stick the horn in there to kind of blend the sounds together.  With woodwinds and brass, the horns will be the middle ground to help blend the two together.  I’ll play some concerts where we’ll be playing almost the entire concert in these supporting roles and when I finish, people will tell me that I was hardly playing at all.  I’m thinking no, I was playing the entire time but in a supporting role.

Aside from its length, what makes the long call in Siegfried special?

Kevin Rivard: This is the biggest, hardest, longest horn solo in any rep–orchestral or opera–that there is, period, because of the way it’s structured.  It’s the way Wagner wrote it–the entire orchestra cuts out and it’s just one solo for over two minutes and it keeps building and goes on and on and on and then ends on that spectacular high C.  With the French horn, there are a couple of things at issue.  The instrument requires an incredible amount of endurance in the lips.  You are requiring just the center of your lips to create all of this sound that’s coming through the instrument and the endurance of having to play a solo in that register for that long is a huge factor in its difficulty.

 In addition, the register in which this call is written is the extreme upper register of the horn and the partials for the notes are very close together, with a half step of each other.. If my lips are inaccurate by the smallest degree, it’s not a matter of being slightly out of tune; it means the note is missed, completely missed.  When a horn player misses a note, it sounds like a dying goat.  Everyone knows and no one forgets.

Kevin Rivard, Co-Principal Horn of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, backstage at the War Memorial Opera House. For his long horn call in Siegfried, he leaves the orchestra pit and performs his solo unseen and off to the side of the stage to create the impression that the Siegfried on stage is playing the horn. He plays it on his vintage Conn 8D French horn which he bought from Julie Landsman, former principal horn at the Met. Photo: Geneva Anderson

How did you approach and prepare for this great solo?  

Kevin Rivard:  Since endurance and stamina are such an issue, I looked at my schedule a year ago and I found all of the holes where I would have time to practice and I started preparing, a little here and a little there.  A lot of this was mental, knowing in my head exactly what I wanted it to sound like.  As an artist, if I have the technique down and I know how I want it to sound, then I can put those two things together.  Wagner wrote that the call was to start with moderate tempo and then accelerando [become faster] throughout.  Out of respect to that comment and to add to the drama of the scene, I begin very slowly and let the accelerando build and roll it forward and I really try to give it plenty of room.  The speed of the accelerando and that crescendo [increase in volume] is based solely on one thing –how much air I can take in and how much music I can make in one breath.  I set my tempo and I take the biggest breath that I can and based on that, I start to build.  That’s a lot of notes to get into one breath.

 

Were there any particular horn players’ renditions you listened to?  YouTube has lots of fabulous examples for us to hear and compare as does Wagneropera.net.

Kevin Rivard:  Julie Landsman has a recording of this in which she plays principal throughout the Ring and she does the long call.   This is the best I’ve ever heard, period.  I feel pretty strongly that as an artist and individual I want to make every effort not to just try to sound like everyone else.  I want to go out there and sound the way I want to sound.  Throughout my entire preparation period, I tried not to listen to any recordings, but rather to just study the score and decide what this character means to me and what this horn solo means and how I want to present it.  I think this approach has led to something that is similar to what my teacher did but that my call does sound considerably different than any of the recordings out there as a result.  I appreciate that because I wanted to step away and see what it meant to me to be Siegfried. 

What’s going on physically for you during this solo?  Does it help that you are back stage and not actually seen, just heard?

Kevin Rivard:  I might not be seen but I have to return to the pit afterward and see all my colleagues so being out of sight doesn’t have much benefit for me.  What I think it is, and I read this from other principal horn players too, is that a lot of horn players are adrenaline junkies.  The nature of the instrument, the harmonic series, and the extreme accuracy that is required to do our job on a daily basis requires this.  Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic (BPO) once said ‘You never want to look a horn player in the eye before he plays a solo– it’s like looking a tightrope walker in the eye before he grapples with death.’  There’s this huge adrenaline rush you get when you do these big solos—the Siegfried long call and the solo in Handel’s Julius Caesar. You walk back there and you are nervous and your heart is racing and the next thing you know…you’ve jumped and landed.  I think ‘wow!’ that was the best thing in the world and I have to do it again. 

When you leave the pit, where exactly are you playing and how do you get your cues?

Kevin Rivard:  The idea is to position the horn very close to Siegfried so that it sounds like he is playing. My chair is onstage, just behind the curtain, on the rake [upward slope] of the stage. I am sitting tilted back at an angle with my horn in hand and I am facing off to the side of the stage, looking in the opposite direction of Siegfried.  Initially, I had to turn around and look at him for my cue which is when he takes this big breath.  When I did this, there was this huge spotlight on him from the opposite side of the stage that nearly blinded me.  I could barely see him and the light was so strong that I couldn’t see anything on my music stand either.  He also took his breath very quickly and I whipped my head around and tried to play very quickly.  When I finished the first phrase, I turned back around and was blinded again and then whipped my head back around again and it was an incredible experience. I was like ‘this is just too crazy,’  so I went and found an extra conductor that they have and it’s now his job to stare into that light and catch the cues from Siegfried’s breath and then cue me.

The pace of the four long performances comprising each Ring Cycle, essentially back to back, must be grueling.  How do you handle that?

Kevin Rivard:  It’s an incredibly difficult work load, without question. The way we have it structured in the horn section is that we have two co-principal horns and this is to purposefully lighten the work load on these long things.  Before we started the Ring, I got in touch with principal horn players at all the major opera companies—the Met, Munich, Berlin, and so forth– and starting asking them how they handle the Ring Cycle.  Do the same people play or what?  Unanimously, all of them have relief players. They would have different horn sections come in half way through an opera to play the last two acts of Götterdämmerung or the last two acts of Siegfried.  The horn section that did Die Walküre would not have to play Das Rheingold the night before.  They all had some relief.  But the way we’re doing it is that we have the same horn section and the same Wagner tuba section and everyone is playing everything for all three cycles.

The standard approach for the Siegfried long call is that whoever plays that solo, that’s all they have to do.  If they don’t do it that way, in consideration of the huge work load, you might play Act I and then the horn solo and that’s it.  I play Act I, the horn solo and the rest of the opera.

After working on this for a solid year, how do you get this out of your head?  What do you do?

Kevin Rivard:  Funny you would ask because the other day Bill Klingelhoffer, the other co-principal horn, and I were sitting in the locker room before our final orchestra rehearsal of the season discussing what music we were going to present at an upcoming horn seminar.  On stage, they were doing the final piano dress rehearsal for Siegfried and it was coming through on the monitors.  The piano was playing literally at about a minute right before the big horn solo.  I said to Bill, ‘Hey, they’re playing Siegfried,’ and my heart was pounding like crazy.  It stays with you and rings through your head along with the energy and emotion that you feel playing it.  It just doesn’t leave.

What is it like working with conductor Runnicles (longtime San Francisco Opera music director)?

Kevin Rivard:  It’s going very well.  The first time I played the long call was when we were out rehearsing at the Presidio.  I half jokingly asked him if he wanted to hear it, thinking he’d tell me to wait until we were at the opera house to hear the whole solo.  He, of course, said “Why don’t you play it here and show off for your colleagues.” I thought, ‘Great!’   

 This is my first Ring Cycle but in talking with Julie Landsman I became aware of the physical, emotional and mental toll this takes.  With Runnicles, it’s like this music is in his blood and it’s so natural for him and so in his bones that when he conducts it, he makes it seem easy.  The way he prepares and will give a cue for something makes it as easy as it can possibly be and that has a remarkable effect on us.  It’s also the energy he breathes into a particular piece of music that makes it come to life.

During this long rehearsal period you must have thought a lot about Wagner.  What intrigues you most?

Kevin Rivard:  I often consider the great challenges of Wagner’s horn writing and wonder what the premiere performances sounded like.  It’s interesting to note that the Principal Horn of the Munich Court Orchestra, the orchestra that premiered the Ring Operas and most of Wagner’s other works, was none other than Franz Strauss.  He was the father of the famous composer Richard Strauss, and was known as one of the finest hornists of his day.  It’s also interesting to note that Franz Strauss and Wagner did not care for each other.  Wagner is quoted as saying: ‘Strauss is an unbearable, curmudgeonly fellow, but when he plays his horn one can say nothing, for it is so beautiful.’

ARThound would like to thank opera dramaturg Cori Ellison, who worked with Francesa Zambello on the conception for this Ring cycle,  for assistance in editing this interview.  David Marsten, of Calistoga, too provided valuable background information on Wagner and Siegfried.

Details: Single tickets for next Friday’s (July 1, 2011) final performance of Siegfried are still available.  Tickets for San Francisco Opera’s Cycle 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3) are individually priced from $95 to $360.  All tickets are available online at www.sfopera.com , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.

June 26, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SF Opera kicks off its new Ring Cycle with a brand new Siegfried premiering Sunday, May 29, 2011

In Siegfried, the third of Wagner's four epic operas in the Ring Cycle, Siegfried forges a symbolic sword, Nothung, from shards and uses it to slay Fafner the dragon whose blood empowers him with the ability to understand the language of birds. Ian Storey is depicted here but Jay Hunter Morris will sing the lead role for the 4 premiere performances of Siegfried and then Storey will step in as Siegfried in Götterdämmerung which has its premiere a week later. Photo: Cory Weaver, courtesy of SF Opera

I am a musical layman but I wouldn’t miss the San Francisco Opera’s new production of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which starts later today with a new production premiere of Siegfried and continues into July with three complete cycles of the four-opera cycle. Wagner is one of the crucial 19th-century theatrical innovators, a composer-poet who set out to understand opera as drama and in turn expanded the frontiers of both art forms.  The Ring is a 15 hour masterpiece that people have devoted their lives to interpreting and have flocked to for over 140 years.  The story, reduced to its pure essence pits the love of power (here power is gold) against the power of love.   In its 88 year history, the San Francisco Opera Company has presented the complete cycle just 5 times–1935, 1972, 1985, 1990, and 1999.

Acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello is directing the new production at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, and co-staging it with the Washington National Opera.  In an era of ever-inventive Ring interpretations, whose visual imagery may go so far as to override the basic story,  Zambello has been rather tight-lipped about the details in store for eager fans.  She has promised a creative production that is not tied to the 19th century and will be influenced by American history, environmental issues, and feminism.  She has also disclosed that Fafner, the dragon that Siegfried slays, is a large furnace-like device reminiscent of a locomotive engine.  One thing is certain, Ring fans are extremely opinionated and a tough skin is a prerequisite for any adventurous director who is trying to balance the desire to innovate with maintaining enough of the traditional elements to satisfy Wagnerian purists.  

Maestro Donald Runnicles, former music director and principal conductor of San Francisco Opera from 1992-2009, began his association with the SF Opera by directing two Ring cycles in 1990.  He will conduct an orchestra of over 100 in this $24 million production.   When a company delivers performances as demanding as the Ring–four operas over the course of a week–it can be grueling for the musicians.   Nevertheless. they are not going to be pulling overtime–they are paid an hourly rate as stipulated by their contracts.  Overtime kicks in if they exceed 7 hours in a day and/or 24 hours in a week.  The Ring cycle schedule does not meet either of these thresholds, so straight time pay is in effect.

The Ring has led to some pit changes in effect with Siegfried:  co-principal horn players William Klingelhoffer and Kevin Rivard are splitting up their horn duties:  Klingelhoffer is playing Principal Wagner tuba for the whole Ring cycle, while Rivard is playing Principal horn.  This is Rivard’s first Ring and he will be playing Siegfried’s rigorous horn call in Act II, a French horn solo which many consider the magical musical highpoint of Siegfried.  Rivard will have an assistant in the pit for the whole cycle, who will cover principal horn, when Rivard is out of the pit playing backstage for Siegfried and Gotterdamerung.

The four operas in the Ring unfold chronologically in the following order—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and GötterdämmerungThey may be seen individually, or as the composer originally intended, in a complete cycle over the course of one week.  

Siegfried:  4 hours 50 minutes, includes two intermissions, German with English supertitles

Cast Change Lead Role:  On April 20, 2011,  it was announced that Wagnerian tenor Ian Storey, slated to play the title role of Siegfried in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, had been ill and that tenor Jay Hunter Morris would replace him in all performances of Siegfried.  Morris has played Siegfried lead role before at the Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera.  Storey will play Siegfried in Götterdämmerung which premieres next Sunday, June 5, 2011.

History:  Premiered at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus on 16 August 1876, as part of the first complete performance of The Ring.  This part of the opera is primarily inspired by the story of the legendary hero Sigurd in Norse mythology in the Volsunga Saga.  

Siegfried is the third opera in the Ring. Wagner composed the dramatic texts with Götterdämmerung first (in 1848) and then kept embellishing the story, following with Siegfried, Die Walküre, and then Das Reingold.  The musical compositions followed much later beginning with Das Reingold in 1854, then Die Walküre, Siegfried and ending with Götterdämmerung in 1874.  Wagner worked on the orchestral score for Siegfried off and from October 1856 to February 1871, a total of 15 years.  

Important Moments: Act 1:  Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris) has grown up into a young man without fear.  Siegfried forges “Nothung,” his sword (“Nothung! Nothung! Neidliches Schwert!”) from pieces that have been saved by his foster father Mime (David Cangelosi), the Nibelung dwarf, who got the shards from Siegfried’s birthmother, Sieglinde ( (Anja Kampe/Heidi Melton), upon her death in childbirth.

Identity/parentage: Siegfried senses that he is not the son of Mime, and wonders who his mother is. 

Riddles:  Mime and the Wanderer (Wotan, King of the Gods, in disguise) (David Delavan) ask each other three riddles, wagering their heads on the answers.

Act II:  Siegfried plays a melodic horn tune that draws the dragon, Fafner, out from his cave and slays him with a stab to the heart with Nothung, his magic sword.  Siegfried tastes the blood of the dragon and is thus empowered with the ability to understand the language of birds.

Forrest bird scene: following the instruction of a woodbird, Siegfried takes the Ring and the Tamhlem from the dragon’s hoard and he learns of a woman sleeping on a rock surrounded by magic fire.  Siegfried learns his true parentage, that Mime is not his birthfather.

Act III:  Siegfried passes through the magic ring of fire and discovers sleeping Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme), the first woman he has ever encountered.  He utters his famous line “Das is Kein Mann!” (“That’s no man!”) and then awakens Brünnhilde.  Not only a woman, she is the feminine in himself.    Brünnhilde embraces her mortal life “Ewig was ich.”

Ring Educational events:  An array of cultural and educational institutions have partnered with San Francisco Opera to present lectures, symposia, exhibits, musical performances and film screenings throughout the Bay Area for audiences who want to connect with Wagner and the Ring cycle in new and compelling ways.  Visit sfopera.com/calendar and select “Ring Festival Event” from the “All Events” dropdown menu to explore upcoming events by month. 

Wagner and his music can be explored in from angles as diverse as the intersection of science and the environment in the Ring (California Academy of Sciences); psychological, political and spiritual parallels found in the Ring (New School Commonweal); and Buddhist influences evident in the Ring (Asian Art Museum). Upcoming musical performances range from an orchestral concert of music from the Ring (San Francisco Conservatory) and organ transcriptions of Wagner’s music (St. Mary’s Cathedral) to the lighthearted operetta The Merry Nibelungs by Oscar Straus (Opera Frontier).  The San Francisco Opera is also partnering with the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco and the Contemporary Jewish Museum to explore the Wagner’s anti-Semitism and the political impact of his music throughout history.

Half-day Ring Symposiums:  San Francisco Opera offers a half-day Ring Symposium on the Tuesday of each Cycle that includes a general introduction to Wagner and the Ring’s story, characters and music, and an exploration of the unique aspects of this new production’s distinctly American setting and its approach to issues relating to feminism and environmentalism. Members of San Francisco Opera’s music staff will discuss Wagner’s music and explore this production. Members of the creative team and production staff will share images of the sets, costumes, video projections and lighting and discuss how they collaborated with director Zambello. June 14, 21 and 28, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Herbst Theatre, Veterans Building. 401 Van Ness Ave.

Ring Preview Lecture: Sonoma Chapter SF Opera Guild:  The Sonoma Opera Guild’s Ring Preview Lectures will feature Cori Ellison, dramaturg, New York City Opera, offering an in-depth look into the Ring cycle operas.  Thursday, June 9, 2011, 10:30am, Kenwood Depot, 314 Warm Springs Road, Kenwood, CA. Admission is $10 at the door.  For more information, contact Pat Clothier at (707) 538-2549 or Neva Turer at (707) 539-1220.

Details: Single tickets for today’s performance of Siegfried are still available. Siegfried also plays: June 6, June 17, June 24 and July 1, 2011.  San Francisco Opera’s May 29 to July 3 presentation of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen are priced from $95 to $360.  Symposia tickets are $40 (plus a $9 registration fee). All tickets are available online at www.sfopera.com , or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., or by phone at (415) 864-3330.  

Schedule:  The Ring of the Nibelung

Premiere of new productions for “Siegfried,” May 29, 2011 “Götterdämmerung,” June 5, 2011
Cycle 1: June 14, June 15, June 17, June 19
Cycle 2: June 21, June 22, June 24, June 26
Cycle 3: June 28, June 29, July 1, July 3

May 29, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment