November 4, 2016
Art for Art’s Sake: Creating the Season Artwork for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
By Lynn Ullman
This summer, UPBrand had the privilege of developing the key art for the 2017 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Festival Season. The season artwork represents the season’s four upcoming opera productions, Madame Butterfly, The Grapes of Wrath, The Trial and Titus (La Clemenza Di Tito).
Let me take you through the process of how these were created.
Behind the Scenes
Developing artwork for these performances begins with understanding the collective vision of the director, librettist and even the composer—some living, some quite dead. To help us get there, our clients at OTSL provide written summaries of the stories, and we do our own extensive research, including reviewing previous productions of the works.
However, nothing gives us more insight into essence of the opera than when we listen to one of our clients, Timothy O’Leary, Joe Gfaller or Ahn Le, brilliantly describe the story, the history and nuances of these works.
Even with this enlightenment, each design requires at least a little guesswork. When we begin, the festival season is a long way off. That means that pretty much nothing about how the production looks is final. This includes casting, stagecraft, costuming and even the period in which the opera is set. We need to imagine how the director envisions the work, which may be distinctly different from previous productions.
I see this as the perfect challenge for a designer. We are forced look deeper than common visual tropes and surface decoration. Instead we look for meaning and emotional connections within the story and music. As designers, our most important tools are our ears and our empathy. By listening and feeling we can identify the essence of the opera and the artistic director’s unique vision. Once we understand this, we can create a design that brings this to life for the diverse OTSL audience.
Our task was to develop bold, graphic images that would quickly connect to the emotional heart of the story. We deliberately avoided literal depictions of the production, since set and costume designs were undetermined. We also wanted to add as much meaning as we could to each element of the artwork. Every color, pattern and texture was an opportunity to reveal a little more about the story.
For The Grapes of Wrath, we chose to focus on the journey of the Joad family as they move from the grim Dustbowl toward the promise of a brighter future.
The story of Madame Butterfly led us to the iconic Madonna and Child as a timeless expression of a mother’s love, with overtones of tragedy.
On the surface, Titus is a story of politics and power. But what makes Mozart’s opera so timelessly entertaining are the soapy backstories of love, doubt and loyalties. For this we created a central image that not only implies unilateral power, but also shows figures hidden in the shadows, illuminated only by the fire of passion.
Finally, a new work, The Trial, is a dark, absurdist comedy about the search for justice in a world that makes no sense. Using a midcentury modernist style, we turned the symbol of justice upside down, throwing the central character, “K,” into a free fall.
See for Yourself
Just like with these four operas, there is much more to the story of OTSL. The festival season goes from May through June, and is a celebration of talent, music, art and community that should not be missed. In addition to the season artwork, UPBrand launched a new campaign that captures the experience of Opera Theatre, which may not be what you expect. From the pre-show picnic to champagne with the stars after the show, the great stories may unfold from a night at OTSL are not all confined to the stage.
Opera is one of the most expressive forms of art one can experience, and a great challenge to a designer to capture. The 2017 season is only the first act of our partnership with the brilliant OTSL, and we are just getting warmed up.