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IF YOU’RE into opera, it’s likely you’ve seen an album cover, poster or set design by Rafal Olbinski. Works of this Polish-born American artist have earned many awards from his peers and recognition by the U.S. Information Agency, New York City and the city of Fondi, Italy; this last one for his life-time contribution to contemporary art. He has even had editorializing of his work by no less than the Republic of Poland and The New York Times.
Olbinski’s opera posters do more than promote this art form; they often share fresh interpretations of the works he portrays. I offer here several examples from a book collecting forty of his opera posters.
Polish-born in 1945, Olbinski graduated in architecture from the Warsaw Politechnical School. His training there was traditional, learning to draft architectural shapes, car engines and other elements of design. His evolution into poster art came slowly. In 1982, Olbinski immigrated to the U.S. where he joined the faculty of New York City’s School of Visual Arts in 1985.
In Olbinski and the Opera, authors Agata Passent and Christopher Mount write of Poland’s Soviet occupation after World War II: “A poster represented a freedom of expression that was ultimately an attractive sign of hope in an otherwise dark and dreary place.” With Olbinski as example, the result was an “indirect sort of language… a big surrealistic joke,” as he called it.
They describe Olbinski’s approach: “He believes one must reduce the complicated libretto down to one sentence, one concept, a task that, as any frequent opera patron knows, is not easy.”
Olbinski begins by reading the libretto many times, then develops black and white sketches which are vetted by the client, typically an opera company. Then comes a painting, acrylics on canvas, usually 20 x 30 in. After posters are printed, the original is for sale as fine art. It’s easy to see why.
Passent and Mount: “It’s all in Macbeth’s head, according to Olbinski. His hunger for power, the crown he desires—and the dagger he uses to achieve them—each spiraling upward, all within a tower above the clouds.”
Even if Strauss’ elegant tale is unfamiliar, it’s clear a young man is leaving an affair with an older woman for a younger one. Octavian, the Rosenkavalier, gives more than a symbolic silver rose to young-blooded Sophie; he gives his heart, and Princess Werdenberg understands.
Passent and Mount: “Don Juan’s career has had its share of chroniclers, and everyone has their own picture of the legendary lover from Seville.” They sum up Olbinksi’s portrait of the Don by noting, “Or he could even be Mozart himself, the great genius with a famous taste for silly games and flirtation.”
St. Petersburg playboy Onegin is elegance personified. That’s Tatiana in his pocket, her youthful declaration of love for him held in her famous letter. But who’s the heartless one? By the opera’s close, Onigen has recognized his love for her, and Tatiana is married to another.
The tale of gypsy girl Carmen, soldier Don José and toreador Escamilllo is presented in a single provocative Olbinski image, even to the rose with which Carmen enticed the hapless Don José. Things were even more provocative, though, until The New York Times complained about Olbinski’s original idea for the Carmen ads.
Olbinski’s sketch—and his original painting—owed inspiration to Francisco Goya’s The Nude Maja, ca. 1800, generally considered the first explicit nude sans pretense of allegory or myth. Around 1803, Goya offered a more chaste, but still sexy version: The Clothed Maya.
This wasn’t the only time Olbinski generated controversy with the female form. Another dispute erupted in Poland over a semi-topless mermaid promoting the 2006 Miss World contest. (The traditional crest of Warsaw has a non-semi counterpart.) Conceding to Polish officials, Olbinski painted a scarf across the mermaid’s breast.
“I believe that every artist falls in love with his work,” Olbinski says, “especially when you paint women.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015