The bright, gem-like hues of a starry operatic night in Venice, Italy, shine from a vivid serigraph by L.A.-based artist John August Swanson that was recently gifted to the South Pasadena Public Library.
The donation — by South Pasadena resident, former Library Board Trustee and current Review columnist Andy Lippman — was celebrated on Aug. 1 with a well-attended talk by Swanson and a live operatic performance of “The Tales of Hoffmann,” the opera depicted within the artwork of the same name.
Acting Library Director Cathy Billings wanted to do something special to celebrate the donation, so she networked to bring together some world-class musicians: Pianist Hui Wu, tenor Jeff Greif (as Hoffmann) and soprano Hannah Waldman (as Antonia) to perform arias and piano transcriptions of the opera’s orchestral selections.
“I think people really liked it,” said Billings. “It’s always amazing to be in a small space with really good musicians.”
Swanson shared insights into his process on his 2001 acrylic piece, “Tales of Hoffmann,” including how the serigraph was printed over a series of months with 49 individual silkscreens.
The serigraph, one of 250 in the edition, is expected to hang on the first floor of the library. Guests at the performance also browsed displays from Swanson’s sketchbook, including color proofs and progressive proofs from the printing.
The piece depicts the Grand Canal in Venice, with gondolas floating by as the music of a Barcarolle — a traditional song sung by Venetian gondoliers — fills the air as Act 2 of the opera “Tales of Hoffmann” begins,” according to Swanson.
The opera was written by German-French composer Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), known as a popular musical comedy writer primarily. He created it in an effort to create a serious piece. While visiting America in 1876, he was reminded of the fantastic tales of E.T. Hoffmann (1776-1822). He used the stories as a basis for his opera and started composing it in 1878. His health then began to fade and he died before the premiere in 1880 at the Opéra Comique in Paris.
“He got to hear a dress rehearsal and there were parts that other people had to finish,” said Swanson. “It was sad because it became such a popular hit in Paris in 1880, 1881.”
The piece shows the history of the composer in struggling to create an opera and bring it to popular attention. Hoffmann is also a character within the opera.
Swanson worked to make each character depicted within it richly detailed with a beautiful mosaic floor laid across the piece.
“It’s very wild and decadent,” said Swanson.
Lippman said he was thrilled with the operatic performance and Swanson’s sharing additional stories in person on his inspiration behind the piece. He said he decided to donate “Tales of Hoffmann” because “it combines the literature, the music and the theater arts which the library symbolizes.”
“It’s a joy for John to see people enjoying his work and to talk about it, so that makes me feel good, because he’s a very, very nice man who’s really given a lot,” said Lippman.
South Pasadena resident Joel Daskal said he enjoyed looking over Swanson’s piece before and after the opera performance.
“It’s just a great combination,” said Daskal. “I’ve done architectural renderings, and it’s really fantastic to see the way he turned that illustration and rendering into art, and then a great performance.”