In a sumptuous palace by the Grand Canal in Venice, gondolas float by and the beautiful music of the Barcarolle fills the air. Act 2 of the Tales of Hoffmann has just begun. The opera was composed by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). He had written over 100 popular musical comedies, but he wanted to write a serious work that would last. While traveling in America in 1876, he was reminded of the fantastic tales of E.T. Hoffmann (1776-1822). He decided to use these as a basis for his opera and began composing it in 1878. His health failing, he saw some rehearsals but died before the 1880 premiere at the Opéra Comique in Paris. He never knew it would become a popular, lasting success.
One can see in the history of a composer who struggles to create an opera and then to bring it to the public’s attention. Then various performers interpret the composition. Each performance will be unique and will keep adding to the work. We, the collective audience, are left with personal memories of being inspired: experiencing performers use their talents in collaboration with other artists. These collective memories through the years enter our imagination and become part of who we are. That is why I chose Tales of Hoffmann.
Twelve years ago I worked on sketches of various opera themes and chose several to create into paintings. In 1989 I developed Tales of Hoffmann as a subject for a large acrylic painting. Now I have elaborately developed this theme as a serigraph edition. In February 2001, I began printing this work at Aurora Serigraphics Studio. I created a drawing on Mylar for each of the 49 screens used to print the edition. I mixed the inks with clear varnish and old master oil paints. These beautiful pigments were used to print either clear glazes or opaque flat colors. The layering of intricate drawings leaves a texture similar to a woven fabric. On the surface of the printed area, the viewer can see the printed layer of each color. The color mixtures are unique to this artwork and would be nearly impossible to recreate.
When I look at the scene, I see six levels. At the bottom, the audience in the shadows looks on the bright stage. In the orchestra pit, all the musicians give their attention to the conductor. (As a violinist, I spent much time, carefully rendering the details of their instruments.) At the front of the stage are two male singers, one on a mosaic walk and the other in the doorway of a bell tower. At midstage, singers and musicians sitting in beautiful gondolas glide over the deep blue waters of the Grand Canal. At the rear of the stage, singers emerge from the brightly-lit palace rooms. Stars and the moon sparkle in the dark sky, and now the magic begins!
John August Swanson
August 15, 2001