At the Metropolitan Opera, Drama on an Outdoor Stage

The artist Walton Ford is known for his richly detailed and complex paintings of animals, some familiar and some extinct, drawn with a striking, at times unsettling, take on the traditional academic style. Imagine the work of the artist-naturalist John James Audubon, but on steroids and Red Bull.

His work doesn’t exactly scream black-tie-opening-at-the-opera.

And yet, Mr. Ford has contributed not one but two images to the program known as the Gallery Met Banners, appearing on the facade of the Metropolitan Opera announcing the presentation inside.

“I’ve never done anything quite like it,” said Mr. Ford, who added that he thoroughly enjoyed the experience of creating an artwork for Hector Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” (featuring a rearing goat) and “Die Fledermaus” by Johann Strauss (a bat with wings outspread hanging from a woman’s arm).

His works, majestic and a bit creepy, somehow tap into the uncanny drama that powers many an opera plot.

“We thought, how can we expand this so we’re not segregated in this space?” Ms. Kazanjian recalled.

What they came up with was a program with parameters. The banners — perforated so they don’t blow away — can be up to 54 feet high, and most artists have wanted to go big.

“I’m surprised they used it,” he added.

Sometimes, the connection between the banner artist and the opera can be more easily explained.

The artist Nicolas Party, who is inspired by Surrealists like René Magritte, was commissioned to make an image for the Thomas Adès opera “The Exterminating Angel,” based on the 1962 film by the Surrealist director Luis Buñuel.

The production featured a prelude with live sheep on stage, also a reference to the film. Mr. Party’s image featured a man in a tuxedo and a sheep, “but they have a weird look to them,” he said. It has the bold blocks of color that characterize most of his work.

“I did an image that was simple,” Mr. Party said. “I began to think about what would look good, and interesting, on that scale.”

Mr. Party started his career as a graffiti artist and still works on murals, including a coming one at the Marciano Art Foundation in Los Angeles. He said that to him, the public presence of the banners at Lincoln Center was the central factor of interest.

“People don’t make an active decision to see it,” he said. “It’s always good to have a different type of audience.”

There is no requirement that the banner artists be opera buffs.

“I’m not a huge aficionado,” Mr. Ford said. “I grew up with rock ’n’ roll.” He noted that he rarely accepted commissions; the only other one that he could think of was his album cover for the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary compilation, “GRRR!”

But he enjoyed thinking about how to turn “Faust,” with its tale of Mephistophelean temptation, into a single image.

“I make animal metaphors, and I use animals as symbols,” Mr. Ford said. “So I was thinking of the way goats have been used in Goya, and in general, as satanic figures.”

At the time, Mr. Ford was living in the Berkshires, and he visited a nearby farm to look at goats and sketch them.

Once he actually saw the opera performed, he was pleased at the connection between it and the banner.

“It felt like a good lock,” he said.

Mr. Ford said the assignments took some planning beyond his usual process, in part because the perforations can make the banners read as translucent.

“You really have to think about your materials,” he said. “In the daytime, you see them very clearly, but at night, unless you have something high contrast, like I did, the image can wash out and disappear.”

Like Mr. Party, Mr. Ford said the number of viewers for the banners was part of the appeal. “It’s a temporary chance to be a public artist,” he said. “This was an opportunity to become part of the texture of the city.”

Ms. Kazanjian said that perhaps an exhibition of all the banners could be arranged someday — though not in Gallery Met, because of their size.

Mr. Ford would welcome such a show, though he said it might not compare with “foreign tourists taking pictures of a banner for a whole month.”

He added, “Being a part of that is quite thrilling.”

Source link