Art Appreciation Program and the “Opera Series” Paintings

Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Library

Art Appreciation Program and the “Opera Series” Paintings


Painting O'Brien Zerlina Opera The concept of the art appreciation program is to present contemporary artists to our patrons along with their work, methods and vision.

Two such contemporary artists being featured are Dr. Richard O’Brien and Heather Levy.  Our new program tries to ask the question: “What are the new approaches to painting and the other arts?” and also “How these are new approaches related to older traditions of painting?” Many contemporary artists try to define their work in relation to tradition in terms of new methods of realism and abstraction applied to perennial artistic goals.

One such artist is Professor Richard O’Brien of Catholic University. O’Brien's “Opera Series” paintings were inspired by several classic operas at the Kennedy Center over the past few years. O’Brien was inspired to paint the major characters in these operas but decided to set these characters outside the costumes and display of the opera stage.

O’Brien is a quiet middle-aged man with brown hair flecked with gray. He is very unassuming for someone interested in the very expressive characters in opera. O’Brien arrived that cool Saturday afternoon with his wife and began recounting the history of his interest in opera and how he came to paint its characters to a small group in our meeting room.

With little introduction, he jumped into his presentation and began explaining the methods and artistic choices behind each painting through its display in a PowerPoint image. He approached the discussion of the development of his art technique in an equally informal fashion. O’Brien explained that he decided to use many methods of contemporary realistic paintings of the human figure while applying the technical methods of abstract art. O’Brien describes his method as both abstract and realistic but holding to a method directed toward expression of human truth. He depicts the opera figures realistically, painting from a live model. He uses line and form to portray each character in much the way an abstract painter such as Mark Rothko would.  His approach to painting human figures is best illustrated by how he paints famous opera characters in modern dress.

His approach is to use models dressed in contemporary clothes and modern settings but let them impersonate the feelings of one of these opera characters, especially in a moment of strong feeling. One such figure is the character Zerlinda from Don Giovanni, where Zerlina laments she is undone by Don Giovanni’s seduction. Don Giovanni - - Act II, Scene I "Soccoretimi son mortal.”

The figure of the painting is a well-dressed young lady sitting thoughtfully on a couch. But it is the details of the very modern figure that give away the moment. She is sitting or lying on the couch with legs extended and one shoe is off the foot. She is looking very thoughtful and solemn, and her hands touch each other. The feeling of loss and abandonment is expressed very subtly and with a few postures and gestures. Her image is very natural, and thus embodies a certain modern naturalism, and the model does not go beyond ordinary expressions. Nevertheless, a mood of loss is demonstrated by the figure. The shapes in the background of the painting help dramatize the situation. They include the large blocks of space above the sofa and the horizontal line of the model lying on the couch. These two shapes add force to the feeling expressed in gesture. 

O’Brien covers the characters of many classic operas in this way:  Leporello, Zerlina and Donna Elvira from Don Giovanni,  Susanna from Marriage of Figaro. Other opera character studies are to come.

Please come to O’Brien’s second talk on his art in the fall.