A Night at the Opera with Group Delphi Painter Jon Altemus

Opera painting

There’s a revolution taking place in opera, and the Bay Area –and Group Delphi’s own Jon Altemus –are right in the heart of it. The big houses still score high for their lavish, wonderfully performed productions of mostly 18th and 19th century pieces, but it’s the small companies that are breathing fresh life into the form with edgy, challenging, and often painfully relevant new works.

Last fall, Jon contributed to this movement as part of Opera Parallele’s production of “In the Penal Colony,” by minimalist icon Philip Glass. As Media Illustrator, Jon was tasked with creating backdrop imagery for Franz Kafka’s chilling story of a surreal justice system and its depraved tools of institutionalized torture. Jon had to go into some dark places to create his images: “The story is horrible,” he remembers, “very sadistic … not a happy story. I steered away from extremely graphic images [one, inspired by Abu Ghraib, was edited out] but I did use bars and chains and handcuffs and bindings, and the torture machine’s sharp edges and gears.”

Jon gave his paintings to the media designer, who animated them and used mapping technology to project them onto three large screens. It was thrilling for Jon to see his static images come to life. “What they can do with that technology is so cool,” he says. “They have these organic shaped screens and they’re able to project on them, so they looked like they were paintings, and then they would start moving as they followed along with the narrative of the opera … It was amazing to see that, and really well done.”

One of the highlights of Jon’s collaboration was getting to meet Glass himself. “I was backstage after one of the Carmel performances, and I introduced myself to him, and he said, ‘Oh, you’re the artist! I love your work!’

“‘Oh, my God,’ I thought, and responded, ‘I love your work!’ That was really nice. He’s a very warm man, and I think he was really happy with this amazing production.

“To help a company like this, and to get to meet Philip Glass … there’s just no way to measure the value of that experience.”

After a 25-year hiatus from painting, Jon has returned to the medium, and hit the ground running. Bay Area Delphinians will be familiar with his 365 (one-a-day) paintings that were on display at the Alameda facility. His most recent work was shown at the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland and San Francisco’s Canessa Gallery, where a special place was dedicated to the opera images.

Jon’s already on board for Opera Parallele’s 2020 production at the Yerba Buena Center, so expect his presence in the world of new opera to continue…and stay tuned: the Penal Colony production was filmed, and, in the future, all of us may have the opportunity to enjoy Jon’s work on the screen.

Related Articles