The artist R. Black designed posters for the Occupy movement in Oakland last year, and they picked up some steam as the movement grew nationally. A publisher chose his work for the cover of a book about Occupy.

In interviews after that, he told reporters he had a different project in his sights: opera posters.

“Anything I want to do in life, I figure out how to make a poster so I can get to it,” he said earlier this month.

Black, who’s lived in San Diego a couple of times in his life, once wanted to be a comic book artist, but began designing posters for his friends’ rock shows and it stuck. San Diego Opera’s media relations director, Edward Wilensky, a former record store buyer, was familiar with Black’s work. He asked the artist to design posters for San Diego Opera’s upcoming season.

Though still based in the Bay Area, Black converted an orange cargo truck into a living and working quarters and lives an itinerant life these days. We caught up with him earlier this month in the Civic Center Plaza, the place where Occupy’s San Diego contingent gathered last year, also in front of the theater where San Diego Opera performs.

Seems like a pretty wide gulf between Occupy and opera.

I disagree. Opera’s made by artists. Artists are typically liberal-type people. Opera’s all about high art. Maybe more a gulf with the audience.

But when I view opera, I view the stage. I view the artists. I view how stage theater has been so instrumental in changing people’s minds, and working with movements, and creating revolutions.

Have you gone to much opera in your life?

I’ve been to two. I’ve listened to a lot of operas.

What strikes you about the art form?

Melodrama. High art. The costumers, the sets, the singers. They’re living instruments. People who are just getting into opera — I think people get too wrapped up in trying to watch a production like a stage show. A lot of times people lose track of the voice. The whole thing is structured around this one voice. Just a glorified singer on stage, really.

I think if people just went and listened to the voice — there’s a living instrument on stage — and really key in on that, I think it would blow people’s minds. People who are already opera-lovers are already there. But young people need to focus. Once you start listening and tapping into that singer’s emotion, and understanding what the scene’s about even if you can’t understand the language, then you can start really losing yourself. But I think a lot of young people are blocked — by the Italian or by long things that they have no clue what’s going on.

Did you know all of these operas before you did ‘em?

No. This is my university right now. Especially thinking: Opera, that’s going to be a tough crowd to appeal to. I wanted to make sure I knew a lot about it. I like to watch the opera, study it, read about it, ask a bunch of questions and try to get it.

Can you tell me about your decision-making on some of these? Let’s start with “Murder in the Cathedral.”

Well, Thomas Becket gets his head cut off by four knights. So, uh, that’s what I drew.

Growing up with comic books and pulp novels and stuff, my mom was a big romance reader, so very melodramatic covers. But with comic books especially, usually the comic book has an element that doesn’t really happen in the comic. So like Spiderman’s fighting a villain, and on the cover you’ll have the villain choking his neck and hanging him over the edge. Like, “Oh, Spiderman’s getting his butt kicked by this guy!”

In the book, that scene never happens. But it doesn’t matter, because when you’re seeing the book on the shelf, it’s like, ‘Oh, Spiderman’s in trouble’ — which he is — and he’s in a fight and he could die. It’s a cliffhanger. They heighten the story from inside the comic book for the cover.

I wanted to depict the key emotion of the play and highlight that. On “Murder in the Cathedral,” I think I might’ve been watching a lot of [Quentin] Tarantino while I was doing the posters, and then influenced by movies I love as well, old 1970s samurai movies. In every samurai movie, you cut somebody’s head off and you have a fountain of blood.

Without having to use crosses — I didn’t want to make it religious — I wanted to find a way to make his collar work and make it look like his head was separated.

For “Samson and Delilah” — Samson gets his hair chopped off. That’s what everybody knows from that story. And like the comic book, even though that scene doesn’t happen. She doesn’t actually cut his hair off in the opera. She has scissors or a knife, the curtain comes down.

And chains, bondage, always resonates with people.

I love posters with couples on them, in love. Especially for an art form like opera. So many people are involved in a partnership. When in relationships, I like looking at posters and feeling that — “Aw, falling in love again!”

What about “Aida”?

I decided to focus on her. The singer is a very voluptuous woman. I wanted to make sure I captured that. So much of my career has been drawing really thin, pin-up chicks. I like voluptuous women as well, and I like being able to capture them and make them sexy. I tried to do that with Aida and with the front of the opera poster.

So you’re watching an opera you’ve never seen before. Then what happens? Do you walk around with a sketchbook?

The hardest part is thinking about the poster, thinking of the idea. I spend lots of hours walking, sitting around, mulling, going into depression sometimes, thinking about how to convey a message. Once in my mind I’ve got the idea, I don’t need to spend much time at my computer at all. My style is not a very complicated style. It’s not the style; it’s coming up with the idea that’s the hard part.

I generally walk about three or four hours a day.

What’s still out there; what’s the holy grail?

I would like to go bigger — directing something. Set designs, production designs, movie designs. Anything more grandiose that someone wants to throw a bunch of money behind. If someone just had that faith, because I haven’t done it yet.

I was thinking space tourism is coming up relatively soon. I’d love to be one of the first to do a space tourism poster. Like the old travel posters.

Do you make a living in art?

I say when you want to be an artist full time, you have to know how to live simply. It comes in waves. You can be rich one moment and poor the next. But if you don’t know how to be poor, you’re screwed. I think the reason why most people stop doing art is because it’s not a high-level living and they don’t know how to live simply. They need a house, they need a car. And all are great things. But, like being a monk, you have to know how to live very simply. And you have to make sacrifices.

I really focused my life on practicing what I preach: simplicity.

Interview conducted and edited by Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach her directly at or 619.325.0531.

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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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