Covering the Opera’s High Notes

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Bob Ciano was art director of Opera News magazine for three and a half years in the late 1960s. Published for members of the Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York, the magazine cost just 35 cents, but its covers were worth a million bucks. Ciano was the conductor of an ensemble of superb illustrators, including Milton Glaser, whose artworks were preludes to choruses of articles inside. From San Francisco, Ciano told me a little bit about these gems.

Traviata. Milton Glaser, March 25, 1967.

Hansel and Gretel. Robert O’Hearn, Dec. 23, 1967.

What was your plan for these singular covers?

The “plan” grew out of a form I found in the files at Opera News. I had never worked at a magazine before, so I was looking for all the help I could find. The form was used by a previous art director, Paolo Lionni, son of the famous art director/illustrator Leo Lionni. It was basically a rejection letter:


,Your Art work is being returned for the following reasons:____Poor Idea____Lack of Color

And so on. The one I found was addressed to Alexander Calder. I thought the idea of going to famous artists was a good one, and so I adopted the idea, but I didn’t use the rejection form. (Side note: The fee was $100 per cover, plus two tickets for the opera that was the subject of the cover art.)

You used a lot of illustrators. Who were you favorites and why?

I used illustrators for a few reasons. It was a way to give the magazine a look. And I knew the cover subjects a year in advance—they were the operas that were broadcast on the radioon Saturday afternoons. I could give the artists a lot of time, and that helped them say yes. Most opera photography looked alike and was used more to record the scene and sets.

Did you have a favorite cover? I love the one with dominated by black with a small circle and a battleship.

Anything by Milton Glaser, Stanislaw Zagorski and Erté. I always asked artists whose work I admired, figuring the worst that could happen is that they would say no, though very few did. Favorite cover that didn’t run: One for the opera Carmen done by the artist Richard Lindner.

Why did you leave the magazine?

I was offered a job by Bill Cadge at Redbook, so I went off to be his assistant.

Madama Butterfly. Douglas Benezra, Mar. 30, 1967.

Aida, showing Leontyne Price’s voice print.

Otello. Stanislaw Zagorski. Mar. 11, 1967.

Die Frau ohne Schatten. Sam Kirson. Dec 17, 1966.

Opening Nights. Bob Ciano. Sept. 23, 1967.

Le Nozze di Figaro. Erté. Dec 9, 1967.

Doors to the East. Image of Vishnu. Oct 14, 1967.

Madame Butterfly. Virginia Frtiz. Mar 18, 1967.

Faust and Mephistopheles. Don De Mauro. Dec 24, 1966.