Wisconsin opera keeps soaring to new heights

Blend the best of music and the best of theater and what do you get? Why, opera, of course. But that’s not to say appreciating opera is easy.

“Opera is complex for those who perform it, but also for those who listen to it. It takes more time, more patience and more spirit of sacrifice,” operatic tenor Andrea Bocelli once said. “All this is well worth it because opera offers such deep sensations that they will remain in a heart for a lifetime.”

Wisconsin opera companies this season are offering a blend of the old and the new, with a few world premieres thrown in for good measure. Here is what’s coming up on local stages.

MILWAUKEE

The Florentine Opera Company launches its 83rd season with another world premiere. Florentine general director William Florescu directs Sister Carrie (Oct. 7 and Oct. 9), a new work by two-time Grammy Award winners Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein, authors of the opera Elmer Gantry. Sister Carrie is based on Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel recounts the story of a man who loses everything in pursuit of a small-town girl who goes to the big city in search of opportunity. The story is set during the heartless, newly industrialized America of the early 20th century.

Next up is Romance Español (Feb. 10–12), the traditional Valentine’s Day weekend gift from the Florentine Opera Studio Artists. Latin music and culture inspires this song cycle, which features some of the area’s finest young operatic voices in a delightful revue.

The Wisconsin opera season continues with Mozart’s Don Giovanni (March 17 and March 19). The tale of the womanizing rake brought to heel by the fates is considered one of Mozart’s greatest works. The writer Gustave Flaubert once said that along with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the sea, Mozart’s opera “was one of the three finest things God ever made.”

The Florentine concludes its season with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (May 5 and May 7), a ribald comedy from one of history’s greatest opera composers. Deceptions and counter-deceptions thread their way through Rossini’s frothy score in a work that’s as accessible as it is brilliant.

The Florentine plays most of its dates in the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts’ Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. 414-273-7121; florentineopera.org

Although it’s navigated some choppy waters in recent months, the Skylight Music Theatre under interim artistic director Ray Jivoff is launching a full

Eric McKeever
Eric McKeever singing the role of a runaway slave in the Skylight Music Theatre’s prior production of El Cimarron, which plays again this season at Broadway Theater Center’s intimate Studio Theatre.

season comprising four musicals and an opera. First up is a production of Violet (Sept. 30–Oct. 16), with music by Tony Award-winner Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley. Set in the segregated South of 1964, the work chronicles a disfigured “pilgrim” in search of a faith healer to ease her troubles. Love along the way helps the young woman better cope with her challenges.

Next up is the popular La Cage Aux Folles (Nov. 18–Dec. 23), the multiple Tony Award-winner with book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Jerry Herman (Hello, Dolly! and Mame). The work is a touching comedy of love and cross-dressing.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change (Feb. 3–19), the delightful musical comedy that asks the question, “Where did all this personal baggage come from?” — and invites its audience to relive the joys and frustrations of relationships at nearly every stage of life.

For something completely different, there’s Zémire et Azor or Beauty and the Beast (March 17–26). The French Baroque operatic version of the classic fairy tale about the power of love dates back to 1771 and was part of the French repertory until 1821. It was said to have been a favorite of Marie Antoinette, although it’s anyone’s guess which character she most identified with. This is the Wisconsin premiere of Colin Graham’s English adaptation of the work.

The Skylight’s season ends with Sweeney Todd (May 19–June 11). Stephen Sondheim’s tale of “the demon barber of Fleet Street” earned eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score. The dark musical teaches us just what an angry man wronged by society can do with a straight razor, a trap door and an endless supply of pie crusts.

Skylight Music Theater is part of the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. 414-291-7800; skylightmusictheatre.org

MADISON

Kathryn Smith enters her fifth year as general director of the Madison Opera with a blend of classic repertoire and a new work designed to jazz up the 2016–17 season.

That season officially began July 24 with Opera in the Park, the annual free outdoor performance of opera highlights at Madison’s Garner Park. The production offered the best of past Madison Opera seasons, as well as previews of the shows to come. This year’s Saturday night event was moved to Sunday due to rain.

Dead Man Walking
Madison Opera’s 2014 production of Dead Man Walking became a community phenomenon, inspiring forums and discussions about the death penalty.

Presumably, weather will not be a factor for the opera’s first indoor performance of Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet (Nov. 4 and Nov. 6). You know the story. Now add soaring arias, impassioned love scenes and plenty of swordfights and you will have a sense of the magic Gounod’s version brings to the stage.

Wisconsin opera takes a different turn with Charlie Parker’s Yardbird (Feb. 10 and Feb. 12). The legendary tenor sax jazz artist returns in spirit to relive his finest moments in this 2015 opera by composer Daniel Schnyder and librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly. Madison Opera is only the second company to perform this synthesis of opera and jazz, which the Wall Street Journal said “crackles with energy.”

The season ends with The Magic Flute, Mozart’s beloved classic that helped raise the stature of a musical genre previously known as songspiel. Mozart wrote the tale of a prince, a princess, mystic rituals and enchanted musical instruments in the final year of his short life, and it’s clear he was saving some his best efforts for last.

The Madison Opera is a resident company of Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. 608-258-4141; madisonopera.org