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Morgridge Fund and Private Opera Bequests combine to secure permanent endowment for University Opera

Cancer claims Karen Bishop, but husband carries out her wishes

by Katherine Esposito

It takes a big heart to pour oneself into a operatic solo, in front of a live audience, roles always edged with varying shades of emotion, all guaranteed to be intense.

For Karen K. Bishop, who returned to school at UW-Madison in her late 40s to gain master’s and doctoral degrees in opera, those emotions were only too real.

Karen Krieger Bishop

Karen Krieger Bishop

Bishop received a music degree in 1981 from Wheaton Conservatory of Music in Illinois, but decided to pursue her entrepreneurial interests, founding Rainbow Play Systems of South Central Wisconsin, retailers of playground equipment. In 1987, she married Charlie Bishop, who completed a postdoctoral fellowship in biochemistry at UW-Madison in the early 1980s. They had two children. Bishop sold the business in 2003 and turned her thoughts again to music.

She enrolled at the UW-Madison School of Music and became friends with much-younger Benjamin Schultz, then gaining his doctoral degree in opera. With Schultz, now assistant director of the school, the two talked and laughed and studied opera together.  She was singing and researching lost art songs of Ernst Bacon and John Duke. He was writing a book on Polish diction. They bought coffee on State Street and co-starred in a show. “She was hungry for knowledge,” Schultz said. “She followed her heart.”

What Schultz didn’t know is the reason why Bishop had sold her thriving business and entered the opera program. She had breast cancer, which was diagnosed in the mid-1990s and, in January, finally claimed her life. She was 54.

Very few people knew. That’s as she wished.  Now, her husband, Charlie, has acceded to another wish of Karen’s: to support the University Opera program.  He has joined community supporters and the local support group, UW Opera Props, to further a fund-raising campaign to “Go All In” to secure an endowed directorship for University Opera by pledging $500,000 to establish the Karen K. Bishop Fund for the Director of University Opera. That role has been temporarily filled by visiting opera director David Ronis. Ronis replaced William Farlow, who retired in 2014.

Bishop’s donation will be coupled with several hundred thousand dollars recently raised by local supporters of the opera program, including several individual member donations and a joint board donation from Opera Props, and a bequest from the estate of Margaret Winston, another longtime benefactor who died last September. With Bishop’s pledge, the fund has secured a dollar-for-dollar matching grant from the John and Tashia Morgridge Foundation, creating an endowed professorship and a lasting footing for the popular and successful program, which offers one of the few opera master’s degrees in the nation. Graduates have included current Broadway star Nathaniel Stampley; Gregory Schmidt, now with the Metropolitan Opera; Jamie-Rose Guarrine, who will join the faculty of University of Massachusets-Amherst this fall; James Kyrshak, who recently joined the Vienna State Opera; and Emily Birsan, currently performing with the Ryan Center of Chicago’s Lyric Opera.

It’s hard to overstate the value of the donations to the School of Music. The new Bishop Fund represents a “transformative opportunity,” said Prof. Mimmi Fulmer, with whom both Bishop and Schultz studied.  “University Opera will, for the first time, be able to plan for the future with a solid financial foundation,” she added.

Reached at his office in Miami, Florida, Charlie Bishop said that Karen was firm about her wishes. “We spoke of her desires,” he said. “She wanted to support University Opera and the School of Music. So, I made a commitment to make sure that that happened. It would make Karen happy to know that she had a positive impact on the School of Music that she admired so much.”

Bishop added that he hopes the new fund will raise the profile of University Opera and UW-Madison more generally.

“I often wonder if people in Madison realize how remarkable an achievement it is for students to mount two full opera productions every year,” he said. “It’s tremendously difficult. Professional organizations struggle.  But UW does it masterfully.”

“[The program] offers unsurpassed opportunities for vocal performance and to study operatic compositions by leading composers.”


Save the Date!

Sunday, September 27: Special Fundraising Concert with Brenda Rae, a rising opera star and alumna of the UW-Madison School of Music and The Juilliard School. Brenda will sing the Glière Concerto for Coloratura Soprano, op. 82, with the UW Symphony Orchestra. 7:30 p.m., Mills Hall. Tickets $25, on sale July 15 at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office.