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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.

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The School of Music rallies behind stricken student

Concert to Benefit UW-Madison Trombonist Brittany Sperberg

On Wednesday, March 18, the School of Music’s brassiest ensembles will join forces in a concert to benefit Brittany Sperberg, a formerly highly visible and energetic trombonist now stricken with an undiagnosed ailment. This semester, Brittany reluctantly withdrew from school to attend to her medical needs and her performing future is in doubt. She will also have to miss next month’s Carnegie Hall debut of the UW Wind Ensemble.

Brittany Sperberg

Brittany Sperberg

Brittany, a Shawano native, is a senior majoring in music education, now being treated full time at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Her symptoms began last August with a painful infection in her nasal cavity, and despite numerous tests, medications, surgeries, scans and biopsies, the cause and precise treatment remain a mystery. She was hospitalized on Christmas Eve, and while her family is insured, the out-of-pocket expenses–including travel, hotel, food and loss of employment from her mother who is at her side– are mounting.

Groups to perform at the benefit will include the UW Wind Ensemble, directed by Prof. Scott Teeple; the UW Jazz Orchestra, directed by Prof. Johannes Wallmann; the Low Brass Ensemble, directed by Prof. Mark Hetzler; Dat Brass, a funk horn band founded by Sperberg; and the Badger Brass, featuring her fellow students. Brittany performed in all of these ensembles, and more: she also played her trombone with the Latin Jazz Ensemble and even sang with the Twisted Metal Horn Choir, directed by Prof. Daniel Grabois.

“If you’ve spent any time with Brittany Sperberg, you know her as a person with energy, love and creativity, in amounts that go beyond the norm,” says her teacher, trombone professor Mark Hetzler. “Her heart is bigger than what should be possible, her mind is open to amazing ideas and her spirit always seems to soar. Even in the midst of this horrible illness, with her music career and trombone future up in the air, Brittany continues to keep a positive attitude and an incredibly upbeat sense of humor. She has been a true warrior in the face of this adversity.”

In November 2013, Brittany wrote an account of her experiences at the School of Music that remains one of the school’s all-time most popular posts.

Read it here: https://uwmadisonschoolofmusic.wordpress.com/2013/11/18/sperberg/

The benefit concert will be held in Mills Hall on Wednesday, March 18, 7:30 PM. A suggested donation is $10.00, and more is welcome.

Online donations can be made at this website:

Checks may also be mailed to Mark Hetzler, 5326 Russett Rd., Madison, WI 53711. Please make checks out to “Brittany Sperberg.”
For more information or an interview, please contact
• Mark Hetzler at (608) 628-5026 or hetzler@wisc.edu.
• Katherine Esposito (608) 263-5615 or kesposito@wisc.edu