This spring, University Opera follows up its groundbreaking video production on the life and times of composer Marc Blitzstein with another video. What’s Past is Prologue: The Unfinished American Conversation, a program of staged and filmed songs and song cycles with social and racial justice themes, will be released on the Mead Witter School of Music YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/7Up_OXD6K2U on April 10 at 7:30 pm, with an encore stream on April 11 at 2 pm. David Ronis, Director of University Opera, is directing, and Thomas Kasdorf is the musical director.

Today, many Americans feel we are at a crossroads. We are suffering from the isolation, grief, and financial hardship that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about and are wary of escalating antagonism among us exacerbated by the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath. Women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights continue to be debated and threatened. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has cast into stark relief our country’s checkered record on racism, law enforcement, and civil rights.

What’s Past is Prologue: The Unfinished American Conversation addresses these concerns through a series of songs and song cycles focused on events in American history, seen through the lens of today’s socio-political climate. The title, taken from the famous quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, asks us to examine our history–where we have been, where we are now– and to consider where we might be headed.

The program features works by living composers with texts written by, or about, six eminent Americans who lived in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Steven Mark Kohn’s The Trial of Susan B. Anthony recounts how the legendary suffragist, defying state and federal laws, voted in the 1872 election and was subsequently brought to trial. Songs by Jennifer Higdon, Christopher Berg, Michael Daugherty, John Kander, and Ned Rorem on texts by Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln bring us to the era of the Civil War.

They ask us to examine our fraught history and suggest parallels in our current time. Mr. Kohn’s The War Prayer is a setting of a posthumously published poem by Mark Twain that is, at once, an anti-war piece as well as one that questions faith in God. Tom Cipullo’s Frederick Douglass pays tribute to the great American abolitionist and social reformer, famous for his advocacy for all people, but especially for African-Americans. And finally, settings of five Langston Hughes poems by Gwyneth Walker, Margaret Bonds, and Madison’s own Scott Gendel, depict the African-American experience in the 1930s but also have tremendous resonance in today’s troubled times.

The show features UW-Madison graduate students Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Amanda Lauricella, Lindsey Meekhof, Kyle Sackett, Molly Schumacher, DaSean Stokes, Sachie Ueshima, and Julia Urbank as well as undergrads Maria Steigerwald and Princess Vaulx. The two pianists for the production are UW-Madison opera coach Thomas Kasdorf and graduate student William Preston. Rounding out the cast are three guest artists: doctoral students Quanda Johnson and James Harrington, and Professor Paul Rowe. The video design is by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park. Others on the production staff include Rachel Love, research assistant; Grace Greene, production stage manager; Cecilia League, assistant stage manager; Molly Schumacher, operations manager; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video premieres on April 10 at 7:30 pm with a repeat showing on April 11 at 2 pm. It will remain accessible for 23 hours after each stream. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted.

In addition to the show, University Opera will post two extra features, both panel discussions. The first–a discussion of  legacy of the patriarchy and other hierarchical structures in the arts, and how that paradigm is shifting–features Amy Gilman, Director of the Chazen Museum of Art; Susan C. Cook, Director of the Mead Witter School of Music; and Quanda Johnson, guest artist in the production and Ph.D. candidate in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies. The second brings together the students who perform in The Trial of Susan B. Anthony to discuss the piece, Ms. Anthony, her controversial stance on race, and cancel culture.

University Opera is a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music whose mission is to provide comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for our students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, please contact opera@music.wisc.edu.

 

Photo by Larry Chua

This article originally appeared in Madison Magazine
By Michael Muckian

Social circumstances often govern the fate of performing arts companies. Consider 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many local and national groups to postpone or cancel productions outright. Some troupes, made more nimble by necessity, can and do successfully adapt as conditions warrant. David Ronis, the Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, knows well how the strategy works.

Like other groups, University Opera faced a challenging 2020-21 season. The fall production of “I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – A Man and His Music” evolved from a live performance into a creative online virtual format, filmed against historic photo backdrops with little reliance on the “Brady Bunch” embrace of Zoom technology.

The spring production of “The Crucible,” composer Robert Ward’s operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning play that used the Salem Witch Trials as an indictment of 1950s McCarthyism, was, unfortunately, too complex for such an adaptation.

Ronis’ ongoing challenge, however, has less to do with the pandemic and its aftermath than waiting to see what vocal talent comes through the university’s doors in time for the fall 2021 season. The mix of student voices helps determine which operas will be performed, he says.

“I don’t plan a repertoire until the end of April or early May, since we don’t know which graduate students will be at school,” says Ronis, who started in 2014 as visiting professor before formally joining the School of Music faculty two years later. “I always choose operas based on the students enrolled in the program, with an eye toward serving graduate students because they’re on a definite career track.”

Ronis’ reach goes well beyond that of a music educator. The Syosset, New York, native has helped found opera companies and directed operatic and theatrical productions nationwide, and his robust tenor has sung more than 50 operatic character roles with more than 30 companies throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. He clearly understands the world his students will enter and does his best to make that transition as seamless and successful as possible.

“David tends to pick operas with lots of roles, meaning lots of students get a chance to perform, which is crucial to the education of young singers,” says Kathryn Smith, general director of Madison Opera. “All of that contributes to a pipeline for professional companies, building future production personnel, future administrators, future teachers and future audiences.”

Ronis’ efforts to give students the best educational experience possible, backed by School of Music resources, have borne significant fruit over his nearly seven-year UW–Madison tenure. The department has earned seven National Opera Association Opera Productions Awards since his arrival — the most recent for last year’s production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” — and has won The American Prize from the National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts multiple times.

“My predecessors in this role never entered competitions, but if you win something, it’s good for everybody,” Ronis says. “Students work within their own microcosm at the university level. It’s great for them to have a broader perspective of what other schools are doing and great for the community.”

Building on preexisting program goals when he arrived, Ronis introduced acting classes for the singers. Better acting contributes more accomplished character development and greater depth to the production’s interpretation, strengthening the content and adding to audience enjoyment.

“In the old days it was often ‘park and bark’ in which performers would plant themselves onstage and just sing,” Ronis says. “I started the acting course to make them the best performers they can be.”

Ronis also is searching for more diversity in operatic productions, both in terms of content and presentation. He plans to present material written by or featuring artists of color and to embrace social justice themes strongly.

In the same vein, he also seeks exemplary operas from the standard repertoire to give his students the broadest experience — and most complete performance resume — possible.

“An important part of the program is training young singers, and standard repertoire is critical to that effort,” Ronis says. “The goals and the market continue to evolve and I feel pretty good that we have been designing and executing productions that meet those goals.

“Students are here to learn,” he adds. “If we can provide experiences that check off many of the boxes, then I’ve done my job.”

University Opera has been awarded 2nd place in the 2019-2020 National Opera Association Production Competition (Division V) for last winter’s production of Cosi fan tutte.

The goal of the NOA Opera Production Competition is to further the organization’s mission by encouraging and rewarding creative, high quality opera productions at academic institutions and music conservatories. The Opera Production Competition is divided into multiple divisions so that competitors are fairly judged against similarly cast and budgeted productions.

Learn more here.

University Opera explored the vicissitudes of love with Mozart’s beloved Cosi fan tutte. Blending rollicking humor with keen insight and barely concealed cynicism, Cosi features some of the most ravishing music Mozart ever wrote.

The University Opera production placed Cosi in 1920, a time in which the early women’s rights movement was gaining momentum. Against this backdrop, this story of male manipulation takes on greater dimensionality and nuance.

The cast featured Rachel Love and Cayla Rosché alternating as Fiordiligi, and Chloe Agostino and Julia Urbank splitting the performances as Dorabella. Carly Ochoa, Anja Pustaver, and Kelsey Wang all sing the role of Despina. Benjamin Hopkins sang Ferrando, Kevin Green played Guglielmo, and James Harrington was Don Alfonso.

The production was designed by Joseph Varga with lighting by Zak Stowe. Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park were the costume designers; Lydia Berggruen, the props designer; Jan Ross, hair and wig designer, and the production stage manager was Dylan Thoren. Others on the production staff included Benjamin Hopkins, operations manager for University Opera; Alice Combs, master electrician; assistant stage managers Grace Greene and Cecilia League; and Ashley Haggard and Kelsey Wang, costume assistants.

Cosi fan tutte, by W.A. Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
David A Ronis, Director
Oriol Sans, Conductor
Joseph Varga, Scenic Designer
Thomas Kasdorf, Vocal Coach

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964). I WISH IT SO: MARC BLITZSTEIN – THE MAN IN HIS MUSIC will be released on the Mead Witter School of Music YouTube channel on October 23 at 8 pm. Director of University Opera David Ronis will direct and Thomas Kasdorf will be the musical director.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century. Known for his musicals (most notably The Cradle Will Rock – 1937), his opera Regina (1948), and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art and, like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the US Army during World War II.

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein was called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities where he “named no names.” An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein and traveled in a close circle of composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland. Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia. Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors who he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries.

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received quite the attention they deserved. Thus, University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

I WISH IT SO: MARC BLITZSTEIN – THE MAN IN HIS MUSIC is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration. The result is a dramatic, evocative, and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art. Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The show features five accomplished UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof, and Steffen Silvis. The video design will be done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park. Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8:00 pm on October 23, 2020. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video.

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email opera@music.wisc.edu.

Shakespearian Opera with Pop Art and Go-go boots!

University Opera’s outside-of-the-box production of Benjamin Britten’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM evokes the 1960s world of Andy Warhol

This fall, University Opera steps outside the proverbial box, setting Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Factory, Andy Warhol’s famous (or perhaps infamous) studio, in the mid-1960s.  Three performances of Britten’s evocative, colorful opera will be presented at the Music Hall on the UW-Madison campus on November 15 at 7:30pm, November 17 at 2:00pm, and November 19 at 7:30pm.  The Mead Witter School of Music’s new Director of Orchestral Activities, Oriol Sans, will conduct the UW-Madison Symphony and Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera, David Ronis, will direct the production.

The magical plot of Midsummer revolves around the adventures of four lovers and six “rustics,” or “rude mechanicals,” all manipulated by a group of fairies.  It features the machinations of Oberon, King of the Fairies, trying to get even with his queen, Tytania, with whom he is at odds.  While the rustics prepare to perform at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta, Oberon also attempts to influence the love interests of four young people.  Mistakes are made, and the lovers’ allegiances are thrown into confusion.  But in the end, all is resolved as those assembled for the wedding enjoy the rustics’ performance of the hilarious “Pyramus and Thisby” play.

Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, masterfully crafted the libretto for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from Shakespeare’s iconic play, trimming the text and re-ordering some scenes.  The result is a beautifully balanced, atmospheric yet playful musical version of Shakespeare’s play that regularly delights audiences.

The UW-Madison production imagines Oberon as a kind of Andy Warhol character, and his kingdom as Warhol’s workspace/playspace, The Factory.  Some of the other characters are loosely modeled on those who were active in Warhol’s world.  Tytania is inspired by Edie Sedgwick, Puck resembles Ondine, one of the Warhol Superstars, and the lovers are artists employed at The Factory.  The “mechanicals” are depicted as a hodgepodge group of misfit blue collar workers, Warhol wannabes, who come together as an avant-garde theater troupe.  The stories of the fairies, lovers, and mechanicals converge at the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta who, in this setting, are arts philanthropists whose wedding takes place at, naturally, The Factory.

The large cast features countertenor Thomas Aláan as Oberon and Amanda Lauricella alternating with Kelsey Wang as Tytania.  Puck will be played by Michael Kelley and the Boy, “Damon,” by Tanner Zocher.  Of the four lovers, the role of Helena will be split between Jing Liu and Rachel Love; Chloe Agostino and Julia Urbank will alternate as Hermia; Benjamin Liupaogo and DaSean Stokes will take on Lysander; and Kevin Green will appear in all the performances as Demetrius.  The “mechanicals” will be played by James Harrington (Bottom), Jake Elfner (Quince), Thore Dosdall (Flute), Jack Innes (Starveling), Jeffrey Larson (Snout), and Benjamin Galvin (Snug).  The ensemble of fairies will include Miranda Kettlewell (Cobweb), Lauren Shafer (Mustardseed), Madelaine Trewin (Moth), and Brooke Wahlstrom (Peaseblossom) as well as Chloé Flesch, Angela Fraioli, Maria Marsland, and Maria Steigerwald. Hippolyta will be played by Lindsey Meekhof and UW-Madison Professor of Voice, Paul Rowe, will sing the role of Theseus.

The production will be designed by Greg Silver (also the Technical Director) with lighting by Kenneth Ferencek.  Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park will be the costume designers; Jennifer Childers, the props designer; Lindsey Meekhof, the assistant director; and the production stage manager will be Sarah Luedtke.  Others on the production staff include Benjamin Hopkins, operations manager for University Opera; Alice Combs, master electrician; assistant electrician Rachael Wasson; assistant stage managers Grace Greene and Cecilia League; and Ashley Haggard and Kelsey Wang, costume assistants.

The public is invited to a pre-performance panel discussion which will take place:

November 17, 2019
12:30 – 1:20pm
Music Hall
Free Admission

On the panel will be:
Joshua Calhoun – Associate Professor of English, UW-Madison
Steffen Silvis – Ph.D. Candidate in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies, UW-Madison
Douglas Rosenberg – Professor of Art, UW-Madison

David Ronis – Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera, UW-Madison

Susan Cook, Director of the Mead Witter School of Music, Moderator

Tickets are $25.00 for the general public, $20.00 for senior citizens and $10.00 for UW-Madison students, available in advance through the Campus Arts Ticketing office at (608) 265-ARTS and online at http://www.arts.wisc.edu/ (click “box office”). Tickets may also be purchased in person (at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 12:00-5:00 p.m. and the Vilas Hall Box Office, Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., and after 5:30 p.m. on University Theatre performance evenings) or at the door beginning one hour before the performance.  The Carol Rennebohm Auditorium is located in the Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill on Park Street.

University Opera is a cultural service of the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose mission is to provide comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for our students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, please contact opera@music.wisc.edu. Or visit the School of Music’s web site at music.wisc.edu.

January 10, 2018
Contact:
David Ronis ronis@wisc.edu
Katherine Esposito  kesposito@wisc.edu

Riveting theater, achingly beautiful music abound in upcoming University Opera production of La Bohème

University Opera takes over the Wisconsin Union Theater for a three-day run of Puccini’s masterpiece

On February 23, 24 and 25, University Opera, in collaboration with the Wisconsin Union Theater, will present a special production of Giacomo Puccini’s timeless masterpiece, La Bohème, at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall.  This marks the first time in over 15 years that University Opera has staged a production at the Union Theater and the first bona fide opera production in the space since the theater’s renovation in 2014.  Conducted by interim UW-Madison Director of Orchestras, Chad Hutchinson, and directed by Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera, David Ronis, the production will be performed in Italian with English supertitles.  It will take full advantage of the many upgrades to Shannon Hall, in particular, the expanded orchestra pit which will accommodate the UW-Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Friday, Feb. 23 @ 7:30 PM

Saturday, Feb. 24 @ 7:30 PM

Sunday, Feb. 25 @3:00 PM

Arguably Puccini’s most beautiful work, La Bohème blends riveting theater with sumptuous music.  The incomparable score accompanies the story of Rodolfo and Mimi, a penniless poet and a seamstress, who fall in love and suffer through heartbreak and tragedy.  Along for the ride are Rodolfo’s fellow starving artist buddies, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline, as well as Marcello’s sassy yet bighearted girlfriend, Musetta, all surviving on laughter and the promise of love.

Says longtime University Opera supporter Kathleen Harker: “I am excited to see opera return to Shannon Hall at the Union with the University Opera’s lavish production of Puccini’s La Boheme. I have fond memories of seeing my first opera, a touring Metropolitan Opera production of ‘Madama Butterfly,’ at the Memorial Union in 1965.”

La Bohème is chock full of memorable arias including Rodolfo’s “Che gelida manina” and Mimi’s “Mi chiamano Mimi”  both from the end of the first act, when Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love; as well as Musetta’s Waltz, “Quando m’en vò,” which Musetta sings in the lively second act to arouse Marcello’s jealousy.  It was also the inspiration for Rent, Jonathan Larson’s musical theater adaptation of the material, recently seen at the Overture Center in a national touring production.


Above: Luciano Pavarotti sings “Che Gelida Manina,” 1961

University Opera’s production sets La Bohème in Paris of 1925, the period called les années folles, “the crazy years” – France’s version of the Roaring Twenties – during which time so many famous artists and intellectuals found themselves in the City of Light.  Among the crowd at the Café Momus in the second act, audience members might be able to pick out characters inspired by some of these famous expats – F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dalí, Simone de Beauvoir, Man Ray, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.  “We’re so excited to be presenting this timeless, heart-wrenching story against the backdrop of the vibrant cultural and artistic milieu of Paris in the 1920s,” says director David Ronis.  “The environment is a natural fit for generating the emotionally charged performances that really make La Bohème so fulfilling to see.”

This marks the first time in over 15 years that University Opera has staged a production at the Union Theater and the first bona fide opera production in the space since the theater’s renovation in 2014.

The transposition of the story to the 1920s also provides fertile ground for the imagination of set designer Joseph Varga, emeritus professor of scenic design in the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama.  For this production, Varga has designed a non-literal unit set that functions beautifully for both indoor and outdoor scenes, the background of which features a stunning roofscape view of Paris.  Varga is joined by M.F.A. student lighting designer, Sruthi Suresan, costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park and props designer Jennifer Childers.  Completing the production team will be production manager Martie Barthel-Steer, technical director Greg Silver, scenic painters Teresa Sarkela and Yoshinori Asai, prop manager Jo Chalhoub, rehearsal pianist Sarah Williams, assistant director Sarah Kendall, and assistant stage managers Meghan Stecker and Delaney Egan.

This large production will involve over 80 UW-Madison students – singers, instrumentalists, and stage crew – as well as ten young performers who are members of Madison Youth Choirs.  Most of the principal roles will be double cast.  Shaddai Solidum and Yanzelmalee Rivera will split performances as Mimi. UW-Madison doctoral candidate and Madison Opera studio artist Benjamin Liupaogo will divide performances of Rodolfo with José Muñiz.  Katie Anderson and Claire Powling will both perform the role of Musetta, Matt Chastain and alumnus James Held will be Marcello, Nicholas Damiano and John McHugh will perform Schaunard.  Guest artist and alumnus Benjamin Schultz-Burkel will be seen as Colline, Jeremiah Gile as Benoit, and Jake Elner as Alcindoro.  UW-Madison vocal coach, Dr. Daniel Fung, will be responsible for the musical preparation.

Tickets are $38 for premium seating, $30 general admission, $25 senior tickets, $15 non-UW-Madison students and $10 UW-Madison students and are available in advance through the Campus Arts Ticketing office at (608) 265-ARTS and online at https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/la-boheme/. Tickets may also be purchased in person at the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office Monday-Friday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 12:00-5:00 p.m.

Because shows often sell out, advance purchase is recommended. If unsold tickets remain, they may be purchased at the door beginning one hour before the performance.

University Opera is a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, whose mission is to provide comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for our students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, please contact opera@music.wisc.edu. Or visit the School of Music’s web site at https://www.music.wisc.edu/

Below, enjoy two more gorgeous arias from La Bohème. We will see you at the Union in late February!


Anna Netrebko sings “Si, mi chiamo mimi”


Maria Callas sings “Quando me’n vo,'” 1958