New Skylight artistic director traveled unusual career path

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Viswa Subbaraman -Photo: Mark Frohna

Viswa Subbaraman always knew that music would be a part of his life, but he wasn’t always aware that it would become his career.

The new artistic director of Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre originally planned to become a physician, like his father and grandfather. Subbaraman was a sophomore at Duke University enrolled in pre-med studies when a trip to Vienna with the Duke Wind Ensemble dramatically altered his life’s course.

Ironically, it was a trip he did not want to take.

“I am a devout basketball and football fan and had to be convinced to go and skip basketball season at Duke,” says Subbaraman, a West Texas native. “It was the first time in my life I saw a professional orchestra live.”

The orchestra was the Vienna Philharmonic under the direction of conductor Claudio Abbado. While in Vienna, Subbaraman, who plays trombone and violin, also saw his first opera – 15 of them, in fact. He hated the first five, but the art form that was to become the center of his life soon began to grow on him.

“We knew only medicine as a professional career choice, but I began to realize the greatest doctors are the ones who are called to it,” Subbaraman, now 36, says. “That passion is important because it’s a difficult field, and I didn’t have that passion.”

Music quickly replaced medicine for Subbaraman, who graduated from Duke with degrees in both biology and music. He became an assistant to North Carolina Symphony conductor William Henry Curry, and his fledgling musical career began to blossom.

Subbaraman earned a master’s degree from Texas Tech University and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study conducting in Paris with John Nelson, conductor of the Ensemble orchestral de Paris. Two months after his arrival, Maestro Kurt Masur offered him a position as assistant conductor with the Orchestre National de France. Masur also arranged for Subbaraman to participate in the 2006 Beethoven Seminar in Bonn, an event usually open only to German conductors.

Subbaraman returned to Texas, and in 2006 he founded Opera Vista, a Houston-based opera company that specializes in contemporary composers. He also earned an MBA from McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas-Austin.

Subbaraman’s unique background gave him the dual credentials needed to run the Skylight, founded in 1959, as both an artistic and business enterprise.

Although his position officially started in July, Subbaraman arrived early enough this year to have a hand in creating the Skylight’s 2013–14 season. 

“I tried to keep the arc of what the Skylight has done historically,” he says. “I wanted to integrate the performances in a way that would allow us to start a conversation with the public.”

The season opens Sept. 20 with a Bollywood-style production of Beethoven’s opera “Fidelio,” followed by “Les Misérable.” The theme of the season is revolution. 

“The Skylight has been trying get the rights to ‘Les Misérables’ for years, and they finally came through,” he says.

Subbaraman plans to stretch that thread a bit, closing the season in May with “Hair,” the “hippie musical” that shocked theatergoers in 1967 with its anti-war sentiment, drug references and nudity. The show seems tame in comparison to many contemporary Broadway offerings, but contributes to the broad range of production styles that now characterize not only the Skylight’s offerings, but also the changing face of musical theater.

“Great theater fundamentally tells a great story, whether we do it through opera or musicals,” Subbaraman says. “We are going to aim for two operas each season, but we’re not pitting one musical form against the other.”

Subbaraman says the Skylight has stayed ahead of national trends with its historical mix of musical styles. He’s impressed with the city’s theater scene and plans to rise to the demands posed by local audiences, he adds.

“Milwaukee has a very substantive arts audience that is interested in good performances, and that makes things exciting and challenging,” he says. “All the bases are covered when it comes to the classical arts. I’m curious to see whether there is an appetite for world music and an ethnic arts scene.”

Casting Beethoven’s only opera in the style of a Bollywood musical is a good first step toward answering that question.