Bill Theisen leaving Skylight, joining Univ. of Iowa opera program

Mike Muckian, Contributing writer

At one point in his life, Bill Theisen thought he might become a priest. But the universe had other plans for him. 

The Milwaukee native and Milwaukee Technical High School graduate was pursuing a career as a metallurgist when he saw a newspaper notice announcing an audition for “Man of La Mancha.” He tried out, got the part and soon left his other career aspirations behind.

“Within a year I was performing at the Skylight Theatre and getting paid to do what I love,” says Theisen, 52. “I didn’t go to college. I learned by doing.”

Theisen is taking that experience to college – as a teacher.  After directing the Skylight Music Theater’s current production of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” he’s moving on to direct the University of Iowa’s opera program. Theisen has had a relationship with Iowa since 1998, when he was hired as interim opera director for the 1998–99 academic year. He has returned numerous times since as a guest lecturer and director.

“This is an exciting time to join the faculty of the U of I as they are breaking ground on a new School of Music building,” Theisen says. “There is a great deal of potential with the opera program, and I look forward to working with the students and sharing my professional experience in hopes of furthering their careers.”

Theisen has served as the Skylight’s artistic director since 2004, but his relationship with the company goes back to 1981, when he began as a performer. Theisen, who describes his voice as “a bari-tenor,” has gone on to direct more than 100 operas and musical shows. He has worked with Carnegie Mellon University, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, New York University and other institutions. Prior to his current post at Skylight, he was a freelancer who had directed many Skylight shows.

“I loved my freelance career and was sorry to leave it behind, but when the Skylight offered me the position of artistic director, it was a no brainer,” he says.

Last year’s world premieres of “The Rivals” and “Daddy Longlegs” count among Theisen’s favorite productions. He also cites Milwaukee composer Josh Schmidt’s adaptation of Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine” as one of the most original and compelling works he has brought to the stage. It was a production for which he felt his audiences were ready.

“Milwaukee has a pretty great theater scene, and Skylight audiences have come to expect just about anything,” Theisen says. “Last year we did ‘Avenue Q’ and immediately followed it with ‘The Sound of Music,’ which says a lot about our range.”

Although his new post focuses almost exclusively on opera, Theisen expects the lines between classical opera and musical theater to continue to blur as composers of both genres narrow the divide. “The in-between world is going to come to life and it’s just going to be that much more exciting,” he says.