In its history as a company, Milwaukee Opera Theatre has gained a reputation for high-energy, imaginative productions. Their latest undertaking may be one of the most traditional in the opera canon — Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado — but when MOT stages the classic, it comes with a twist: a complete reinterpretation of the score and story that sets it in a “percussion playground” where rhythm rules.
Artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik says she and music director Ruben Piirainen, with the help of Skylight Music Theatre percussionist extraordinaire Michael “Ding” Lorenz, have put together a version of the comic opera that makes percussion instruments the true stars of the show. The entire score has been reorchestrated to be performed by an array of percussion instruments including drums, cymbals and bells (along with a single trombone), and their instruments will stand in for a traditional set to create the show’s environment.
“Everything comes back to: ‘Is there a musical solution?’” Ponasik says. “Even the props may be percussion instruments. We keep trying to answer every question with percussion.”
The Mikado in its original form tells the tale of the inhabitants of a bureaucratic village in Japan called Titipu, prevented from pursuing their true loves by arcane legalities, including a ban on flirting. Ponasik says MOT’s 10-person cast will forgo the Asian setting as well as a separate orchestra, and each performer will be responsible in turn for utilizing the many percussion instruments — despite no one in the cast actually being percussion-savvy.
“We’re trying to approach it with child-like enthusiasm,” Ponasik says, adding that their rearrangement of the score lends itself to a less formal presentation. “We didn’t sit down the way you would with a reorchestration of a typical classical piece, but it’s more like — here’s a pile of instruments, everyone pick one!“
Such a progressive, unique approach will certainly present a challenge for the ensemble, but Ponasik says it will give the opportunity to grow in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a straight, unaltered performance of The Mikado.
“One of our goals at MOT is to transform the landscape of lyric theatre,” she says. “If we’re going to let opera change and grow, we have to keep trying to do it in different ways.”
Ponasik and her cast say their reinterpretation is still evolving as opening night approaches, and some pieces are still mid-transformation. “The songs will adjust to the means of the instruments we have. The music will stay as written, and some songs will adjust more than others.
“I do think that what we make will be surprising and new and will be unlike any Mikado that has ever existed before this,” Ponasik says. “It will be uniquely Milwaukee Opera Theatre.”
As they say, nothing could possibly be more satisfactory.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre will perform The Mikado March 19-29 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. with some 2 p.m. matinees. Tickets are $28 or $22, with $15 preview and industry night seats. Visit milwaukeeoperatheatre.org for more details.
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Maria Callas is a legend, both for her outstanding prowess as an opera soprano and her infamously temperamental personality. In Master Class, playwright Terence McNally captures both, depicting Callas as she instructs a class of prospective singers and reflects upon her life. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings Angela Iannone back in the role she first performed in 1999. MCT has partnered with directors Jill Anna Ponasik and James Zager of Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Carroll University for this powerful opening to the group’s 40th-anniversary season.
At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets range from $15 to $40. Phone 414-291-7800 or go to milwaukeechambertheatre.com.
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Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s most famous production returns, in all its superheroic, operatic glory. Fortuna, an opera commissioned from Jason Powell in 2010 and first performed in 2012, tells the story of Anyville, a town that’s been cleansed of crime until the evil Headmaster and his Schoolgirls of Doom cross the Atlantic to challenge the time-bending Fortuna, who must recruit an ally from the average citizenry of Anyville to vanquish her foe. Although this sounds like an unorthodox premise for an opera, Superheroes are red-hot right — and so is this production, complete with its original cast.
At the Alchemist Theatre, 2569 S. Kinnickinnic Ave., Milwaukee. Tickets are $22, $10 for student rush. Order at 800-838-3006 or online at milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.
May 7 to May 24
There’s only one superhero-slash-opera singer out there, and her origin story is set in Milwaukee.
And so is her triumphant return, as Milwaukee Opera Theatre revives its acclaimed operetta Fortuna the Time Bender vs. The Schoolgirls of Doom, an original work that artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik commissioned Jason Powell to write in 2009. The two crossed paths in an Alchemist Theatre production of Powell’s sci-fi comedy Invader? I Hardly Know Her! Ponasik performed in the production, and the two hit it off so well that she asked him to write MOT’s first full-length production.
Powell says the two threw around different ideas, but his interest in comics eventually determined the choice. At the time, Powell was not only a fan of comics but also a blogger on the subject.
Since Powell’s knowledge of opera was limited to Gilbert and Sullivan, he says half-jokingly, Fortuna is laced with lyrical and melodic allusions to their work. A very successful staged reading led to a 2012 production at the Alchemist that slowly built into a series of sell-out performances. The production was so well received, in fact, that the theater added a Sunday night show that sold out within four hours of its announcement.
The story of Fortuna unfolds in Anyville, a city recently cleansed of all crime thanks to the superhero Fortuna (Samantha Sostrich). Her special super-hero power is her ability to manipulate time.
But, alas, her efforts are torn asunder by the sudden appearance of a very British supervillain (Nathan Wesselowski) and his three schoolgirl assistants (Katy Johnson, Lisa Buchmeier and Rana Roman). She must draft a local citizen, Joe (Jonathan Stewart), to be her sidekick, despite his lack of superpowers.
Ponasik and Powell say they’ve been fortunate to have their entire cast (including Melissa Kelly Cardamone as Joe’s girlfriend Elizabeth and Diane Lane as Narrator) return for the Fortuna revival. They’ve enjoyed the opportunity to polish a few of the original production’s rougher scenes. Ponasik says she brought Christopher Elst back to improve some of the fight scenes, for example. And cast members are trying out new ways to finesse their performances, she adds.
The May performances at Alchemist Theatre are not the first in which the cast has reunited to recreate the magic. Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, MOT brought the cast together last year to produce a complete studio recording of Fortuna. The album has served as something of a promotion for the upcoming Fortuna revival, according to Ponasik.
Ponasik is counting on the people who’ve told her how much they want to see Fortuna return or how much they regret missing it the first time to help make the revival a success. The show, she adds, has wide appeal, drawing in opera buffs, comic lovers and average Joes and Joannes.
“I haven’t hardly met anyone who didn’t like it,” she says.
Universal likability is a superpower that no performance company should turn down.
Milwaukee Opera Theatre teams up with UWM’s opera program to present Ravel’s L’enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells), a one-act about a naughty child tormented by objects and animals he’s abused. An army of singers and an array of puppets will be joined on stage by the UWM Symphony Orchestra. Choreography is by Edward Winslow. At Helen Bader Concert Hall, 2419 E. Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $8 to $12, and can be ordered at 414-229-4308 or uwm.edu.
7:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 14 and Sat., Feb. 15