Tag Archives: opera

Before Broadway, ‘Miss Saigon’ to appear on movie screens

American audiences will get the rare chance to catch a sneak peek of the new Miss Saigon before it opens on Broadway next spring. They just have to go to a movie theater.

A filmed version of the musical’s live 25th-anniversary celebration in London will make its world premiere on some 175 U.S. movie theaters on Sept. 22, some six months before the same production with the same leading actors lands on Broadway.

The show captured the performance at the Prince Edward Theatre in London’s West End in September 2014 and was augmented by close-ups recorded a few months after the show closed there earlier this year.

The same stars — Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer and Eva Noblezada as Kim — are slated to appear when the show opens at the Broadway Theatre in March, but mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh isn’t worried the broadcast will cannibalize fans.

“It encourages business,” he said. “This is the greatest cinematic trailer for a theatrical production that’s ever been produced. I could be wrong, but I defy anybody who loves the show and isn’t bowled over by the film not to want to go.”

Miss Saigon, a tragic Vietnam War love story inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, has songs by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who also wrote Les Miserables.

Mackintosh said he didn’t initially plan for a broadcast version of Miss Saigon, but was persuaded to capture the 25th anniversary of its West End arrival with a dozen cameras. A special finale was added that featured the original stars Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga and Simon Bowman — as well as Mackintosh making a surprise appearance.

He considered it one of the top three performances of Miss Saigon in its history. “Beyond just it being a wonderful performance, there was a sense of magic in the air,” he said. (As for Mackintosh himself, “I bounce around like an irrepressible ball.”)

He and his team decided to add documentary footage and fold in close-ups shot later. They reminded viewers it was a live event by not digitally removing the performers’ microphones and layering in shots of the audience going into the theater and their reactions at some scenes.

“What producer in his lifetime gets the chance to do a great show twice with two brilliant companies in two different productions? Not many people have ever had that opportunity,” said Mackintosh.

The final result is presented by Fathom Events, Universal Pictures and Picturehouse Entertainment. American audiences will see the same production from London directed by Laurence Connor and with its two stars. “They’re seeing what they’re going to get,” Mackintosh said.

When the revival finally arrives on Broadway, it will join other Mackintosh-produced works like The Phantom of the Opera and Cats, which returned this summer. (It will have missed his latest revival of Les Miserables, which closes next month after 21/2 years.)

“Thirty years on, to have my four great musicals of that era still firing on all cylinders is amazing,” he said. “I’m as enthusiastic about these great shows now as I was when I helped create them all those decades ago because, to me, they smell as if they’re absolutely freshly minted.”


On the Web


UW-Madison professor pens a new opera about a neglected female painter

images - wigout - 051916 - Schwendinger“Official” artistic canons have historically recorded a greater number of men than women among their ranks. But that discrepancy is shifting in both the present and the past, as female artists in the modern era stake their claims and female artists from the past are honored by research and scholarship.

One recent project with Wisconsin ties will bring two such women forward, one from the 21st century and one from the 17th. UW-Madison music professor Laura Elise Schwendigner has been awarded more than $75,000 in grants in order to finish her first full-length opera Artemisia, a chamber opera based on the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, an Italian Baroque painter.

“The story of Artemisia hit me when I was an artist-in-residence in Rome (in 2009),” says Schwendinger, who herself paints. “I visited a lot of galleries and was struck by her works like “Judith Slaying Holofernes.” There weren’t very many women painters at the time.”

Schwendinger says she hopes Artemisia, which she is developing with librettist Ginger Strand, will change the historical perception of Gentileschi (1593–1656). While the artist holds the high honor of being the first female member of Florence’s prestigious Accademia di Arte del Disegno and was a respected artist in her time, history books remembered her for centuries merely as a teenage victim of rape by her tutor, fellow artist Agostino Tassi.

Following the assault and the older Tassi’s ultimate failure to marry the 16-year-old girl as promised, Artemisia’s father, the Tuscan painter Orazio Gentileschi, pressed charges against Tassi for taking his daughter’s virginity. The lawsuit, highly unusual for the time, resulted in long, protracted proceedings, during which Artemisia was subject to gynecological exams and torture to verify her testimony. The proceedings also revealed a plot by Tassi to murder his wife, adding to the sensationalism of the lawsuit. Tassi eventually was sentenced to one year in prison, but never served any time.

Gentileschi would go on to have a long and successful career, rare for a female painter in her time. But later generations would obscure her contributions to the Baroque period, some of her work even attributed to other artists.

In recent years, that perception has begun to shift back, with Gentileschi again credited as one of the period’s greatest painters. Schwendinger hopes her opera can spread Gentileschi’s story, further righting the wrong done to her by historians.

Schwendinger’s opera, a co-commission of Trinity Wall Street Novus in New York City and San Francisco’s Left Coast Chamber Ensemble that will premiere on the East Coast in early 2017, will take an unusual approach to Artemisia’s story, emphasizing the artist’s work as it goes. The painter’s most important canvases, including her self-portrait, will be seen as onstage projections to introduce various sections of the opera. The performers will emerge from the projected tableaux to tell the opera within the visual context.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like that in opera before,” Schwendinger says. “The visual elements will be the thing that audiences will talk about after the performances, but I hope they talk about the music, too.”

While this is Schwendinger’s first full-length opera, it is by no means her first composition. Born in Mexico City to a pair of U.S. foreign exchange students and raised in Berkeley, California, Schwedinger began making up melodies at age 4 and playing the flute at age 8. Her debut with the Berkeley Youth Orchestra at age 13 included a performance of “Between Two Continents,” her first orchestral composition.

When Schwendinger applied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to study flute, her application included several compositions as well, which caught the eye of composer John Adams, best known for his operas Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China. He invited her to study composition with him, and she afterward went on to receive both her master’s degree and Ph.D. in music from the University of California-Berkeley.

Her career has since taken her to multiple locations, though she has been a professor at UW-Madison for more than a decade. That university recently awarded her a $60,000 Kellett Mid-Career Award, a grant sponsored by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and awarded to nine other faculty members for the 2016–17 academic year.

Schwendinger also received $16,500 as part of OPERA America’s $200,000 Opera Grant for Female Composers, awarded to seven women and seven opera companies, which she will use in addition to the Kellett Award to finish and mount the upcoming productions of Artemisia.

Florentine Opera to beguile and amuse with ‘Die Fledermaus’

Director John Hoomes returns to the Florentine Opera.
Director John Hoomes returns to the Florentine Opera.

Milwaukee welcomes back director John Hoomes (Elmer Gantry 2010) as the Florentine Opera closes its season with the delightful and cheeky operetta Die Fledermaus. The comical tale, by Johann Strauss II, tells the story of a masked ball held by a prince that brings together a collection of duplicitous socialites.

Rife with humor and witty athleticism, Fledermaus will feature the talents of Inna Dukach, in her Florentine debut as Rosalinde, Corey McKern (The Elixir of Love 2015, La Bohème 2014) as Eisenstein, and former Milwaukeean Bill Theisen as Frosch, with Milwaukeean James Zager on hand for choreography. Putting it all together is Hoomes, who says he’s excited to make his return to Milwaukee with this “fantastic piece.”

How would you describe Die Fledermaus’ place in the history of modern opera?

This work, like so many operas, almost went in cycles — similar to Faust, which did that for years. It was the most popular opera in the early 1900s, then for years nobody performed it, and then it started coming back. Fledermaus comes and goes. It’s a fantastic piece. It’s been at least eight years since I’ve done a Fledermaus, but now this is the second one I’ve done this year. It’s not like we all talk (to each other), it just all seems to roll back around.

Will the production be in its traditional period (the late 19th century), or something different?

It will be period, but with great liberty. The script for this is one I had worked with before and is put together from a number of different editions I have done. There isn’t an official edition of Fledermaus. It changes a good bit depending on the cast, on the direction and on the concept. The dialogue especially can be very different.

I’ve put together the dialogue for this production over the years myself. Some of it is based on a version from the 1930s, so some of it plays like the Carole Lombard comedies of the ’30s, and some of it looks and plays more contemporary, like some of the Naked Gun movies Leslie Nielsen was in. It gets very silly sometimes in a cool comedic way.

How has the cast taken to their roles as comedians? Is that typical or atypical of an opera singer’s palette?

Well, that’s what takes time rehearsing. Comedy is not easy and you really have to work and routine it to make it look naturalistic and make it run fast. The timing of the jokes is in the music: The music and composer give you all the timing, the length of pitch and everything. It’s all about that timing and opera singers aren’t used to having to do that. We’ll spend so much time polishing the gags. It’s very much like Broadway in that respect.

How would you characterize the score of Die Fledermaus?

It is written by Johann Strauss and so the music in this is almost all waltzes; the entire piece is made up of a series of waltzes. There are some melodies that people will recognize if they remember any of the Tom and Jerry cartoons because they used some of this music every now and then. It’s very light, it’s effervescent, it’s gorgeous music. Sometimes too, the music is kind of funny!

What do you think will resonate most with audiences?

Well, a lot of the scenes of the piece involve intrigue, like all operas, but it is more of a family piece as well. It’s light, it’s beautiful and nowadays with everything going on in the world it’s nice to come to a comedy, to something that’s light and beautiful. It’s a very wonderful, very funny piece. We kind of need a comedy now, with the state of the world.

It’s a little Eyes Wide Shut if it were done as a socially awkward Woody Allen comedy, without all the heaviness of it. It’s fun, the costuming is beautiful. So much of the piece is about the comedy and the music and how that blends together. I think people will be surprised just how funny it is.

What should less casual opera fans keep an eye out for in this production? Or is there any insider’s knowledge you can provide?

There’s a character that shows up in Act II whose name is Prince Orlofsky. He is supposed to be a German prince who is hosting this very elaborate, somewhat decadent party at his palace. Even though it is a male prince, the role is sung by a woman — it is a “pants role,” which is largely traditional in a lot of opera. For example, Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. But for some reason, if people don’t know that they get a little surprised because he is a very prominent character. We have a wonderful soprano, Amanda Crider, who’s doing this role and that’s one of the special things about the piece.

Die Fledermaus will be performed at 7:30 p.m. May 13 and 2:30 p.m. May 15 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets range from $31 to $130 and can be purchased at 800-326-7372 or florentineopera.org.

Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” to be made into an opera

Rudolfo Anaya’s famed novel “Bless Me, Ultima,” one of the most recognizable works of Mexican-American Literature and a book some scholars believed sparked the Chicano literary movement in the late 1960s, is being made into an opera.

National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque announced this week it’s collaborating with Opera Southwest to commission the work based on Anaya’s novel set in 1940s New Mexico about a boy and a traditional healer called a curandera.

The opera will be written by California-based composer Hector Armienta and is slated to be produced in 2018, center executive director Rebecca Avitia confirmed.

Avitia said “Bless Me, Ultima” is a magical piece of literature that would work well as an opera production. “I like the idea of changing the narrative around opera for Latinos,” Avitia said. “This isn’t a genre we’re accustomed to so I think this could open more Latinos to opera.”

Experts say Anaya’s World War II-area novel about a young Mexican American boy’s relationship with an older curandera influenced a generation of Latino writers because of its imagery and cultural references that were rare at the time of its publication.

Despite its popularity on college campuses throughout the years, the novel has been banned in some Arizona schools.

The novel was made into a feature film in 2013.

Anaya, sometimes called the godfather of contemporary Chicano literature, was born in Pastura, New Mexico, and raised in nearby Santa Rosa.

Irene Vasquez, chair of Chicana and Chicano Studies Department at the University of New Mexico, said she was excited that the novel was being adopted into an opera. It is required reading for students in the department, she said.

“This will give our students an incredible opportunity to bring the sounds of a narrative to life,” Vasquez said. “Being able to attend an opera like this will be a great experience.”

Avitia said the opera will be shown in Albuquerque and California.

Republicans vow to obstruct anyone Obama nominates to fill Scalia’s seat

Antonin Scalia, who was considered one of most conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, died Friday night while staying at a hunting resort in the Big Bend area of Texas. The caustic firebrand complained about feeling ill the night before he was found unresponsive in his room.

The cause of death was not immediately known.

Scalia was part of a 5-4 conservative majority — with one of the five, Anthony Kennedy, sometimes voting with liberals on the court. In a tie vote, the lower court opinion prevails.

Scalia’s death leaves a 4–4 split between liberal and conservative justices on the bench, which means many important decisions will be tied. An even split between conservatives and liberals on the Supreme Court will leave nearly an entire year in which many major upcoming decisions, including cases involving abortion, affirmative action and immigration policy, will be resolved by lower courts

After offering his condolences to Scalia’s family and paying tribute to him as a “towering figure,” President Barack Obama vowed to nominate a successor to Scalia “in due time.”

Republican congressional leaders, hoping to win the White House next year, fired back that they would refuse to approve anyone Obama nominates — a ploy in which they are well versed. They insist no nomination should be made until the next president takes office, which is nearly 11 months away.

Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate’s top Democrat, said it would be “unprecedented in recent history” for the court to have a vacancy for so long a time.

The Supreme Court will now become a major issue in this year’s presidential race.

Dozens of federal positions remain unfilled due to Republican obstructionism, including the nomination of Eric Fanning to be the next secretary of the Army. The Senate refuses to approve Fanning due to his sexual orientation. He’s stepped down from his post as acting secretary because of the political turmoil.

Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio, R–Fla., scuttled Obama’s nomination of Judge Darrin Gayles, an out gay black state court judge, to serve on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Scalia, who was selected in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, seemed to have a mission to move the court to the right. He was a strict constructionist who adhered to legal“originalism,”which he called “textualism.” In other words, judges had a duty to give the same meaning to the words and concepts as they were understood by the Founding Fathers. Because same-sex marriage was not mentioned in the Constitution, written over 200 years ago, Scalia believed that the issue was not a Constitutional one.

A challenge to a Washington, D.C., gun ban gave Scalia the opportunity to display his devotion to textualism. In a 5–4 decision that split the court’s conservatives and liberals, he wrote that an examination of English and colonial history made it exceedingly clear that the Second Amendment protected Americans’ right to have guns, at the very least in their homes and for self-defense. The dissenters, also claiming fidelity to history, said the amendment was meant to ensure that states could raise militias to confront a too-powerful federal government if necessary.

But Scalia rejected that view. “Undoubtedly some think that the Second Amendment is outmoded in a society where our standing army is the pride of our Nation, where well-trained police forces provide personal security, and where gun violence is a serious problem. That is perhaps debatable, but what is not debatable is that it is not the role of this Court to pronounce the Second Amendment extinct,” Scalia wrote.

Scalia carried his rifle in a case on the New York City subways. Decades later, he taught the Upper West Sider Kagan how to shoot a gun and the two went together on excursions hunting animals.

Scalia was a strong supporter of privacy in cases involving police searches and defendants’ rights. But, a devoted Roman Catholic, he also voted consistently to let states outlaw abortions, to allow a closer relationship between government and religion, to permit executions and to limit lawsuits.

In 2002, however, he surprised SCOTUS observers by opposing the court’s decision to outlaw executing the mentally disabled, despite the church’s rejection of the death penalty. The framers of the Constitution didn’t think capital punishment was unconstitutional and neither did he, he said, adding that judges who follow the philosophy that capital punishment is morally wrong should resign.

A longtime law professor before becoming a judge, Scalia frequently spoke at law schools and to other groups. Later in his tenure, he also spoke at length in on-the-record interviews, often to promote a book.

He betrayed no uncertainty about some of the most contentious legal issues of the day.

“The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state,” Scalia said during a talk that preceded a book signing at the American Enterprise Institute in 2012.

Scalia was in the court’s majority in the 2000 Bush v. Gore decision, which effectively decided the presidential election for Republican George W. Bush. “Get over it,” Scalia would famously say at speaking engagements in the ensuing years whenever the topic arose.

The justice relished a good fight. In 2004, when an environmental group asked him to step aside from a case involving Vice President Dick Cheney after reports that Scalia and Cheney hunted ducks together, the justice responded with a 21-page memorandum explaining his intention to hear the case. He said “the nation is in deeper trouble than I had imagined,” if people thought a duck-hunting trip could sway his vote.

Two years later, The Boston Herald reported that Scalia employed an obscene hand gesture while leaving a church in response to another question about his impartiality. Scalia penned a scathing letter to the newspaper, taking issue with the characterization. He explained that the gesture —the extended fingers of one hand moving slowly back and forth under the raised chin — was dismissive, not obscene.

“From watching too many episodes of The Sopranos, your staff seems to have acquired the belief that any Sicilian gesture is obscene,” he said.

A smoker of cigarettes and pipes, Scalia enjoyed baseball, poker, hunting and playing the piano. He was an enthusiastic singer at court Christmas parties and other musical gatherings.

Born in New Jersey, he was the only child of an Italian immigrant father who was a professor of Romance languages and a mother who taught elementary school. He attended public schools, graduated first in his class at Georgetown University and won high honors at the Harvard University Law School. He taught law and served in Republican administrations before Reagan made him an appeals court judge in Washington in 1982. Scalia and his wife Maureen had nine children.

Scalia’s impact on the court was muted by his seeming disregard for moderating his views to help build consensus.

The friendship between Scalia and Ginsburg inspired the opera Scalia/Ginsburg by composer Derrick Wang. The two once appeared on stage as extras in a performance art the Washington Opera.

In one aria, the Scalia character rages about justices who see the Constitution evolving with society.

The operatic Scalia fumes: “The justices are blind. How can they spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this.”

The real-life Scalia certainly agreed.

Adamo’s landmark ‘Little Women’ comes to Madison Opera

When Mark Adamo sits down to write an opera, his methods are clear, concise and deliberate. But never for a moment think that the process is either swift or simple for the 53-year-old artist.

In fact, wags who bemoan operas that are hourslong in their delivery should know that they also can be yearslong in their composition for even the most accomplished artist. And Adamo, who writes both the music and librettos for his operas, is as accomplished as they come.

“Opera is a complicated form and if you don’t enjoy the richness of it you probably should be doing something else,” Adamo says.

Local opera fans can experience the richness and results of Adamo’s arduous creative process when Madison Opera mounts Little Women, the composer’s first and perhaps his finest opera. 

From its shimmering opening notes to the heartfelt resolution, Little Women may be the best opera that its composer never wanted to write. He was prompted to it by the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned a bachelor of music degree in 1990. The university’s Summer Opera Theater Co. approached him about the prospect of adapting Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel after the premiere of Adamo’s successful first symphony Late Victorians, but the composer says the idea left him less than enthused.

“Initially, I thought it was the worst idea for an opera since the phonebook,” Adamo remembers. “I read the novel and saw the various film versions and, while they were charming, I failed to see what the drama was that would lead to an opera both urgent and modern.”

But the more he dissected the story about four sisters in 1860s New England, the more he warmed to the idea. What finally sold him was the novel’s development of relationships between the primary characters and their male suitors, and how that changed the sisters’ original dynamic.

“The story was very much about the relationship among the four girls,” Adamo says. “The various events contribute to a single sense that people outgrow their relationships with each other. When I understood that to be the single phrase that could best describe the narrative, then I began to understand and appreciate the book.”

Creative differences stalled the Summer Opera Theater partnership, but the idea was revived after fellow composer Carlisle Floyd (best known for the opera Susannah) introduced Adamo to artistic staff at the Houston Grand Opera. The company, known for championing new works, was interested in commissioning the opera as an avenue for the company’s younger artists.

It was first produced there in August 1998, and revived shortly thereafter, in 2000. Since, the work has played in some of the world’s finest opera houses and has become a full-fledged member of the repertoire.

“It’s been performed three to six times per year somewhere in the world since it was first produced,” Adamo says. “I know we’re well over 100 different productions by now.”

Unlike many composers, Adamo has experience in playwriting as well — it’s been a passion for him since his youth, and he even attended the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University’s dramatic writing program before attending the Catholic University. He says he draws heavily from that experience when he develops his operas, as well as insights from the Stanislavsky System of method acting. It’s an unusual approach, he admits, but one that has proved successful with the operas he’s written and has minimized the need for rewriting the works.

“Uta Hagen, one of the great method acting teachers, said that acting is a series of small actions that lead to larger results that help define the character,” Adamo says. “She would say with every line of the script, ‘What am I trying to accomplish?’ She then would mark up her scripts with notations that helped the character achieve her goal, which she called ‘the acting score.’”

Opera tells a story with both words and song, but the playwright in Adamo says the story still comes first. Using the method approach gives him an “actable structure,” as well as informing the music and helping define what it needs to accomplish.

“Oscar Hammerstein always said a song should be a one-act play that tells a story,” Adamo explains. “Once I figured out the basic story — that time passes and people change whether you like it or not — I decided to try it qua Hagen, by using active verbs and voice and with no sentence longer than the width of a page.”

He also heavily outlined the narrative from several points of view, writing one scenario as if he were deaf and needed to understand the opera based simply on the actions onstage, and another if he were blind and simply relied on the music to convey the story and its emotional timbre.

“The approach gave me a design for the action, which gave me a structure on which to hang the score’s motif,” he said. “I had so much information in the narrative’s first draft that it almost gave me the first draft of the score. It got easier because the big decisions were clarified before I wrote the music and the words, which led to the creation of a ‘sturdy’ show.”

The resulting music contains a variety of genres, as well as a fresh, dramatic sound that does not trade on the otherwise expected musical clichés, Adamo says.

“I really did not want to do fake (Aaron) Copland or a nostalgic 19th-century tonality,” he explains. “I wanted to do something fresher and more exciting and realized if it were done crisply enough in a brisk tempo and light enough in texture, it might give me that quicksilver recitative quality I was looking for.”

Based on reviews of productions worldwide, Little Women has achieved Adamo’s musical and dramatic goals. He followed the same creative discipline for his subsequent operas, including Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess (2005) and The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (2007). Narrative comes first, but it must be written in a way that informs and directs the music’s development, Adamo says.

“Content dictates form. What does the piece need to be and do and what are materials you need to get you there?” Adamo asks. “Unless it sounds, it doesn’t count. Unless you can hear the idea, it’s not music. Tonality gives you a sense of home.”


Mark Adamo’s opera Little Women will be presented by Madison Opera at 8 p.m. Feb. 5 and 2:30 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Adamo will appear an hour before the Feb. 5 performance for talk. For tickets, call the Overture box office at 608-258-4141 or visit overturecenter.com.

Adamo to collaborate on next opera 

Collaboration on a major project is unusual for Mark Adamo, but his next effort will be a labor of love in more than one respect. Adamo has been working with his husband and fellow composer John Corigliano, perhaps best known for his film score for The Red Violin, on a new opera.

“I just finished my first libretto and he’s written the score,” Adamo says. “But it’s not finished. So I can’t talk about it.”

The unnamed work is the first-ever substantial musical collaboration for the pair, who married in California in 2008 before passage of Proposition 8. But the process held no surprises for Adamo, who found it thoroughly enjoyable.

“He works the same way I do, but I do it with language and he does it with colored pencils and paper,” Adamo says. “The overlap between his way of thinking and mine is the reason we got along so well when we met.”

As is his style, Adamo stressed structure — even over-structure — in blending the narrative with the music. Once it’s all down on paper, he believes, it’s easier to cut things out than it is to fill in gaps. It’s a style Corigliano didn’t always appreciate.

“Of course he complains about it, but then he complains about everything,” Adamo says.

Adamo, who expects the opera to premiere in the spring of 2018, declined to discuss specifics of the show.

“If I did we wouldn’t have anything left for the press release,” he added.

— Michael Muckian

‘Powder Her Face’ considers the fate of women of celebrity

Consider Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the Kim Kardashian of yesteryear. 

In the mid-20th century, the wealthy socialite was considered one of the most prominent persons in Britain, a celebrity whose appearances and undertakings were followed by her social peers as well as lower classes. That celebrity status would backfire during her divorce proceedings in 1963, when her husband exposed evidence of affairs including Polaroid photographs of Campbell naked and performing sexual acts with men. 

After that, the reputation of Campbell — who was dubbed the “Dirty Duchess” in the press — would be forever linked with that scandal. Even an opera about her life, Powder Her Face, was tarred with the same brush. Audiences at its 1995 premiere immediately fixated on its infamous “fellatio aria,” which the soprano playing the Duchess hums while simulating oral sex. Subsequent productions have presented the work as a “shock opera,” amplifying the scandal by emphasizing its nudity and debauchery at the Duchess’ expense.

Viswa Subbaraman, artistic director of Skylight Music Theatre, took a different approach when he and late director Sandra Bernhard approached the material in 2011 while he was running Houston’s Opera Vista company. They took a new look at the Duchess and told the story from her perspective — as a way to make his audience consider what our society does to women of celebrity. He’ll get a second chance to do so in Milwaukee, with new director Robin Guarino leading the way, and is excited to realize his shared vision on a radically bigger scale.

Composed by Thomas Adés with a libretto by Philip Hensher, Powder Her Face opens in the 1990s as the Duchess (Cassandra Black, reprising the role she played in 2011) is being evicted from her hotel due to not paying her bill. Throughout, the story jumps back in time to reveal how Campbell lost her powerful social position, with a Hotel Manager (Joseph Beutel), Electrician (Ben Robinson, also returning) and Maid (Kaleigh Rae Gamaché) playing multiple roles past and present.

In many productions, these flashback elements are played as farce. But Subbaraman says it was important to him, as well as Bernhard and Guarino (two of the only female directors to ever handle the production), that the Duchess’ liaisons and heartbreaks be treated seriously, and that the production treat her as a complex person who was not merely the figure depicted by the press and mocked by society.

Subbaraman says the fellatio scene is perhaps the best example of what they’re going for. While it’s usually depicted as an outlandish moment with lots of nudity and mocking of the Duchess, he says Hensher may have had a different, more nuanced interpretation — referring to the scene as “the ultimate silencing of women through sex.” 

With that in mind, Subbaraman says, the Skylight’s production minimizes the shock value of the scene, leaving the Duchess a sympathetic figure. “That’s a sex act that people do,” he says. “It’s not as though it’s something we should run away from. … That one moment and the way that scene is treated completely changes the way we respond to her at the end of the opera, when she’s telling us about everything she’s lost.”

Subbaraman also believes their approach to Powder Her Face allows audiences to better appreciate the music of Adés, who he considers to be one of the most important composers living and working today. Adés is best known for his orchestral work, but Subbaraman thinks it’s easier for first-time listeners to engage with his complex work via stage productions because you can follow characters and plot as you listen. 

“The music is probably some of the hardest written — it doesn’t sound that way necessarily all the time,” he says. “In an effort to create an improvisatory feel, he over-notates the music, so it’s incredibly rhythmic. Rhythms are constantly changing … that makes it a very difficult thing for everyone.”

Subbaraman says this staging won’t simply be a retread of his Houston production, even though Guarino was hand-picked by Bernhard before her death of a rare cancer in 2015. He says the Opera Vista production was incredibly low-budget, designed to make a splash specifically because they were able to pull it off despite limited resources — the cast had no permanent rehearsal space, Subbaraman put together the set himself, Black sewed her own costumes and three days before opening they were still checking thrift stores for mattresses.

The resources of the Skylight have allowed Subbaraman, Guarino and their team to take Bernhard’s original vision and make it even better than before, he says, with exemplary design elements (including the work of costume director and fashion designer César Galindo, last seen designing Cinderella in 2014) and the ability for the cast to explore these characters in a deeper way. “It’s a different production in its whole,” Subbaraman says.

And it’s an important one, because the problems illuminated by the Skylight’s production of Powder Her Face haven’t mysteriously vanished in the modern age. Shortly after starting rehearsals, Subbaraman stumbled across an article about rising movie star Jennifer Lawrence. It decreed that the young actor, less than a decade into her career, had already used up her time in the spotlight.

“She’s 25! She’s a brilliant actor! And suddenly she’s ‘over’?” he says. “We as a society tend to discard women of celebrity very easily, when they no longer amuse us in the way we expect them to. … That’s part of what we’re trying to talk about in the way we look at this show.”


Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Powder Her Face runs Jan. 29 to Feb. 14 at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway, Milwaukee. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or skylightmusictheatre.org. Due to explicit language and sexual subject matter, this production is recommended for mature audiences only.

Locally grown baritone gets villainous in ‘Beauty and the Beast’

Some performing artists find their career path through trial and error, but operatic baritone Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek knows exactly when and where he decided to become a professional singer.

The Milwaukee-born Smith-Kotlarek, who was raised in Neenah, was a voice student at UW-Madison when he saw Madison Opera’s 2007 production of Puccini’s La Boheme. He already knew music would be a part of his life, but when tenor Dinyar Vania, playing Rodolpho, began a particular aria in Act II, it struck a chord with the college senior.

“There is a scene in which Rodolpho tells Mimi how much he loves her and how difficult it will be to leave her,” Smith-Kotlarek remembers. “Puccini’s music hit a high note and the orchestra swelled up underneath to create an incredibly intense moment. I thought, ‘I want to sing like that!’”

Since that time, Smith-Kotlarek has pursued a career in vocal performance that has spanned both opera and musical theater. The 29-year-old singer/actor may have hit his stride this season as the villain Gaston in the current national touring production of Beauty and the Beast. The traveling Broadway show opens at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton for a five-show run Dec. 18-20, then goes to Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts Jan. 13-17 (a different cast not including Smith-Kotlarek will visit Milwaukee in March).

Smith-Kotlarek, who played John Wilkes Booth in Four Seasons Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins in Madison this past December, will once again get to test his mettle as the villainous suitor of the Beauty and ultimately battle the Beast for her hand. But this is Disney and true love triumphs, much to Gaston’s dismay, all in the name of an evening of entertaining theater.

“When you include the animated film version, Beauty and the Beast has been around for 24 years and it already has its own traditions,” Smith-Kotlarek says. “That’s long enough to establish a full set of audience expectations.”

Until the fateful performance of La Boheme, Smith-Kotlarek had no specific expectations for his career. But he did develop quite a few interests along the way, following multiple musical threads that matured with time and training.

Smith-Kotlarek began taking Suzuki piano lessons at age 7, but at age 10, he switched to guitar, eventually joining a punk band in middle school. By high school, his tastes had tamed and he became more interested in what he calls “the singer-y, songwriter type of stuff.”

While still in high school, he started taking voice lessons and studying jazz guitar at Appleton’s Lawrence University. Arriving at UW-Madison in 2004, he pursued a degree in vocal performance and music, working with a variety of professors, including baritone Paul Rowe and legendary jazz bassist Richard Davis.

“I had a number of realizations while studying with (Davis),” Smith-Kotlarek says. ”He played with everyone from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein. His career always fascinated me and he inspired me a lot.”

In addition to singing, Smith-Kotlarek continued his work as a jazz guitarist, fronting a group called Simply Put that played in various Madison-area clubs. The combo’s momentary brush with fame came in 2007 when it was hired to open for a then-relatively unknown presidential candidate named Barack Obama, who visited Madison while on the campaign trail.

“I got to play some of my original songs,” the musician remembers. “I also ran the sound board for the group.”

He also sang with the University of Wisconsin Opera and in the chorus for the Madison Opera, which helped confirm his musical interests. He decided to immerse himself in opera at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, which netted him his first major role as Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

While at IU, Smith-Kotlarek studied with his professor and fellow baritone Timothy Noble, whom he credits with talking him into auditioning for the role of Gaston. Noble, he notes, also is a jazz fan.

After receiving his master’s degree, Smith-Kotlarek was chosen as one of 12 vocalists to attend the Opera Institute, part of Boston University’s School of Fine Arts. It was at BU that the singer first performed the role of Booth in a university production of Assassins.

BU also allowed Smith-Kotlarek to meet and work with Jake Heggie, composer of the opera Dead Man Walking, a Terrence McNally adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book about death row convicts. The singer would eventually perform the opera’s lead role, murderer Joseph De Rocher.

“Jake gave me a real feel for his work and even gave me a small mentorship in opera,” says Smith-Kotlarek, who most recently performed the part in 2014 at Chicago’s DePaul University. “I loved that role.”

The baritone’s 6’4” athletic frame made him a good physical fit for the DeRocher part, just as it has for the part of Gaston. However, he’s added a little more muscle to that frame to support what he describes as Gaston’s athleticism.

“I am not necessarily the size of Gaston, so that required some gym time for me, not to mention an adjustment to his arrogance and misogynist point of view,” Smith-Kotlarek says.

The main thing the various roles, performances and higher education have taught Smith-Kotlarek is how to function as part of a team when it comes to putting on a show as complex as Beauty and the Beast. It’s not a lesson that all performers learn right out of school, but one he believes to be invaluable for a performer’s success.

“The show’s creative team had developed specific and useful ways of mounting each performance, and it’s nice just to walk in, get your blocking and know that if you follow instructions, things will look good,” Smith-Kotlarek explains. “But there is still room to put yourself into the character, which is expected. And for a performer, that’s the best of both worlds.”


Beauty and the Beast will appear Dec. 18-20 at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, 400 W. College Ave., Appleton. Tickets start at $50 and can be ordered at 920-730-3760 or foxcitiespac.org. The show returns to Madison Jan. 13 to 17 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St. Tickets range from $45 to $100 and can be ordered at 608-258-4141 or overturecenter.org.

A musical ‘Story’ joins Boswell Books’ inventory

The latest indie gem coming to Boswell Book Company? It isn’t a book at all — though it’s certainly a story worth hearing.

The Story of My Life, a 90-minute musical about two friends’ 30-year relationship, will be staged at Boswell for seven nights this December, produced by Milwaukee Opera Theatre. Beginning in the present day, when one of the two has returned home to give the other’s eulogy, the play drifts back into the past to show how they met and how that friendship shaped both of their lives.

It’s an early Christmas present for just about everyone involved, from actors Adam Estes (Thomas, a successful big-city novelist) and Doug Clemons (Alvin, who stays in their hometown to run his father’s bookstore) to music director Anne Van Deusen and stage director C. Michael Wright (also the producing artistic director at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre). And it was viewed as a passion project from the very start, one of many discussed at an end-of-season spaghetti dinner hosted by MOT’s producing artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik. 

Clemons first brought it up, having wanted to be in The Story of My Life ever since Van Deusen introduced him to it. Wright, also present, had heard of the show but never managed to listen to it — he had ordered a soundtrack online several years prior but received a damaged copy. This time around, he was on board right away.

“Something about it touches me in a deep place,” he says. “I relate to it on a really deep level.” 

The rest of the cast and crew fell into place relatively quickly — Van Deusen signing on with tears of excitement after Ponasik approached her last summer and Estes joining while he and Clemons were in the production of Cinderella that Ponasik directed at Skylight Music Theatre that fall. 

Getting the play into Boswell was a trickier proposition. Right from the start, Ponasik and Wright say they wanted to do The Story of My Life somewhere special and Boswell seemed perfect. In the musical, the bookstore run by Alvin and his father is a key setting; as children, Thomas and Alvin play in its aisles and as adults it becomes a nostalgic memory.

When they initially approached him with the idea, Boswell owner Dan Goldin was “dubious,” as Ponasik puts it. The bookstore is known for holding regular author readings, and using that time instead to prepare for and stage a musical threatened the store’s bottom line, especially during the holiday shopping season. By way of compromise, MOT will start the show at 9 p.m. each night (except the final Sunday performance, at 7 p.m.), after the bookstore closes an hour early. They have 30 minutes to set up, then doors open for patrons at 8:30 p.m. When it’s all done, MOT must return the bookstore to its normal appearance — preventing them from installing elaborate scenery or lighting.

But Wright and Ponasik believe simpler is better for this show and its tale of uncomplicated, earnest friendship. The show was produced on Broadway in 2009 and closed quickly, which Wright attributes to placing the show in a space it was never suited for. “It’s a little chamber piece and it belongs in a unique, small environment,” he says.

The music is simple too, Wright says — contemporary and conversational, with Thomas and Alvin mostly singing alone except for a few “golden moments” in which they sing in unison. It’s a clever touch that drives home the duo’s relationship succinctly — perhaps they’re not always in the same place or on the same page, but there will always be moments when they sync up.


Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s production of The Story of My Life runs Dec. 3-13 at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. Tickets are $25, $15 for students and artists, and can be ordered at 800-838-3006 or milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.