Skylight Music Theatre presents the Milwaukee premiere of the award-winning musical Violet. Based in 1964 in the segregated South, Violet, disfigured by a facial scar, is on a journey to meet a faith healer. On the bus she meets an African-American soldier whose love helps her discover the true meaning of beauty. The production features a score by acclaimed composer Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley.
7:30 p.m. from Sept. 30 to Oct. 16, with 2 p.m. matinees on Oct. 2, 5, 9 and 16, at Cabot Theatre in Milwaukee; $32, $57 and $77; skylightmusictheatre.org
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.
If you tried to perform Richard Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle as written in a single night, you’d get out in time for dinner — the next day. The four-opera cycle clocks in at about 15 hours, depending on how fast or slow its 30-odd characters and chorus perform. Skylight, on the other hand, wants to do the whole thing in two hours with four singers. It’s boldly ambitious, but director Daniel Brylow and Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman think they’ve figured out the trick to doing it right: telling the story from the perspective of antagonist Alberich, who forges the magic ring of the cycle’s title and orchestrates numerous efforts to retrieve it when it is taken from him.
At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets are $38 and can be purchased at 414-291-7800 or skylightmusictheatre.org.
May 15 to June 7
Based on The Fallen Country, a 1986 young adult novel, The Snow Dragon takes on the difficult subject of family abuse. The world premiere opera, currently playing at Skylight Music Theatre, is set partially in an abused boy’s fantasy world and partly in his grim reality.
Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood) is a child who’s terrorized by his foster mother’s new boyfriend (Dan Kempson). The boyfriend abuses Billy, mostly with a belt. Prior to the beatings, the boyfriend assures his new love (Erica Shuller) that he and Bill are simply “going to have a man-to-man talk.” She chooses to ignore the welts and bruises on Billy after such “conversations.” Except for an occasional slap on the face, clever staging substitutes for real physical violence.
Billy responds to the intolerable situation by creating a fantasy world, called the Fallen Country, a land of snow and ice where feelings remain frozen. In the Fallen Country, Billy is the only one who can free the princess (also played by Shuller) from a character called the Ringmaster (also played by Kempson), by focusing the intense power of his anger.
In his real life, Billly’s cuts and bruises create enough concern among his teachers that he is sent to school counselor Dora Marx (Colleen Brooks). When Billy initially steps into her office and looks around, he is unsure of himself. He rejects Dora’s words of kindness, but she understands that his suspicion is a consequence of his abuse.
But by the end of the opera, Dora has become Billy’s ally. She reports his abuse to authorities and even accompanies Billy to the Fallen Country.
This is all heavy stuff, and the Skylight discourages parents from bringing children under age 12 to see it.
The sets and lighting of the production greatly complement this complex story. The world of reality is lit in harsh tones, ranging from the TV in Billy’s living room to the fluorescent light in Dora’s office. The sets are almost claustrophobically small, reflecting the lack of places where Billy can hide.
When the action moves to The Fallen Country, however, the atmosphere is much more expansive. The entire stage is used for these scenes. At one point, a beautiful collection of snow shards flutters from above. Other objects also appear in the sky, such as a distant castle.
While all the voices in this ambitious opera are excellent, the orchestra sometimes overpowers them. As a result, lyrics are difficult to hear throughout the show. The result is confusion for those who are unfamiliar with the story.
For instance, the glittering Cassandra Black could easily be mistaken for The Fallen Country queen, when in fact she represents The Snow Dragon in human form. The Snow Dragon is also represented as a white puppet, commandeered by four puppeteers.
As the counselor Dora Marx, Brooks displays a sweet, tender voice that rings true in a difficult role. Her character needs to encompass a vast dramatic range that includes facing her own demons, such as her lack of self-worth.
Ironically, it is Brotherhood’s lesser-trained voice that makes him the most easily understood person in the cast. His singing has a pure, clear tone, and his athletic prowess is put to the test as he scampers up and down tall set pieces. Brotherhood, a stage veteran who may be remembered as Gavroche in the Skylight’s production of Les Miserables, is equally good here.
The original music has a dreamy quality punctuated by a rough cacophany of abrasive sounds that feel lifted from a nightmare. Music conductor (and Skylight artistic director) Viswa Subbaraman impresses as he pulls it all together from the podium.
The Snow Dragon continues through March 29 at the Skylight Music Theatre’s Cabot Theater. For more information, call the box office at 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.