Tag Archives: Viswa Subbaraman

‘The Skylight Ring’

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

Skylight’s ‘Snow Dragon’ succeeds at illuminating uncomfortable subject

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.

On stage

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.

New Skylight artistic director traveled unusual career path

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.