The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music best bets for Oct. 28-Nov. 4: Massenet opera goes disco at UW, Pro Arte plays great quartets | October 28, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

FRIDAY, OCT 29: At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW’s Pro Arte String Quartet will present three selections: String Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4 by Joseph Haydn; String Quartet No. 2 in F major by Sergei Prokofiev; and String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 74 (“Harp”) by Ludwig van Beethoven. ProArtecolor

It’s a terrific program by a group that rarely disappoints. So it gets a MUST-HEAR rating from The Ear.

Plus, it is FREE and open to the public.

ALSO ON FRIDAY, OCT. 29:  The premiere performance of the University Opera’s production of “Thais” by Jules Massenet (below)– the work is best known for its often excerpted and anthologized violin interlude or meditation–  at 7:30 p.m. in Carol Rennebohm Auditorium of Old Music Hall at the foot of Bascom Hill. Jules_Massenet

But going to the Pro Arte doesn’t mean you have to miss “Thais.”

Two other performances of the opera are scheduled again on Sunday, Nov. 1, at 3 p.m. and Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 7:30 p.m. For information, go to

University Opera head William Farlow directs the production with the UW Symphony Orchestra under music director and conductor James Smith.

According to the UW School of Music, this is the University Opera’s premiere production of “Thaïs,” which premiered in  Paris in 1894. The setting examines issues of the sacred and profane inspired by New York’s 1970s licentious discotheque culture. The libretto is based on a novel by the French writer Anatole France (1844-1924) who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921.

Adds the press release: “This is the first staging of ‘Thaïs’ during director William Farlow’s extensive career. Referring to the production’s dualistic nature, Farlow said, “‘Thaïs’ is a tale of two extremes – religious fanaticism and hedonism. Religion is offered up as an antidote for the ills of society, but in reality proves to be a far greater poison.”

Hmmm – does that theme ring a bell or strike a familiar note in 21st-century America?

“Written for the famed American soprano Sybil Sanderson, Jules Massenet’s “Thais” is a cautionary tale of the zealous monk Athanael’s conversion of the infamous courtesan Thais. Amid an atmosphere of sexual depravity, Athanael battles for the soul of Thais only to jeopardize his own.”

The opera will be sung in French with projected English supertitles.

The title role for performance on Friday and Tuesday will be played by Emily Birsan and on Sunday by Kristin Schwecke. Other roles are performed by Justin Niehoff Smith (Athanael), Anders Tobiason (Palemon), Ryan P. McEldowney (Nicias), Anna Danielle Slate (Crobyle), Emily Campbell (Myrtale) and Leigh Akin (Albine).

Production staff includes costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park, technical director Greg Silver, lighting designer Steven M. Peterson, set designer Angelina Paoli, vocal coach Bill Lutes and chorus master Susan Goeres. The English surtitles, paid for by Opera Props ( are by Christine Seitz.

Tickets are $20; $18 for seniors 60 and above; $18 for non-UW students; and $10 for UW students.

Contact the Wisconsin Union Theater Box Office at (608) 262-2201 to purchase tickets.

It is recommended that small children not be brought to the performances.

On SUNDAY, NOV. 1 (don’t forget that Daylight Saving time ends): The Wisconsin Brass Quintet (below) will perform on “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The performance will be broadcast live over Wisconsin Public Radio (WERN 88.7 FM in the Madison area). WisconsinBrass Quintet

Also on SUNDAY, NOV. 1, from Noon to 2 p.m. (NOTE: changed from 4 to 6 p.m.) in the Lecture Hall of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in the Overture Center, Madison Opera‘s general director Alan Naplan will present “Opera Up Close,” a preview of Bizet’s “Carmen” that will be performed in Overture Hall at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, and on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

Admission to the preview is $20.  Call 258-4141 or visit

If you go to the UW Opera’s production of “Thais,” I’m especially in knowing what you thought of how well the updating of the setting worked?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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