The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: From crowd to sound, Opera in the Park scores another big, resounding, record-breaking success

July 19, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

Let’s talk about success.

Let’s talk about Saturday night’s Opera in the Park.

It was a night of firsts for the ninth annual Opera in the Park, the free outdoor concert put on each summer by the Madison Opera.

For one, it was the first time the event drew an officially estimated crowd of 14,000 or so people (up from 13,000 last year) to Garner Park on Madison’s far west side – a new record for an event that started with a couple of thousand.

It was the first time that the Madison Opera and this event used texting to raise money for the Opera in the Park (you can still text the word OPERA to 20222 to donate $10), which is free to the public but which costs more than $200,000 to put on.

It was the first time singing in Madison for three of the four soloists.

And it was the first time for a good deal of the repertoire that the event featured as a preview of the Madison Opera’s next season: Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Kurt Weill’s “The Three-Penny Opera” and Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

The whole event — hosted by Madison Opera’s Allan Naplan and WKOW news anchor Diana Henry (below) — took place under a cloud so to speak: an predicted oncoming storm. As a result, the program was rushed a bit and one number was even dropped. But good fortune smiled on the event as the rain and wind passed north and west of Madison long enough to allow the concert to finish without problems and after providing much enjoyment.

Of course, some things weren’t firsts.

You still heard a mix of opera and musical theater or Broadway tunes. You could still picnic, or you could still be a donor and participate in a catered dinner under a tent with choice up-close seating that was reserved. You could still buy ice cream. You could still socialize.

You could still buy fluorescent light sticks to conduct along during the sing-along portion of the program. You could still hear beautifully through the first-rate sound system. And you could still count on an attentive, courteous audience that took the music seriously for the most part.

Most of all, you could still sample the Madison Opera’s upcoming season and especially the terrific singing talent that the Madison Opera has signed up for the season.

I suppose one should expect to hear great voices — but it still comes as a welcome surprise.

Madison Opera’s general director is Allan Naplan, a former professional touring baritone and artistic director John DeMain was long an opera conductor before he moved to Madison from the Houston Grand Opera to the Madison Symphony Orchestra. So every year, the two men go out to New York and in a couple of days audition hundreds of voices. And what they end up booking is both affordable and laudable. Those men sure know voices and how to pick’em.

Which helps to explain why the singers, despite a few cracked notes here and there, were so even.

Were there stand-outs? Yes. Tenor Rodrick Dixon (below) sang the famous Donizetti aria with 9 high C’s that brought Luciano Pavarotti first fame. And the audience went wild. He really is the Ethel Merman of tenors — with a big, clear, beautiful  voice.

But sopranos Anya Matanovic (below right) and Barbara Shirvis also proved strong and expressive in their singing, the former in Verdi’s famously soaring aria “Sempre Libera” (from “La Traviata”), and the latter in a heartfelt reading of Dvorak’s gorgeous “Song to the Moon” and a wonderfully understated and ironic reading of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” (sung as a tribute to Sondheim’s 80th birthday.)

Baritone Stephen Powell, along with Dixon, turned in a wonderful “Mack the Knife” and, on his own, the “Te Deum” of Scarpia from Puccini’s “Tosca.”

The orchestra players, drawn from the Madison Symphony Orchestra, were terrific in meeting the challenges of outdoor playing—it’s much harder than indoor playing – from the show’s opening with the national anthem (below), with honor guard, to Mozart’s spirited Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” and to the various accompaniments. DeMain really is a master conductor who seems in constant high spirits.

Then there was the Madison Opera Chorus, which acquitted itself well indeed, especially in Verdi’s popular drinking song “Libiamo,” and the Madison Youth Choirs, which charmed the entire audience during “Do, Re, Me” (part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the “Sound of Music”).

The audience was generous with applause and cheers, with bravos, standing ovations.

Well, why not? It’s was night of sparkling music and great performances that covered many moods, and makes one look forward to the new season when the Madison Opera will mark its 50th anniversary.

Of the more than 14,000 people in attendance, there was a special person who has every reason to be especially proud.

She is Ann Stanke, the violist and piano player who was a co-founder and former general director of the Madison Opera who was Naplan’s predecessor and who oversaw the first Opera in the Park. She is now bravely and cheerfully battling a debilitating and fatal illness.

Stanke is the mother of Opera in the Park. It would not be the same event – or probably even exist at all – without her.

And Madison would not be the same city without her.

Kudos, Ann, and thank you.

Brava to Ann!

And bravos to all — with hopes for a crowd of 15,000 to mark the 10th anniversary of Opera in the Park next summer.

And if you want couldn’t make it to the event but want to get more of a feel for what it was like, I’ll be posting a photo gallery tomorrow—in the hope that you will respond with your own critical reactions to individual singers and songs.

Posted in Classical music

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