The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music obituary: Here is my goodbye aria for Ann Stanke

May 25, 2011
18 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

A couple hundred of us said goodbye to Ann Stanke Tuesday afternoon at Cress Funeral Home on the west side of town.

Ann (below) was a co-founder and longtime general director of the Madison Opera and a veteran member of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, where she played piano and viola and rehearsed the Madison Symphony Chorus. She died last week at 76 of ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, after an almost two-year ordeal that gradually but cruelly and inevitably deprived her of making music and talking – two of her greatest pleasures and talents.

Music is probably the best way to pay homage to Ann, who played the piano, the viola and the French horn and who loved singing. So I have already played, and will continue to play, some Chopin nocturnes and waltzes, and a few Bach sarabandes, slow and stately and contemplative pieces, in the privacy of my thoughts, my heart and my home.

But I also feel some words are in order, especially if you didn’t know Ann  the way I did .

So here are a few things that I know about Ann that maybe you know – and maybe you don’t know. I call it my Aria for Ann because I cannot sing or carry a tune except with my fingers and a keyboard.

Ann didn’t talk about feminism. She didn’t have to. She was a feminist long before the term became commonplace. She did things her way and never let a man’s world or old boys’ network stop her or shut her out. She was the model of a can-do person, male or female.

A longtime Madisonian, she married her music teacher at Madison’s West High School (below), an older man named Ernie Stanke. I’d call that adventurous and independent-minded. She liked to get what she wanted, and she really didn’t care who thought what about it. She was brave that way.

She loved to gamble. She eagerly looked forward to trips to Las Vegas and the Ho-Chunk casino. If I recall correctly, she especially loved slots and blackjack. And I suspect it took someone with a mind for risks and beating the odds to build an opera company from the ground up and then commission new works like Daron Hagen’s “Shining Brow” opera about Wisconsin architect Frank Lloyd Wright And Jake Heggie’s revised version of “The End of the Affair,” based on the Graham Greene novel.

Ann, who attended the UW School of Music, was an avid and loyal sports fan who followed football, the Badgers and the Packers. And she loved to watch them on TV or listen to them on the radio — even during rehearsals. Again, to me this seems relevant to the opera world, which demands its own form of athleticism and team spirit.

Ann was no isolated or aesthetic elitist. Down-to-earth, she was an active citizen who believed in social justice and equal opportunity for all. She participated in local community and worked hard through various organizations and causes to better it. Little wonder, then, that in 2008 she received a Distinguished Alumni award from West High School (below) from which she graduated in 1952.

Whether it was her personal life or professional life, Ann was never a shirker but instead someone who worked tirelessly to make the world, both her world and that of others, a better and more rewarding place. She believed in doing her fair share, but always ended up doing much, much more. She had more energy than any three individuals I know, and she always put it to good use.

Ann was a proud mother, stepmother and grandmother. When her daughter Kristin Erickson (below top) asked her to write a column for her magazine Brava (below), Ann was thrilled. It was no inside-the-family job for her, but a special invitation that came from a businesswoman she respected as well as loved. She worried about writing the best column she could. She wanted to reflect well on her daughter. And she always did.

Ann also loved garage sales. She helped organize her neighborhood garage sale every Labor Day for many, many years – I suspect because she loved socializing with her neighbors and because it was much like organizing a complicated opera or a mass event like Opera in the Park. I went to one sale and bought some used CDs just as a pretext to see her. “Are you sure you don’t need more?” she said, knowing full well I wasn’t there for the CDs since I already owned hundreds. But she always liked to bargain and to close a deal, and she had mastered the skill over many years and many ventures.

Ann, who knew a lot about a lot of things and always wanted to know more, loved gossip and rumors – if they were true, not harmful or malicious. She could be a great source for news stories, a first-class tipster when I worked in the newsroom of The Capital Times. “But you never heard it from me,” she would say. Understood and obeyed. You did not cross Ann – or, to be more accurate, you only crossed her once.

Ann was witty and self-deprecating. When in this blog I mentioned seeing her at Opera in the Park last summer (below) – an event she inaugurated 10 years ago – she told me it made her cry. “But I do a lot of that these days,” she added. It was after the symptoms of that insidious and terrible neurological disease had already set in and made her shaky, and after she knew the fatal outcome that was so certain. But the event and people mattered more than her vanity or physical impairment.

Ann was generous, considerate and kind. When my wife went through surgery and chemo for breast cancer five years ago, at the end of the ordeal Ann invited us to see Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” from her special box in the then still new Overture Hall, given to her on her retirement from the Madison Opera in 2005. The flute wasn’t the only thing magical that Sunday afternoon.

Ann was a loyal friend to the end. The last time I saw her – when she was confined to a lounge chair and to watching TV and speaking very slowly and deliberately and writing things out – her first concern was for her colleague and longtime friend Roland Johnson (below), the retired music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera. He himself was recuperating and she worried more about him, I think, than about herself. “Go see Roland,” she said. “I will,” I promised her. And I will.

Ann was a forgiving and unashamed friend. At the garage sale I described above, I saw former Civic Center and Overture Center director Bob D’Angelo (below), released from prison, sitting beside her. A good man, she said simply, sometimes does a bad thing in addition to so many  good things. For her, Bob had unquestionably helped Madison’s arts scene to flourish and had paid his dues for his crime. He has also put the Madison Opera on the Civic Center season instead of importing touring companies. That boost meant a lot to her and to the opera company. She did not turn on you or forget you long after you had helped her out.

Well, I’m sure there are other things to recall about Ann Stanke. But to me these are the important ones, the key ones, the telling ones.

I feel about Ann’s death much the way I felt, and still feel 21 years later, about the death of Leonard Bernstein, another larger-than-life personality and artist who brought me the gift of music.

Suddenly the world feels smaller, less generous and less beautiful.  And I’m afraid it will feel that way for quite a while.

Thank you, Ann, for so many songs sung so well.

Do you memories or stories you want to share about Ann Stanke?

I, and others, would love to hear them.


Posted in Classical music

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