The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music obituary: Here is my goodbye aria for Ann Stanke | May 25, 2011

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


  1. Dear Jacob:

    Thank you so much for this incredible remembrance. I met Ann when we did “Shining Brow” those many moons ago and I just fell in love with her. Especially after she beat the pants off me in poker! She was the salt of the earth and will truly be missed.
    Thanks again,
    Michael Sokol

    Comment by Michael Sokol — July 12, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    • Dear Michael,
      Thank you of the kind words.
      And especially for the wonderful anecdote.
      It is all so Ann.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 12, 2011 @ 9:18 pm

      • Hi Michael and Jake:

        Dear Michael, thank you for writing. I laughed and have to admit I’m delighted she beat you! I’m in the midst of cleaning out 60 years of collections, knick-knacks, vintage Madison Opera materials and various and sundry things (certainly treasures but definitely no trash because you know how another man feels about trash!) in preparation for a gala garage sale on Labor Day weekend. It’s the same weekend she always held her huge sale; I believe she and her sister, Ginny, started the first sale about 40 years ago and we only missed one last year. EVERYONE should put it on their calendars. Beginning Labor Day Friday at 7 a.m. or so on Charles Lane in Madison; contact me at with any questions.

        I can’t tell you the number of playing cards and poker chips I have found! Perhaps we should organize an annual Ann Stanke Poker Classic to benefit Madison Opera? :-)))) These gaming items are second only to the multitude of terrific treasures I’m finding with one theme: Music! I believe she even had a toilet paper roll that played “Roll Out the Barrel” at one point but have yet to locate it.

        In case anyone waiting reads this, I am making my way through writing out thank you notes. I’ve completed 70 or so with 100+ to go and my progress is much slower than I wish it could be. Still, there is so much I want to say to the people who sent such heartwarming tributes and shared so many meaningful stories. I have found a huge degree of comfort in the words of loving people like you. That said, I find I can only complete a certain number in one sitting or the emotions take over so I’m thankful for everyone’s patience and understanding.

        Life without mom is terribly difficult. I find myself wanting to call her or tell her something many times each day so I tell her anyway! 🙂 I’m glad the long distance charges are comped.

        Many times each day, I am comforted, as the rest of her family is, by beautiful memories and the knowledge of how fortunate we’ve been to have a mom and a Granny like her. And despite the overwhelming sense of loss, I am beyond grateful that she has escaped the ravages of ALS and that her memory lives on.

        With love and thanks,
        Krissy (Stanke) Erickson

        P.S. Dear Jake, thank you for allowing me to use your excellent web site to go on – and on – this morning!

        Comment by Kristin Stanke Erickson — July 13, 2011 @ 8:15 am

      • Kristin,
        Thank you for your detailed and entertaining as well as moving response.
        All of us can share in your pain through our own experiences, though only a part of it since you and your brothers were closer to her than anyone.
        Please do not worry or feel pressed about the thank you notes. All the intended recipients understand your loss and its magnitude.
        And many thanks for your kind words about the usefulness of the blog. If it does nothing else, it will have been worth it for this.
        I will add only that you and Michael and others should know that they will be performing music from “Shining Brow,” which you mom commissioned from Daron Hagen, at Saturday’s Opera in the Park — and do so as a tribute to her.
        Hoping you continue to heal.

        Comment by welltemperedear — July 13, 2011 @ 9:14 am

      • Dear Krissy,

        I was so touched by your mentioning how often you want to just pick up the phone and call your mom. My mom was in Minneapolis, and I called her every Saturday morning for years, so I’m all too familiar with the ache of missing those great times gone by.

        All the best,

        Comment by Jess Anderson — July 13, 2011 @ 9:03 am

      • Dear Jess,
        My mom is still alive but I also phone regularly and know that when she is gone, I will still have the urge.
        Isn’t it proof of how much more personal phone calls are than e-mails?
        And letters are even more so.
        But of course in-person contact is still the best.
        Thanks for reading and replying.
        Hope all is well.

        Comment by welltemperedear — July 13, 2011 @ 9:17 am

  2. Jake, thank you so much for putting into words that which so many of us know in our hearts. Ann was a friend of many years and we joked that for a couple of months each year we were the same age. Garage sales, Ho-Chunk visits, Packer and Badger games but above all music. We connected in 1970 at MCMA. Like Ann, I enjoyed sports and we spent many an evening or afternoon at track meets as Craig ran the mile. I watched Kristin grow up and we spent more than a few New Year’s Days watching college bowl games.

    When we visited Madison in late March I had a chance to spend time with Ann and came away knowing she had not long to live. We laughed, we hugged, we cried and we reminisced. I promised I would visit her again when we returned next year. In our hearts, both of us knew that would not happen. Madison and music have lost a unique individual and I’ve lost a cherished friend. I know I’m not alone in that as to so many she was a cherished friend. Her friends were legion but she made each one feel special.

    Goodbye dear one.

    Comment by Wini Cook Bowen — May 28, 2011 @ 1:05 am

    • Hi Wini,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I love your tribute — both detailed and personal.
      We will all miss her deeply, but will also be glad for the itme we had with her.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 28, 2011 @ 9:14 am

  3. thank you for these lovely memories – we had great affection for Ann and will miss her terribly.

    Comment by Katleen McElroy — May 26, 2011 @ 11:37 pm

  4. Beutifully written piece, Jake. Just beautiful, eloquent, and very touching. Thank you.

    Comment by Kathy Lewinski — May 25, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  5. Thank you so much, dear Jake, for describing my mom so beautifully. You captured the unique aspects of her personality so well and as you know, that’s not easy to do. She thought the world of you. Many, many thanks. Krissy (Stanke) Erickson

    Comment by Kristin Stanke Erickson — May 25, 2011 @ 7:40 pm

    • Dear Kristin,
      Thank you for your kind words and thoughts.
      I would have responded sooner but the power was out last night for a while.
      I appreciate your kind words and am sorry for your loss, for our loss.
      I am happy you felt I captured at least some of the values and uniqueness that made your mom such a loyal personal friend and such a figure in the Madison arts scene.
      It was a lovely service, with laughs and tears.
      I am glad I went, though I wish it hadn’t been necessary.
      Be well.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 26, 2011 @ 10:28 am

  6. Thanks very much for this, Jacob….and thanks for coming to the service Tuesday. One last big show for Mom…

    Comment by Craig Stanke — May 25, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    • Dear Craig,
      I apologize for being late to get back to you. A power outage prevented me from replying last night.
      Thank you for your kind words for me and for your moving tribute at the funeral service.
      That it was so well attended speaks to how much your mom meant to all of us.
      I wish you well in your sorrow and hope you find comfort.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 26, 2011 @ 10:31 am

  7. Ann Stanke and I were just ten days apart in age. As musicians, we had both studied and trained in the UW-Madison School of Music, and we shared many interests and aspirations. By astrological reckoning (Taurus) we would be definite in our opinions (and not very often wrong, he said with a cough), reliable perhaps to a fault in our loyalties, and a force to be reckoned with if vexed.

    It seemed to me that Ann’s foremost quality was steadfastness — you could always count on her, for she was unfailingly reliable and straightforward. She was completely without guile, having learned how to manage an opera company on the job, so to speak, growing with the company for many years. As far as cities like Madison are concerned, she was the last of her/my generation. I don’t anticipate that anyone like her will come along again. She made of the job something that now only a true pro can do.

    Thanks in very large measure to Ann’s long successes in building reality into Arlene and Roland Johnson’s deeply cherished opera-company dream, Madison Opera is now a solid, fully professional mid-level company, mounting productions of both classic and new opera repertory with major directors, designers, and singers, as well as its own professional orchestra, together with an administrative arm that functions smoothly and efficiently.

    My dear friend Ann, you may shine that broad smile of yours down on what you’ve wrought. You did really well!

    Comment by Jess Anderson — May 25, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    • Dear Jess,
      What a fine and fitting tribute you wrote.
      I would have replied sooner, but a power outage silenced me last night.
      You touch on many points and your major point, about Ann’s steadfastness, is absolutely true and well taken.
      I didn’t know your paths had crossed so closely, but am glad to find out they did.
      Her smile was indeed unforgettable.
      Be well and be comforted.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 26, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  8. Jake…

    It was good to see you yesterday at the memorial service although I wish it could have been under other circumstances… Ann was a friend for 20 years, in good times and bad. We will all miss her very much.

    In our hurry to get Overture open there simply was not time to complete a contract negotiation between Madison Opera and Overture. We operated on a handshake basis. I still feel her hand in mine.

    Comment by Bob D'Angelo — May 25, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

    • Hi Bob,
      Forgive my not replying sooner, but power was out last night here.
      Thanks for reading and replying to the blog “aria.”
      It was good to see you too. You look and sound well.
      I love the image of the handshake deal and feeling her hand still in yours.
      That was Ann, to be sure.
      I too wish it had been a different occasion.
      Here’s hoping we all find comfort.

      Comment by welltemperedear — May 26, 2011 @ 10:38 am

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