The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Opera and the circus have a lot in common, says Melanie Cain of Madison’s Fresco Opera Theatre.

September 27, 2011
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By Jacob Stockinger

What do opera and the circus have in common?

Quite a lot, says Melanie Cain of Madison’s Fresco Opera Theatre.

And the ensemble will put those parallels on display during three performance this coming weekend of “Big Top Opera.” Shows are on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. and then again on Saturday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. and Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center.

Tickets to the two-hour show are $25. For reservations and other information, including a video, visit:

For background about Fressco Opera Theatre, visit:

A press release reads: “Big Top Opera, a spectacular show unlike anything you have seen before, or are likely see outside of our ring.

“A combination of fine music and circus feats, presenting such acts as Sizzle Cisler the Fire Breather, Princess Charming the Half-Man/Half-Woman, the Strong Man – Ben the Barbarian, The Inseparable Suramese Twins, Amina the Airwalker, Baba the Bearded Lady, Leonora the Tamer of Beasts, and THE WHEEL OF DEATH!

There will also be a cavalcade of sideshow attractions, including performance artists and acrobats as well as a world premiere composition.”

Fresco Opera Theatre’s artistic director and co-founder, soprano Melanie Cain (below), who has also worked with University Opera, recently gave an e-mail interview to The Ear to talk about the upcoming production, the history of Fresco Opera Theatre and the common links between the opera and the circus.

Can you tell us briefly about the genesis, history and future plans of Fresco Opera Theatre? Do similar companies exist? Where did you get the idea?

Fresco Opera Theatre started in 2009.  We felt that opera was missing a huge piece of the community and we wanted to make it more accessible by presenting the genre in a fresh way.  Fresco Opera Theatre emerged, proudly offering originally staged and exciting operatic productions, while staying true to the traditional music of opera.

Our mission is to interest a whole new generation of opera fan while offering an exciting alternative to current opera enthusiasts.  In March of 2010, we had our first production, which was “Dueling Divas.”  We based this production on a battle between opera singers. It included 8 singers and 4 battles.  The audience chose the winner of each category through an applause meter.  In the end the audience had the unique experience of choosing the champion diva.

Nothing had been done like this before and the audience was engaged, excited, and ready to come to future events.  We gained a great deal of support from the community and had a nearly sold out performance.   Our follow-up, “Ding Dong The Diva’s Dead,” staged opera arias to clichéd horror movie scenes.  This juxtaposition worked well with the audience, again proving to be a success both commercially and critically.

There are other opera companies throughout the country offering a unique perspective to the genre, however, Fresco has brought something rather new to the table.  We are able to draw from many different types of operatic styles.  From Mozart to Ravel, centuries of operatic composition will be presented in one fresh, stylistic show.

Presenting a show with this range of material allows the audience to experience many diverse operatic composers in one performance, which we believe makes for an educational and entertaining experience, for both the novice and seasoned opera patron.  Our show theme makes it possible to use these different operatic genres in a manner to make a cohesive program, and indeed makes compositions that are in some cases written hundreds of years apart, work together.

As for our future, our goal is to increase awareness and our audience through the productions we create.  We have a catalog of rough drafts, musical selections and general ideas to draw from.  After the “Big Top” production, we will analyze what may be a good “fit” to follow for our next show.

The bottom line is that our goal is to have fun putting together shows that will not only entertain the audience, but also educate and engage them as well.

Why do you think opera and the circus go together?

We have chosen the Big Top (Side-Show) Theme for a variety of reasons. We choose themes that will be recognizable to an audience.  Most people know what a Big Top setting involves, which makes our production immediately approachable to those unfamiliar with classical music.  It also gives the traditional opera patron a different setting for hearing and seeing the music they love.

There is a wide range of subject matter and emotional potential revolving around Big Top” characters (below, in photos by Max Wendt).  They can be tragic, heroic and romantic, which are all traditional elements in opera. This allows Fresco to have a wide range of material to draw from. The elements of a Big Top show work well with many operatic arias, which, we feel, will create a grand presentation.  When you think of traditional big top shows, they are, in a way, operatic.

When you think of characters in the circus such as a “Bearded Lady,” there is a goldmine of emotional baggage that transfers to the operatic stage nicely. Also, the notion of having “Siamese Twins” singing a duet with one another, a half-man / half-woman sing a duet with himself/herself and a singing “Ringmaster” really works well.

As for Fresco Opera Theatre, the inherent visual nature of the circus is a perfect match for what we want to do on stage.  Our “Wheel Of Death” scene will no doubt be talked about for some time.

Can you tell us more about the performance at the Overture Center?

We chose to use the Promenade Hall for this production, because it allows us to develop the space into a true “circus” feel.  It is intimate, much like a traditional circus, and gives us the height requirements to do some of the things we need for “Big Top Opera.”  The screen backdrop, which covers the entire wall, is a critical element for the visual component of our show.

We also needed that space to allow the side-show performers we will also have between acts, as well as before the show begins.  We are confident this will be a show unlike anything the Overture has done before.  And besides all the visual aspects, we really will challenge the audience member’s senses with some of the most talented singers the Midwest has to offer.

Fresco’s Big Top Opera features scenes re-staged as part of a three-ring circus.  Circus Sideshows provide great themes for a scenes program.  Overall operatic themes such as tragedy, comedy, romance, and heroism are well compared to these types of circus attractions.  In addition, we will offer other aspects of circus-lore including a carnival midway in the lobby complete with cotton candy Cracker Jacks, face painting, fortune tellers, and the ever-present air of mystery audience members won’t soon forget.

Was there an Aha! Moment when the idea of combining the two, opera and the circus, occurred to you?

Our baritone, Jonathan Ten-Brink, sang an aria from “I Pagliacci” for Dueling Divas II.  I knew right then that this aria had to be part of Fresco’s next production.

Can you describe what the experience is like for the audiences and the performers? What should the audiences look for and listen to?

We are pleased with how the musicians and performers have really invested themselves in our company.  We all enjoy what we do, and that translates to the stage.  As for the audience, while we are certainly visually explosive, the one thing we are most proud of is our level of audience participation.

We will be bringing some of the audience members on stage for our in-between acts.  Our audiences feel like they are a part of the production.  They’re no longer spectators, they’re participants.  Our patrons will not only love hearing operatic singing, but other art forms such as Cycropia Aerial Artists, a hula hoop artist, and an escape artist.

The one thing that no one will soon forget is a soprano spinning on a Wheel of Death as she is belting out high notes.  Fresco’s Big Top Opera will be both visually and musically stunning.

Is there more you would like to say or add?

Whether a person thinks they hate opera or is an opera enthusiast, we think “Fresco’s Big Top Opera” will offer them a new experience.  Fresco Opera is extremely proud of this production, which while at times may seem to break from tradition, never forgets the tradition that gave us the love of this music in the first place.

Posted in Classical music

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