The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music and Opera Q&A: Conductor Gary Thor Wedow talks about the artists and music in Madison’s Opera’s FREE “Opera in the Park” concert this Saturday night.

July 17, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, July 21, at 8 p.m. in Garner Park on Madison’s far west side – the rain date is Sunday – the Madison Opera will again offer its FREE summer outdoor preview of its next season by presenting “Opera in the Park.”

In recent years, the community event has drawn up to 15,000 people. Garner Park opens at 7 a.m. the day of the concert. Blankets, chairs, food and beverages are allowed. 

For more information about the 11th annual “Opera in  the Park,” including photos of past events and a list of the music to be performed, including both opera and Broadway musicals, t visit:

This time the conductor of the guest singers, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra players is Gary Thor Wedow, who has a lot of experience in conducting opera and who has taught at the famed Juilliard School of Music in New York City since 1994.

Wedow (below) recently gave The Ear an email Q&A about this year’s Opera in the Park:

Can you briefly introduce yourself to the readers and audience?

I’m a mid-Westerner from Indiana, a Hoosier. I studied at Indiana University as a pianist with virtuoso Jorge Bolet, who loved opera and singers – and I’ve been hooked ever since.

Years ago I turned from the piano to conducting and love the grandeur of opera — the most extraordinary and complete art form. Though I’ve been lucky to conduct a lot of the Baroque repertoire, the opera I’ve conducted most is still “Carmen” and I’ve been through the gamut of the repertoire at New York City Opera, Seattle Opera (where the photo by Chris Bennion below shows him working the orchestra pit), Canadian Opera Company and other great opera companies around the country.

What are the special challenges and special rewards of performing outdoors? How do you feel about the experience?

At the beginning of my career, I was chorus master at Santa Fe Opera and I think I’ve experienced about every challenge: rain, wind, cold, rattlesnakes and amorous skunks (don’t ask). Of course, now that I’ve said I’ve experienced every challenge, maybe in Madison I’ll find another surprise.

But the rewards are terrific: the ambience, the sky, the whole experience of a picnic with friends and family and truly great music — it’s a memory for a lifetime. My grandfather played in town bands and as a teenager one of my happiest memories was being in the high school band for football games and summer parks concerts; I’m afraid it’s in my DNA.

Can you walk us through the performers and make some brief comments?

The soloists are all internationally recognized American artists.

Caitlin Lynch (below) is a radiant soprano whom I just saw in the disturbing but mesmerizing world premiere of “Dark Sisters. She performs Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” this coming season, she’ll be doing an aria from that role in the park.

Matt Boehler (below), our dynamite bass, will join Lynch in the production of “Don Giovanni” next year. He is performing throughout Europe and is based in Switzerland now, but is a pal of mine from his days at Juilliard, where I’m on the faculty.

Russell Thomas (below) is a tenor without peer and has a truly magnificent voice. He will sing two big excerpts from Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball) (Madison’s Opera’s fall production). It is one of Verdi’s greatest works.

Emily Fons (below) is a Wisconsin native who just had a triumph in Great Britain at the Garsington Festival and is going to sing some gorgeous Offenbach with us.

Another Wisconsin artist is the soprano Caitlin Cisler (below) will perform the role of Oscar in the “Ballo” and sings Oscar’s sparkling first act aria.

Can you walk us through the program and repertoire, and make some comments?

Well, could you tell that I’m excited about the “Ballo” and the “Don Giovanni” excerpts — this is opera at its greatest. But I’m over the moon that we will begin the program with the seldom performed “Hymn to the Sun” from Mascagni’s “Iris.”  It has breathtakingly beautiful orchestral colors and features your terrific chorus.

Other favorites will include selections from Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; but also some wonderful operetta. Matt will patter his way through the Modern Major General form Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance.” We will have some great American musical comedy classics: “Be My Love” — immortalized by Mario Lanza, but gloriously realized in Madison by Russell and Emily and Caitlin will charm us with “Show Boat” (borrowing from Maestro DeMain’s repertoire) and “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me” — one of my personal favorites.

Are you familiar with the Madison Opera and Madison Symphony Orchestra or with maestro John DeMain? Do you have any comments or reactions about coming to Madison?

I’ve known John (below, in a photo by James Gill) much of my professional life. He is a superb musician and a first-class human being — he is an incredibly generous colleague, rarer than you might imagine. He has invited me to Madison several times before but it never quite fit, so I’m overjoyed that this summer it has worked out.

I am also a huge fan of the Madison Early Music Festival. What a rich cultural life you have there, so I am honored and overjoyed at working with the opera and symphony.

What else would you like to say about anything — the Opera in the Park concert or yourself as a performer and teacher or Madison?

I’m so excited to be coming to Madison. I’ve got dear friends there and know I will leave with more friends — performing this great music with a world-class orchestra and chorus and terrific colleagues in a park!

So, pack the picnic basket, wrap up the blanket and get a light stick (below) to join in the conducting. I’m looking forward to having a great evening — the more, the merrier.

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