The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: In the run-up to Madison Opera’s 13th annual FREE Opera in the Park this Saturday night, general director Kathryn Smith talks about the past season, the upcoming season, the new opera center and the outdoor concert. | July 23, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night will bring the Madison Opera’s 13th annual FREE outdoor Opera in the Park. (Sunday is the rain date.)

opera in the _park_010

It is a massive and complex event to stage, from choosing the right food vendors to supplying enough porta-potties and glow sticks.

The music starts at 8 p.m. and runs about two hours in Garner Park, on Madison‘s far west side off at the intersection of Mineral Point and Rosa Roads. It features four guest vocal soloists or singers, plus John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad), the artistic director of the Madison Opera and the music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, conducting members of the Madison Symphony and the Madison Opera Chorus.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The event is a chance for the opera company to preview the new season as well as to offer tried-and-true tidbits and hits, and even to offer some popular and classic Broadway show tunes.

It generally attracts more than 10,000 listeners — the record is about 14,000 — who can dine informally outdoors and then listen to the music.

For more details about Opera in the Park, here are some links:

This overview includes park hours and rules plus a schedule and address and affiliated events:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/park/

The repertoire or program that includes music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giacchino Rossini, Giacomo Puccini, Gaetano Donizetti, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Franz Lehar, Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet (including the famous “Toreador Song” from “Carmen,” which you can hear in a YouTube video at the bottom), Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rogers:

http://madisonopera.org/uploads/PDFs/Opera%20in%20the%20Park%202014%20repertoire.pdf

This link features the biographies of the guest singers:

http://madisonopera.org/performances-2013-2014/park/index.aspx?ID=332

In the run-up to the event, Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), the Madison Opera’s general director, agreed to a Q&A for The Ear. She covered the past season, the upcoming season and Opera in the Park as well as the role of the new Opera Center that is located only a block away from the Overture Center for the Arts in downtown Madison.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

What kind of artistic and financial shape did the Madison Opera emerge from for the past season? How does it compare to past seasons and your expectations?

This was artistically one of our strongest seasons ever. Although it is only my third season –- and only the second that I planned –- I have heard from a number of long-time patrons that Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (below, in a photo by James Gill) was one of the greatest operas in the company’s history, and we all agree it was an artistic turning point.

That was my hope in programming the opera -– in my grant application to the NEA, I referred to it as “a stake in our artistic ground” -– so it is gratifying that it exceeded even my own goals in its impact.

Dead Man Walking near end James GIll

I was also very proud of Puccini’s Tosca, as doing the classic operas well is the best way to make sure they thrive, and that The Daughter of the Regiment, by Gaetano Donizetti, was so well received. The latter was our first midwinter show in the Capitol Theater in five years, and its success lets people know that our February show is an important part of our offerings.

tosca on ramparts mad op

madison opera daughter 6 chorus, abreu, cislin, apple, Douglss Swenson as Hortensius James Gill

Our fiscal year doesn’t end until August 31, so it is too early to say definitively where we will end financially. We had some challenges this year, as we learned the costs of running the new Madison Opera Center (below) and saw ticket buyers lean toward less expensive tickets. But it has in general been a strong year, and we hope that our supporters will help us finish the fiscal year in the black.

Madison Opera Center

Can you rank the shows in terms of popularity? Did you learn anything special from the season?

The Daughter of the Regiment was in a smaller theater, so it sold the best in terms of percentage of house, but Dead Man Walking was the best-seller in terms of number of tickets, slightly outselling Tosca. In fact, it outsold everything we have done but Don Giovanni in recent years, and even outsold operas like Faust and The Flying Dutchman — something I do not think anyone would have predicted for a 21st century American opera in Madison.

The main thing I learned from the season is to take chances.

Dead Man Walking was far from a sure thing: We lost many subscribers because of it, but single ticket-buyers, including a number of first-time opera-goers, made up the difference. I know that many people attended Dead Man Walking thinking they would not care for it, so it is a tremendous achievement that so many people were blown away, ranking it as one of the greatest artistic experiences of their lifetimes. There is no way to plan for that success, but if a company only offers Carmen and Madama Butterfly, it will never find the world beyond it.

The season also solidified a trend that every arts group in the U.S. is seeing: Last-minute ticket buying is now the norm. We sell around 20 percent of our tickets in the week before a show opens, regardless of the show’s title or what time of year it plays.

That is simply how arts ticket buying works these days, and I am guilty of it, too. So while it is nerve-wracking for me as a producer, it is something we need to learn to accept, rather than panic about.

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

What role did the new Madison Opera Center play in the past season’s productions?

The Opera Center, which officially opened only nine months ago, was designed to be both our administrative and artistic home, and it was certainly that. Apart from being a beautiful facility in which to work, it enabled us to do more outreach activities and hold multiple rehearsals simultaneously.

For example, during Dead Man Walking, John DeMain could work with cast members on music in the downstairs studio while Kristine McIntyre was staging the opening fight scene upstairs.

It also became a home away from the hotel for the artists, particularly on Dead Man Walking, which had a large cast, emotionally intense scenes, and long rehearsal days. They cooked in the kitchen, used the music library, and set up their laptops in our offices.

We were even able to let Michael Mayes’ dog, Pete, hang out in the Opera Center, so cast members could play with him on their breaks. That is very much what I wanted the Opera Center to be and why it is designed the way it is, so it was gratifying to see it used that way.

For example, below are photos of Dead Man Walking stars (below top, Michael Mayes, who sang Joseph De Rocher, and Alan Dunbar, who sang Owen Hart) on a break from rehearsals, playing their guitars in the Michael Klos Music Library of there Opera Center; and of Michael Mayes and his dog Pete (below bottom), who also seems to be singing as part of a photo shoot in our costume shop downstairs.

Michael Mayes and Alan Dunbar singing

Michael Mayes and Pete

Will next season bring any major changes to the Madison Opera?

Next season is about building on the major changes of the past year -– the creation of the Madison Opera Center, which allows us to do more education programs such as Opera Novice, which proved very popular in its first iterations this year; the continued expansion of the repertoire; and a strategic look at how to build upon our recent success for the future.

How and why did you choose the operas for next season?

I aim for balance with every season: a mix of pieces with different plots by a variety of composers, with at least one classic piece and at least one Madison Opera premiere.

It has been 12 years since we last performed The Barber of Seville, so it was time to share this classic comedy with our audiences. For a new generation of opera-goers, our production might as well be a world premiere; I certainly remember the first time I heard Barber and discovered the glories of Giacchino Rossini (below).

Rossini photo

To balance Barber, we wanted something more serious and not-as-classic. Madison Opera did a single performance of Fidelio by Ludwig van Beethoven (below) in concert 28 years ago, but has never staged the opera. Although it is Beethoven’s only opera, he was far from a rookie composer, and the score is just brilliant, with a powerful storyline and a truly moving choral ode to freedom.

Beethoven big

Our middle piece, Sweeney Todd, is both a Madison Opera premiere and an American classic. Although it premiered on Broadway, it has lived in the opera house since 1984, when the Houston Grand Opera performed it, conducted by John DeMain. Both witty and tragic -– it has a higher body count than any opera we have performed recently –- the stunning score by Stephen Sondheim (below) requires powerhouse voices to sing, and we certainly have them in this production. Plus it is a delight to produce it with the full orchestra, rather than the reduced version many Broadway productions use. I look forward to offering Madison yet another side of what opera can be.

stephen-sondheim-aa58e636211efdc134e6540533fff5cc52c73909-s6-c30

After I set the season, I noticed two things that no one will believe are coincidences: We are following up one opera set in a prison (Dead Man Walking) with another (Fidelio). And The Barber of Seville follows “The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” which is Sweeney Todd’s subtitle. None of this was deliberate, but it will perhaps make good marketing.

What else would you like to say or add about the past season, the next season and perhaps also the Opera in the Park this summer?

I am tremendously grateful to everyone who has been involved with Madison Opera in the past year. We have done so much, from building the Madison Opera Center to the vast amounts of outreach that led up to Dead Man Walking. There were literally hundreds of people who supported us, performed with us, and joined us for education events, and none of this would have been possible without them.

I am also, of course, very much looking forward to Opera in the Park on this coming Saturday, July 26. It is truly a highlight of what we do, and we have four exciting soloists this year: Jamie-Rose Guarrine (below top), Wallis Giunta (below second), Sean Panikkar, (below third) and Kelly Markgraf (below fourth), as well as our wonderful Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. It will be a great night. You won’t want to miss it!

Jamie-Rose Guarrine Peter Konerko

Wallis Giunta

Sean Panikkar CR Kristina Sherk

Kelly Markgraf

 


2 Comments »

  1. MIss Opera in the Park! If I wasn’t helping “in front of the house” I was happily sitting in my lawn chair with friends and family. Ann Stanke’s idea was a brilliant one! One of the things I miss most about Madison.

    Wini

    Comment by Wini — July 23, 2014 @ 10:21 am

  2. SHOUT IT FROM THE ROOFTOPS!!!

    Comment by Michael Mayes — July 23, 2014 @ 10:17 am


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