The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: “Cinderella” goes to Hollywood as the Madison Opera shows how Rossini got rich by writing the TV sitcoms and romantic comedies of his day.

May 1, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

So, there I was, heading off to the opera, wondering about two things:

What did ordinary  people do before movies and television for entertainment? Surely it wasn’t all reading books or playing music at home, since as amusement they probably didn’t have a sufficiently high quota of triviality, lightness and laughs.

And: What accounted for such commercial success that the 19th-century opera composer Rossini (below) could retire for the rest of his life into Parisian decadence and self-indulgence at age 37.

I found my answers — it turns out they are related to each other — Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall.

Enter the Madison Opera’s thoroughly enjoyable production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), the first-ever production of this well-known classic work by the local opera company.

The first thing to know is that stage director Garnett Bruce (below) updated the work to Depression-era Hollywood in the 1930s and that the search for a princess became a search for a star – or was it a wife? Well, it WAS confusing in the opera. But then it also IS confusing in real life since many movie moguls end up marrying their Leading Ladies. Or make Leading Ladies of their wives.

Still, though people who know other productions of “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola) and opera purists may not approve of the re-working, the audience roared with laughter and gave the production a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation.

Much of the production’s appeal came from the very colorful, glitzy Busby Berkeley-type sets (below in a photo by James Gill) and the witty, stage business including using rolled R’s and explosive T’s a repetitive sextet and props such as the clever juggling of hat and an umbrella. The traditional royal castle became a Hollywood studio, and the glass slipper became a diamond bracelet. This production inhabited a world of metaphorical equivalencies. It worked for me.

True, at times the stage business, sets and costumes seemed over-the-top. But then what is opera or Rossini all about if not going over the top — kind of like TV sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters.

But make no mistake, despite all the updating much of the production’s appeal also came from the original score.

Members of the pit orchestra, recruited from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and playing under the able baton MSO conductor and Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below), turned in a solid and precise performance. At no time did the singers and orchestra seem out of synch or out of balance.

And they captured that bouncy, upbeat, major-key Rossini sunny cheerfulness – soo-o-o—Italian – you know, that playfulness that relies so much on toodling winds and melodic strings as well as repetition and  the endless looping of musical themes and words.

But the major credit, of course, goes to the singers.

Singing the title role, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (below, in a photo by James Gill) just soared above the rest of the cast. A standout, she possessed the whole package: tone, diction, range and power – astonishing Ethel Mermanesque power. Plus, her acting was very good, too. This was her Madison debut – not counting Opera in the Park — but The Ears says: Sign her again, the sooner the better. Bring her back.

Mack was well matched with tenor Gregory Schmidt (below, in a photo by James Gill) who played the Prince/Director of Palace Pictures’ Don Ramiro and who has sung three times with the Madison Opera. His strong voice was clear and his acting was convincing, if sometimes it seemed just a bit less than whole-hearted, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance steps. But all in all, he proved as reliable keeper, a real find who should also sing the title role if they ever do an opera called “Mr. Speaker: The John Boehner Story.”

Another well matched pair were Cinderella’s sisters, played by local favorites mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck  (below right, in a photo by James Gill) and by soprano Amy Mahoney (below, left). These two often stole the show with their sisterly bitchiness and outsized ambition to beat the plain, sincere and kind-hearted Cinderella to stardom. Brava! And Brava!

Much of the fun came especially the second act, much tighter and shorter than the first, in which the valet Daniel Belcher (below, center ) turns into some witty meteoritical or self-referential commentator on the script and production.

Cinderella’s ambitious father, baritone Steven Condy (below), stole quite a few scenes, less by his able singing that by his acting and stage business, and by his gift for projecting a comic and confused gruffness combined with endearment.

All in all, this opera production went down easily and smoothly, with the enjoyable, if forgettable or predictable, fun of a romantic comedy with, say, Julia Roberts or Cary Grant. Or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was, in short, a romp.

Opera started as a populist art form for the people, not for critics or scholars. And that is exactly how this production found its success: With ordinary people.

If you want to explore the deeper meaning of the fairy tale “Cinderella,” you might look at other productions or psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s study “The Uses of Enchantment.”

Me, I was happy just to flee a cloudy, cool and rainy Sunday afternoon and end up in such an enchanting, charming and escapist production.

I suspect Rossini enjoyed his retirement very much. And I suspect he would have loved the excesses of Hollywood every bit as much as he loved the depraved charms of Paris.

And here’s the secret that the composer knew: Cinderella was a man.

The real rags-to-riches Cinderella was none other than Rossini himself.

Here is what some others thought of the production.

Here is a link to the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians and West High School student Elena Livorni for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV and

Classical music datebook: This is Opera Week in Madison with some fine chamber music, orchestral music and student contest winners thrown into the busy mix.

April 25, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

After last week — the busiest week EVER in Madison for classical music that I can remember — concerts and events continue to pile up.

Could it be that we are approaching the end of the semester and school year — the last day of classes at the University of Wisconsin is May 12 – and that groups are running out of time to perform?

The BIG event this week is the Madison Opera’s production of Rossini’s comic opera “Cinderella” (below), which has been updated to Hollywood in the 1930s. Here is a link I did to a Q&A with stage director Garnett Bruce that also has more details about the production:

But there is a lot more music – including more opera – going on in Madison this week. Just take a look and then get out your datebook and see what is open.


At 7:30 p.m. in Music Hall, at the foot of Bascom Hill, there is an Opera Workshop with FREE admission.

With piano accompaniments, voice and opera students at the UW School of Music perform scenes from seven operas: “Norma” by Bellini; “Carmen” by Bizet; “Arabella” by Strauss; “The Pirates of Penzance” by Gilbert & Sullivan; “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart; “La Gioconda” by Ponchielli; and “Tancredi” by Rossini.

A reception will follow the concert, sponsored by Opera Props.


At 7:30 p.m. in the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center for the Arts in Brookfield, a suburb of Milwaukee, the UW Chamber Orchestra (below) will perform under conductor James Smith and assist conductor David Grandis. The soloist is UW horn professor Daniel Grabois.

The chamber orchestra will perform “Overture to Don Giovanni” by W. A. Mozart, “Concerto for French Horn, No. 2″ by Richard Strauss with faculty guest artist Daniel Grabois and “Symphony No. 3” by Franz Schubert.

Tickets are required and free from the Sharon Lynne Wilson Center box office. Visit or call (262) 781-9520 to reserve your tickets in advance.


Friday’s FREE Noon Musicale, from 12:15 to 1 p.m. in the Landmark Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive features flutist Dawn Lawler and percussion Tim Patterson in music by Jo Kondom, Astor Piazzolla, Preston Trombly, Lou Harrison and Payton MacDonald. For information, call 608 233-9774 or visit

At 7 p.m. in the Oakwood Village West Auditorium, 6201 Mineral Point Road, on Madison’s far west side, Candid Concert Opera (below) will perform an edited concert dress version, in Italian with English subtitles and narration, of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Free admission. The concert will repeated at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street, at 7 p.m. on Saturday. For more information about the production, performers and the group, visit:

At 8 p.m. in the Overture Center’s Overture Hall, the Madison Opera performs its production of Rossini’s comic opera “Cinderella,” staged in Depression era Holly wood in the 1930s. It will be sung in Italian with English surtitles. For tickets ($18-$116), call 608 258-4141. Here is a link for more information:

At 8 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Chorale performs a FREE concert under conductor Bruce Gladstone (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot).

The programs includes “That’s All Folksongs,” with music from Nigerian, American, Malay, Norwegian, Mongolian, Jewish, Scottish, Hungarian, Dominican, Cornish, Newfoundland, Brazilian Indian and French traditions. In addition, the choir performs the world premiere of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by Liam Moore (to a text by William Butler Yeats).


At noon in Grace Episcopal Church on the Capitol Square, during the Farmers Market, the Mifflin Quartet (below) will perform a FREE and casual concert of Beethoven’s Op. 74 “Harp” Quartet and Dohnanyi’s String Quartet No. 3.

From 2 to 4 p.m. at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (below, in a photo by Jeff Miller for UW-Madison) the Arts Enterprise Alumni Forum will be held. The Artist Alumni Forum is available to everyone who wants to listen to or ask questions of a panel of arts alumni. This forum will also present an opportunity to network with other artists from various disciplines. Visit for a list of panelists and more information.

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the non-music major All-University String Orchestra, under conductor and string pedagogue Janet Jensen (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), will perform a FREE concert. The program includes a concerto for three violins by Vivaldi and a work by a student composer.

At 7 p.m. in Capitol Lakes Retirement Center, 333 West Main Street, Candid Concert Opera (below) performs a second FREE performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” See Friday night above.

At 8 p.m. at First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, the Trio Invenzione will perform a program of Beethoven, Shostakovich and Suk. Tickets are $15, $12 for students and seniors. (Check and cash accepted; no credit cards.) Performers are Jess Salek, piano; Wes Luke, violin; and Michael Allen, cello.


From 12:30 to 2 p.m. this week’s “Sunday Afternoon Live From the Chazen” moves to the Wisconsin Union Theater for a live performance and live radio broadcast of the winners of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Neale-Silva Young Artists Competition.

The contest was made possible by the late Eduardo Neale-Silva, a native of Chile who was a regular listener of WPR. This award recognizes young Wisconsin performers of classical music who demonstrate an exceptionally high level of artistry.

Chris Peck, for instance, studies cello with Parry Karp at the UW-Madison, while Austin Larson studies at the University of Cincinnati and plays the horn under the direction of Randy Gardner. Rachel Holmes is a native of Madison and studies voice with Julia Faulkner. Cameron Pieper studies piano with Catherine Kautsky at Lawrence University in Appleton, though she originates from Fond Du Lac. And the Woodwind Quintet from Lawrence University includes Kelsey Burk (oboe), Jacob Fisher (bassoon), Kinsey Fournier (clarinet), Samuel Golter (flute) and Emma Richart (horn).

The concert will also be streamed the Wisconsin Public Radio website at, where you can also find more information.

At 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Opera performs Rossini’s “Cinderella.” See Friday night and the introduction above.

At 2:30 p.m. in the St. Joseph Chapel, 1000 Edgewood Drive, at Edgewood College, the Edgewood Chamber Orchestra, under the direction of Blake Walter, will feature violin virtuoso Isabella Lippi (below) – who was a finalist to be the new concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra — in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. Other works on the program include Mozart’s Overture to “La Clemenza di Tito” and Schubert’s Symphony Number 3 in D.

Lippi, who has been called “a standout, even among virtuosos,” began performing in public at the age of ten when she made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  She has since appeared as guest soloist with orchestras throughout the United States, as well as Mexico, Europe and the Far East.

Tickets are $5, and can be purchased at the door.

At 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, the University Bands will perform a free concert under conductors Matthew Mireles, Justin Stolarik (below) and Matthew Schlomer.


At 11 a.m. in Room 2441 in the Mosse Humanities Building,  the topic of  “Engaging 21st Century Audiences” will be discussed by Chelcy Bowles (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot), UW-Madison Professor of Music and Director of Continuing Education in Music; and by David Myers, University of Minnesota Professor and Director of the School of Music. The event is free to the public.

At 7:30 p.m. in Mill Hall, the UW Masters Singers will perform a free concert under conductors Sarah Riskind (below) and Russell Adrian.

The program includes a cantata by J.S. Bach, “Erschallet, ihr Lieder, erklinget, ihr Saiten!” and the “Kyrie” and “Gloria” from the “Mass in C” by Beethoven.  Both works will be supported by instrumental ensembles of students from the School of Music. Soloists are soprano Kyeol Lee, mezzo-soprano Bethany Hickman, tenor Daniel O’Dea and bass Jerry Hui. The program concludes with selections in Gospel and spiritual traditions.


At 7:30 p.m. in Morphy Recital Hall (below), the UW Early Music Ensemble, under director John Chappell Stowe, will perform a free recital.

At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the UW Western Percussion Ensemble (below) will perform under director Anthony Di Sanza.

The program will feature student chamber concerto soloists as well as the premiere of student composer Joe Diedrich’s percussion quartet “Night at the Lake.”  Soloists include Dave Alcorn, Michael Basak, Michael Koszewski, Ricky Schadt, Brett Walter and Elena Wittneben.

The program features the works of Bob Becker, Michael Colgrass, Anthony Di Sanza, Daniel Levitan and Michael Udow.


At 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall, the season’s last Keyboard Conversation with Jeffrey Siegel (below) will be held.

The program is titled “A Musical Love Triangle” and will feature music of Clara Wieck inspired by Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms, as well as music by Brahms and Schumann inspired by Clara.

Tickets are $14-$34 and can be purchased through Campus Arts Ticketing online; by phone at (608) 265-ARTS; or in person at the Union Theater Box Office or the Vilas Hall Box Office.

Classical music Q&A: Stage director Garnett Bruce talks about updating Rossini’s opera “Cinderella” to Hollywood in the 1930s Depression for the Madison Opera.

April 23, 2012
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Opera will close its current season with its first-ever production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), which has been set in Depression-era 1930’s Hollywood.

“Cinderella” will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Tickers run $18-$116.

For more information, call (608) 258-4141 or visit:

Bel canto magic meets a beloved fairy tale as the beautiful maid Angelina quests for true love and the talented film director Ramiro sets out to find his next leading lady.

The production (below in a photo by Cory Weaver for Austin Lyric Opera)  features glittering sets and costumes and a cast of unforgettable characters.

Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) conducts the Madison Opera Chorus and Madison Symphony Orchestra. Stage director Garnett Bruce returns to direct the lavish production, an original interpretation that incorporates showgirls, soundstage, and Busby Berkeley production numbers.

Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who appeared at Opera in the Park 2011, sings Angelina, the ill-treated Cinderella who dreams of happiness. Tenor Gregory Schmidt, last on the Madison Opera stage as the ghostly Peter Quint in Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw,” sings Don Ramiro, the weary film director at Palace Pictures Studios whose hunt for a starlet awakens his heart. Baritone Steven Condy sings Don Magnifico, the washed-up vaudevillian searching for a ticket back to stardom with his two scheming daughters. Daniel Belcher makes his Madison Opera debut as Dandini, Ramiro’s driver, who
changes places with him to great comic effect. Alan Dunbar also makes
his Madison Opera debut in the role of Alidoro, the clever studio head
at Palace Pictures.

They are joined by Jamie Van Eyck and Amy
 Mahoney as the two amusingly wicked stepsisters, Tisbe and Clorinda.

“Cinderella is one of Rossini’s most delightful operas,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith. “It’s both very funny and very genuine— we laugh at the comedy, while strongly rooting for everyone to live happily ever after. The music is full of vocal fireworks that are thrilling to hear and we have a stunning cast that makes it all sound easy.”

Stage director Garnett Bruce (below) recently agreed to talk to The Ear about his updating of the production:

Are you generally a fan of re-setting or updating operas? Why or why not? How do you think opera fans will react to what you have done?

I believe in good story telling. Sometimes, the original period is NOT helpful  (think of BALLO set in Boston, or TRAVIATA in the Baroque era) — and while this is not the case with CINDERELLA, we wanted to find a new way into the central ideas of the piece, while still honoring the text and music and structure from Rossini.

When a director has made mince-meat out of a piece, rehashing ideas and reusing music for his/her own points of view, I often wonder if that energy would be better spent writing a NEW piece rather than tinkering with someone who can no longer collaborate!  And, if the update distracts (a Planet of the Apes RIGOLETTO or Spaceship BOHEME) then we have not only failed the composer but also the audience.

I hope that our choice of 1933 Hollywood will invoke happy memories of those B&W movies for our audience, and give them a handle into Rossini’s deeper emotional music once the flash and dazzle of the patter sequences has died down.  Somehow, corsets and fans and petticoats and white wigs feel a bit formal for the fun I feel when I hear this score.  But what might have been avant-garde in 1817 is merely a passing antique in 2012.  I want the story to be invigorating.

How and why did you come up with idea of using Hollywood in the 1930s as a setting for Rossini’s “Cinderella”? Do the text and the music support that updating?

In our examination of Hollywood, I needed to balance the poverty aspect of Magnifico’s life and also find a logic for the beggar disguise that Alidoro is wearing in the first scene of the opera.  Then, realizing that IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (below, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert) was filmed in 1933 (winning an Oscar in 1934), the studios were starting to move away from the dazzle of sound and extravaganza to human dramas.

Rossini is doing the same thing — and the humanity that Angelina sings in this score is as touching as anything from Mozart or Handel.  I would say 95% of the text works. We have to accept “Principe” a lot, and the “codice” of birth records gets a bit sticky — but if we got stuck on THAT, we’d miss the point of the fun, the fluidity and the point of the story:  The Triumph of Goodness.

In the Act I finale, Dandini as the “false Prince” is setting up his big event — and instead of “Andiamo a tavola” meaning the banquet, we make it refer to nightclub tables in the movie set.  No big deal.

Does Rossini’s own life – early retirement at 37 as a rich star composer, years of decadence and self-indulgence in Paris – play any part in making the revised setting a natural match or choice?

In 1817, Rossini (below) must have had a joie de vivre, but was only a fledgling success — many projects and commissions, but still unknown outside Italy.  BARBIERE would propel him to worldwide acclaim, but by 1817, that hadn’t quite happened.  So he was working VERY fast to be clever, to be charming, to be innovative – and retain his humanity.

By 1820-21 when the production was revived (with a better aria for Alidoro written by Rossini himself instead of an assistant), he was well on his way to being the toast of Europe.  But he didn’t tinker with CENERENTOLA or BARBER too much — confident in his early choices.

So, we took a confident approach to our visuals — and bringing B&W movies to color, we opted for bold statements to make the contrast between the dilapidated, soon-to-be-forgotton vaudeville world of Magnifico and the slick silver screen of Palace Pictures  (helping us at least reference “Palazzo” throughout the score !).

Is the Hollywood setting also apropos because the “fairy tale” story of so many movie stars and people who start out ordinary and then get discovered and make big in Hollywood is itself a kind of Cinderella tale? How is the Depression-era relevant and does it have anything to do with the recent Great Recession?

I certainly think movie magic and being “discovered” and made a star is as great a parallel as one might find between the fairy tale and our American history.  Every culture has taken a spin at the legend, and our hopes and dreams really DO pull us up and out of depression, fiscal and otherwise.

If the audience can engage and identify with the characters, then theater works a whole lot better!  We’ve certainly put a few layers on top of Rossini, but I suspect he’d be cracking jokes right along with the rest of us.

Anyone watching today who’s had to tighten their belt the past few years will understand how desperate folks might go be “make it big” and win the lottery – to show off their talent – to be rewarded for being themselves.

Our initial collaborators in Kansas City are still talking about the fun we had doing this production — and finding references even now.  The props mistress, for example, keeps her eye out for the right lamp, the right coffeepot, etc.

It’s been eight years since we started this concept, and every outing makes it fresh because every cast brings their experience to bear. Here in Madison, Daniela Mack and Danny Belcher have dance background; Steve Condy (below) is a veteran comedian who knows the Marx Bros./Abbott & Costello routines by heart, among many many others; Greg Schmidt has a vast knowledge of bel canto rep and spot on Italian — those high C’s are thrilling and in context !  Our Alidoro is actually conversant in philosophy.

So I hope this framework allows the music to come back off the page — and with our short rehearsal period, nearly as fast as Rossini wrote them down!  We have a dedicated chorus and crew of extras filling out the story with multiple characters and costumes and 17 scene shifts, some subtle, some grand, but all leading us to the joyous conclusion of “Non piu mesa” (at bottom, sung by Cecilia Bartoli).

There’s an entire box that travels with me for this production of photos and reference materials and we’re constantly pouring over them to find ideas, solutions and examples. What do you do with your hands? How can I stand? What makes me look glamorous? And then, this year, seeing not only HUGO, but also THE ARTIST, we had big-screen examples of stories from this era, too.  When I saw how some of the dancing moments play out in THE ARTIST, I could only smile at the coincidence.

What else would you like to say about this production in specific or about Madison, its audiences and your previous experience with the Madison Opera in general?

I’m honored by the care and intelligence Madison Opera, its general director Kathryn Smith and our conductor John DeMain have lavished on this concept!  They all believe in it, too, and have gone out of their way to support, defend, engage and tempt everyone to join in the fun. That’s so rewarding as a director, to see the energy we created in rehearsal not only leap across the pit and charm the audience, but to leap exponentially into the ether and the media and capture everyone’s attention.

I feel certain Rossini would have loved that. This music is the motor and the very foundation of our ideas – and if we can hear it from a fresh point of view, it comes to life.

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