The Well-Tempered Ear

University Opera’s original online video project celebrates the life and music of American composer Marc Blitzstein. It will be posted for FREE on YouTube this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m.

October 21, 2020

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By Jacob Stockinger

This fall, University Opera presents its first project of 2020-21 in video format as it turns to the music of the American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964).

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” will be released free of charge on the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mead Witter School of Music’s YouTube channel this Friday night, Oct. 23, at 8 p.m. CDT at the general site or the official specific link:

Director of University Opera David Ronis (below top) is the director of the original production and will give introductory remarks. UW-Madison graduate Thomas Kasdorf (below bottom) is the musical director. The production lasts 1 hour and 40 minutes, and features four singer-actors, a narrator and a piano.

Marc Blitzstein’s life story parallels some of the most important cultural currents in American history of the mid-20th-century.

Known for his musicals — most notably The Cradle Will Rock in 1937 (you can hear Dawn Upshaw sing the lovely song “I Wish It So” from “Juno” in the YouTube video at the bottom) — his opera Regina and his translation of Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, Blitzstein was an outspoken proponent of socially engaged art. Like many artists of his time, he joined the American Communist Party. But he also enthusiastically served in the U.S. Army during World War II (below, in 1943).

Nevertheless, in 1958, long after he had given up his Communist Party membership, Blitzstein (below) was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) where he “named no names.”

An extremely gifted yet underappreciated composer, he was a close friend of and mentor to Leonard Bernstein (below right, with Blitzstein on the left) and traveled in a close circle of American composers including David Diamond and Aaron Copland.

Although openly gay, he married Eva Goldbeck in 1933. Sadly, she died three years later from complications due to anorexia.

Blitzstein’s own death was likewise tragic. In 1964, while in Martinique working on an opera about the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, a commission from the Metropolitan Opera, he was robbed and badly beaten by three Portuguese sailors whom he had picked up at a bar. He died the next day of internal injuries. 

Although throughout his life and afterwards, Blitzstein’s work was championed by Bernstein and others, many claim that neither the composer nor his stunning music and beautiful lyrics ever received the attention they deserved. So University Opera is proud to present this show celebrating his life and his works.

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – the Man in His Music” is a unique production put together by David Ronis. A biographical pastiche, it tells the story of Blitzstein’s life by recontextualizing 23 songs and ensembles from his shows, juxtaposing them with spoken excerpts from his working notes and letters, and tying it all together with a narration.

The result is a dramatic, evocative and enjoyable portrait of Blitzstein’s life and his art, according to Ronis.

“We’ve discovered a lot of “silver linings” while working on this production,” says Ronis. “We were disappointed at not being able to do a normal staged show. But working with video has had tremendous artistic and educational value.

“Our students are learning on-camera technique, not to mention how to work with a green screen (below, with soprano Sarah Brailey), which allows for post-production editing and digital manipulation of backgrounds. They’re also working with spoken text as well as sung pieces. Mostly, we’re just very grateful to have a creative project to sink our teeth into during the pandemic. 

“And the music of Blitzstein is so fantastic, we’re very happy to be able to share it with our audience. This project is like none other I’ve ever done and we’re thinking that it’s going to be pretty cool.”

Research on the project was completed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, where Blitzstein’s archives are housed. University Opera gratefully acknowledges the help of both Mary Huelsbeck of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Television Research, and the Kurt Weill Foundation for their assistance with this project.

The cast features five UW-Madison graduate students: Sarah Brailey, Kenneth Hoversten, Justin Kroll, Lindsey Meekhof (below) and Steffen Silvis.

The video design was done by Dave Alcorn with costumes by Hyewon Park.

Others on the production staff include Will Preston, rehearsal pianist; Elisheva Pront, research assistant and assistant director; Dylan Thoren, production stage manager; Alec Hansen, assistant stage manager; Teresa Sarkela, storyboard creator; and Greg Silver, technical director.

The video will be accessible for 23 hours starting at 8 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 23. Although there will be no admission price for access, donations will be gratefully accepted. A link for donations will be posted with the video. 

University Opera, a cultural service of the Mead Witter School of Music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides comprehensive operatic training and performance opportunities for students and operatic programming to the community. For more information, email or visit


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Classical music: University Opera announces a new season that is politically and socially relevant to today. The two shows are a virtual revue of Marc Blitzstein and a live operatic version of “The Crucible.”

August 7, 2020

PLEASE HELP THE EAR. IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, SPREAD THE WORD. FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR, SHARE IT or TAG IT (not just “Like” it) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event. And you might even attract new readers and subscribers to the blog.

By Jacob Stockinger

David Ronis (below), the director of the University Opera at the UW-Madison Mead Witter School of Music, has posted the following notice about its upcoming season on social media.

The award-winning Ronis is known for being creative both in programming and staging. The new season is yet another example of that. It features one virtual original production about an American composer to see and hear online, and two live performances of a mid-20th century American opera.

Both works seem especially pertinent and cautionary, given the times we currently live in in the U.S.

Here are the details:


Things have fallen into place for the University Opera 2020-21 season and we are happy to announce our productions:

“I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein — the Man in His Music”

“A biographical pastiche featuring songs and ensembles from Marc Blitzstein’s shows, spoken excerpts from his letters and working notes, and a narration. 

“Oct. 23, 2020

8 p.m. Video Release


“The Crucible” (1961)

Music by Robert Ward

Libretto by Bernard Stambler

Based on the 1953 play by Arthur Miller

March 19 and 21, 2021

Shannon Hall, Wisconsin Union Theater


We will post more information as we get it. For now, we are very excited about both projects! Stay tuned.”

(Editor’s note: To stay tuned, go to:


And what does The Ear think?

The revue of Marc Blitzstein seems a perfect choice for Madison since his papers and manuscripts are located at the Wisconsin Historical Society. For details, go to:;view=reslist;subview=standard;didno=uw-whs-us0035an

Focusing on Blitzstein (1905-1964) also seems an especially politically relevant choice since he was a pro-labor union activist whose “The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles,” was shut down by the Works Progress Administration of the federal government.

For more about Blitzstein (below in 1938) and his career, go to:

“The Crucible” also seems an especially timely choice. In its day the original play about the Salem witch trials was seen as a historical parable and parallel of McCarthyism and the Republican witch hunt for Communists.

Read about the Salem witch trials here:

Now that we are seeing a time when Democrats and others with progressive ideas are accused of being radical leftists, socialists and destructive revolutionaries, its relevance has come round again. Like McCarthy, President Donald Trump relies on winning elections by generating fear and denigrating opponents.

For more about the operatic version of “The Crucible” (below, in a production at the University of Northern Iowa) — which was commissioned by the New York City Opera and won both a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1962 — go to this Wikipedia entry:

You can hear the musically accessible opening and John’s aria, from Act II, in the YouTube video at the bottom. For more about composer Robert Ward (1917-2013, below), go to:

What do you think of the new University Opera season?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra opens its new winter season Friday night with masterpieces and rarities with guest violinist Rachel Barton Pine. Get there early, and check out the photographs of Paul Vanderbilt.

October 7, 2014
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ALERT: If you have a chance before attending a concert at the Overture Center, be sure to check out the impressive show of black-and-white landscape photos by Paul Vanderbilt (below), the former curator of photography at the Wisconsin Historical Society. It is a stunning exhibit that features single shots and also couplings with poetic commentaries by Vanderbilt.

The images are on show in the James Watrous Gallery of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, on the top floor of the Overture Center. The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 2. A FREE panel discussion will be held on Saturday, Oct. 18, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the auditorium at the State Historical Society, 816 State Street (NOT the museum on the Capitol Square).

Here is a link to more information and other related events:

Paul Vanderbilt

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear is all excited.

One of the major players on the Madison music scene will open its new season this coming Friday night.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of its longtime music director and conductor, Andrew Sewell, will perform a concert of music by Henri Vieuxtemps, Camille Saint-Saens, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Benjamin Britten and Franz Joseph Haydn. It takes place at 8 p.m. in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center.

WCO lobby

The new WCO season is heavy with three fine pianists (Shai Wosner, Ilya Yakushev and Bryan Wallick)  -– which The Ear likes since he is himself an avid amateur pianist -– but the opening concert is special and an exception.

The guest soloist is Chicago violinist Rachel Barton Pine (below), who received a rave review when she performed the famous Violin Concerto by Johannes Brahms with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Symphony Orchestra last season for the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Here is a link to that review by John W. Barker:

Here is a link to a preview interview that The Ear did with Rachel Barton Pine:

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel Barton Pine will perform the Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor by the 19th-century Belgian composer Henri Vieuxtemps (below top) and also the showpiece “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso” by French composer Camille Saint-Saens (below bottom, at the piano circa 1900 in a Corbis photo). You can hear the flashy Saint-Saens piece at the bottom performed by Itzhak Perlman in a popular YouTube video.  

henri vieuxtemps

Camille Saint-Saens at the piano

Then she will be joined by the young Juilliard School-trained violist Mathew Lipman in a performance of the early and rarely heard Concerto for Violin and Viola by the 20th-century British composer Benjamin Britten (below bottom).

matthew lipman violajpg

Benjamin Britten

Bookending the program are Mozart’s Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” and Haydn’s late Symphony No. 96 in D Major, “The Miracle” -– so-called because a chandelier fell during the premiere performance in London but didn’t injure anyone in the audience.

The program is typical for Andrew Sewell (below), an avowed Francophile who likes to combine well-known works with rarely heard works. And it should be even more memorable because the Classical-era style of Mozart and Haydn plays to Sewell’s strong suit.

Andrew Sewell BW

Tickets are $15 to $75. Call the overture box office at (608) 258-4141.

For more information, including audio-video clips and artist biographies, for this opening concert, visit:

For more information about the entire WCO Masterworks winter season, including an all-Beethoven concert, visit:





Classical music: Some cool concerts today in Madison, Spring Green and Green Lake could bring temporary relief from the Great Heat Wave of 2012.

July 1, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

Summer certainly is here now — with a vengeance.

And today, Sunday, is July 1, looks to be yet another day in the Great Heat Wave of 2012.

But it also a day filled with great music.

This post will serve less as a story or critique than as a reminder of some wonderful live concerts that could bring you some relief from the heat.

This afternoon at 2:30 pm. and again at 6:30 p.m., the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society of Madison will close out 21st annual summer season – themed as “Mixology” — by performing the program “Kir Royale” (with Couperin, Haydn and Schubert) and “Old-Fashioned” (with Stravinsky, Couperin and Brahms) at the Hillside Theater (below) at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin compound in Spring and Green.

(I heard the same terrific programs at the Stoughton Opera House and the Overture Center’s Playhouse on Friday and Saturday nights, and they were stupendous.)

Here is a link to information:

Also this afternoon — at 4:30 p.m. (with a pre-concert lecture at 4 p.m.) at Farley’s House of Pianos on Madison’s far west side near West Towne — the duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro (below top) will perform a two-piano program on matched Steinway Centennial concert grand pianos from 1877 and 1879. The latter is the piano (below bottom) that has been restored by Farley’s for the historic Villa Louis for the Wisconsin State Historical Society.

The program features Rachmaninoff’s Suite No. 2 for Two Piano, and the pianists’ own arrangement of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” plus  Ravel’s “Rhapsodie espagnole.” Tickets are $30.

Last week, I wrote about the restoration process, and about the first sold-out concert that took place Saturday night. Here is a link:

And here is a link to Farley’s web site with more information:

Then at 7:30 p.m., with a pre-concert lecture at 6:45 p.m., the Amelia Piano Trio (below top) will perform works by the composers Smetana, Wieniawski and Shostakovich at the Green Lake Festival of Music in Green Lake, Wisconsin in the Thrasher Opera House (below bottom). Tickets are $25 and $10.

And here is a link to the more information about the Amelia Trio and the Green Lake Festival, including a schedule of events, ticket prices and reservations:

Finally, no one should forget that tonight at 7 p.m., the 80-voice Summer Choir (below)  that rehearses at the UW School of Music will perform its largely Baroque program, with early instruments, at the First United Congregational Church of Christ, across from Camp Randall. Admission is $8, $5 for seniors and students.

Here is a link to a previous story I did about the chorus that featured information from founder and director Ben Luedke:

And here is a link to the group’s website:


Classical music: Ambitious two-piano concerts on Friday night and Sunday afternoon celebrate the restoration of the historic Steinway 1879 rosewood concert grand piano at the Wisconsin landmark Villa Louis.

June 26, 2012

By Jacob Stockinger

This weekend will see two special concerts — with somewhat different programs — at Farley’s House of Pianos, located at 6522 Seybold Road on Madison’s far west side near West Towne. The concerts celebrate the restoration of a historical 133-year old piano (below, in a photo by Jess Anderson)) to a famous Wisconsin landmark: Villa Louis.

The first concert is Friday, June 29, at 7:30 p.m. (with a pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m.); the second is Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m. and features the same artists plus a pre-concert lecture by restorer Tim Farley (below, working on the piano’s action, in a photo courtesy of Farley’s).

Both will mark the restoration of the historical piano to a Wisconsin Historical Society landmark, the mansion of  Villa Louis (below) in Prairie du Chien.

It is turning out to be  popular event.

Explains Renee Farley: “The June 29 concert sold out early last week. There was an overwhelming response from the public to be part of witnessing the send-off concert of Wisconsin’s greatest historic piano.  This caused a ticket stampede. (The Villa Louis piano belongs to everyone in the state of Wisconsin, being part of the Wisconsin Historical Society.)

Knowing this was a rare opportunity to share some of their favorite pieces with the public on this piano, the artists offered a Sunday afternoon soiree on July 1 at 4 p.m. Tickets can be purchased for the Sunday afternoon concert by calling Farley’s at 608-271-2626.  General admission is $30.

Two different historic restored pianos will be used: the 1879 Steinway concert grand that was used in Villa Louis; and an 1877 Steinway “Centennial” Grand (below) that was also restored by Farley’s and that resides in the company’s main showroom and concert hall, where it is often used for concerts.

The Villa Louis restoration — pictures below were provided by Farley’s — was paid for by donors, with no tax dollars used, according to Farley’s, which is very pleased with how the restoration turned out. In fact, Wisconsin Public Television is documenting the restoration and the concert for broadcast.

The artists performing are duo-pianists Stanislava Varshavski and Diana Shapiro (below), who both received doctorates from the UW-Madison where they studied with Martha Fischer.

The ambitious program is: Stravinsky’s suite from his ballet “Petrouchka” as transcribed by Varshavski-Shapiro and played on the Villa Louis piano; Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No. 1 for Two Pianos (at bottom); Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” (arranged by Varshavski-Shapiro) performed on the Villa Louis piano; and Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos.

Tickets include a pre-concert lecture and a post-concert reception.

For more information and tickets, call (608) 271-2626 or visit:

For more about Villa Saint Louis, including many color and black-and-white photographs, visit:

Retired State Historian Jack Holzhueter (below) wrote the following fascinating essay and historical account, which also discusses the historical role of the piano, for the concert:


By Jack Holzhueter

No grand house in America lacked an equally grand piano in the late 19th century, and the stunning 1870 Italianate mansion built by the Dousman family in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, was no exception.

It was built to replace an earlier, but still large, red brick house made in 1843. The architect in 1872 was Edward Townsend Mix of Milwaukee. And the client was the son of one of Wisconsin’s earliest millionaires (before a billionaire was even thought possible), Hercules Dousman — a fur trader and speculator in lands in Wisconsin beginning in 1826.

He died in his brick house in 1868, opening the door for his 21-year-old son and namesake, Hercules Louis Dousman II, to do what rich men’s sons often do: spend money on themselves. Louis, as he was called, also acquired a wife with a lineage suitable for a fine, new house, Nina Linn Sturgis of St. Paul, the daughter of a general. After their 1873 marriage, children arrived quickly, five in all by 1883.

Their principal home was in St. Louis, but they spent summers in Prairie du Chien (supposedly a cooler place) and never stinted on their house. In 1876 they visited the centennial exposition in Philadelphia and went on a buying trip to New York, acquiring Tiffany silver and jewelry and probably making arrangements to buy the Steinway Centennial Grand.

Steinway already had become the leading piano manufacturer in America as well as Europe, having employed American ingenuity and bravado to improve upon shortcomings in European pianos that had previously dominated the upper market.

Steinway turned to rosewood for its most elegant models because of its density, nearly black color, and rich, contrasting grain. (A rosewood craze in the late 19th century nearly wiped out the now-rare species. Below is a rosewood tree that has been just felled.)

The Dousmans wanted the best, and they got it. But Prairie du Chien did not.

The piano first went, from 1879 to 1884, to the new art gallery in their St. Louis home. Then in 1883-84, the Dousmans redecorated Villa Louis in the English Arts and Crafts style, into which the Centennial Grand slid nicely.

So from 1885 to the present, with a notable 15-year gap, the piano has dominated the Villa Louis parlor, more than 130 years in the same family, and mostly in the same room.

Those five Dousman children included Judith and Virginia who played — a common story in modest houses as well as mansions. Nina, too, played, and she and Virginia also composed.

In houses large and small, pianos were more than decorative. They provided “live” music before recordings existed; they were an adjunct for parties — which the Dousmans excelled at giving; they were a gathering spot akin to the hearth.

By 1900, the piano was ubiquitous around the country. Somehow, the Dousman Centennial Grand survived upheavals in the family (Louis’s death in 1886; Nina’s disastrous remarriage; the house’s use only as a summer home), occupancy of the house by a boys’ school after 1913, and removal to Campion academy (a Roman Catholic boys schools in Prairie du Chien) from 1920 to 1935. That arrangement lasted until the Depression.

Then in 1934 the house became a museum and the piano was restored to its place of prominence. First the city owned the house, and since 1952 the Wisconsin Historical Society has owned it.

Despite lack of maintenance, the instrument remained playable. Guides in the 1950s invited qualified performers to play; others in the tour groups would sing along—not unlike the situation during the Dousmans’ house parties of the late 1800s. Hands off the antiques! But hands on the piano, which brought the Villa’s rooms and tours to life. Soon that deferred maintenance took its toll and the piano fell silent; only words accompanied tours.

But now, miraculously, the piano has had its voice restored. Now it can be heard in something even more beautiful than its original glory, courtesy of modern materials and restoration techniques. And its dingy finish has been restored to its original luster—dark chocolate with caramel streaks (below).

May the Villa Louis Steinway Centennial Grand continue to make the mansion a home.

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