Tag Archives: Milwaukee Opera Theatre

A Fourth State of Opera

Milwaukee Opera Theatre

by Jeff Grygny

 A “lady knight” fights a sorceress for the love of her boyfriend, another knight; A woman brings scandal on herself by sleepwalking into a man’s bedroom; Wotan imprisons his daughter Brunhilde in a ring of fire; a blind princess is cured by someone telling her about vision; a disgruntled wife turns into a man and her husband gives birth to thousands of children, causing an economic crisis. And so on. 

Sooner or later every opera lover must reconcile herself to the blunt fact that the plots of operas are often quite silly. Of course, music and storytelling require very different skill sets. But not only that: most of these convoluted tales of swooning princesses, anguished monarchs, potions, curses, and various enchanted accessories are the products of male artists writing female characters who fulfill their fantasies. Problematic!

You can blame this unhappy state of affairs on the sixth century Frankish king Clovis, who, after the collapse of the Roman empire, instituted the Salic Law, which banned women from inheriting property or titles, and thus laying down the shape of the fairy tale world of opera, and bequeathing Europe—where opera was created as an elite pastime—centuries of rule by (literally) entitled lunks to whose desires (along with their wives and mistresses, no doubt) artists either had to pander, or go back to working in their dad’s dull businesses.

Be that as it may, when the most imaginative and daring stage directors in our fair city, Jill Anna Ponasic and Brian Rott, team up with Chicago-based artist Jeffrey Mosser to tackle opera, you can be sure something amazing will happen. Fully engaging with these works’ silliness and outdated norms, they transform them into a pleasingly disorienting spectacle, playful and feather-light, while showcasing a cast of seven wonderful singers who deliver excerpts from seven of the weirdest operas ever written, from warhorses like the Ring Cycle to oddities like Les Mamelles de Tirésias, based on the first surrealist play.

The game is afoot even before curtain: the audience is cast as guests at a wedding reception for Bluebeard (from Bartók’s opera). Kirk Thomsen, playing the eponymous Duke, is jovial with a vaguely menacing undercurrent as he works the crowd with loose-cannon ad libs. His new bride, Judith, played by the incomparable Jessi Miller, seems a bit uneasy, though. Bluebeard reveals the eight doors of his castle, which we are to explore—except for the last, luridly rendered in red, which we are forbidden to open. This is a very clever premise for a smorgasbord of clips and synopses. The singers remain onstage, as in a recital, standing to perform their dreamlike vignettes. The most delirious moments come with the speed-run through The Love for Three Oranges, in which a prince laughs when a witch accidentally shows her underwear, and she curses him into falling in love with fruit. I’m not making this up: it’s the actual story!

Milwaukee Opera Theatre

All this is illuminated by the sublimely low-tech animations of Anja Notanja Sieger, who manipulates exquisite cut-out figures over an antique overhead projector, using common objects like ribbon, lace, and a colander to create trippy visuals that dance in the border between child’s play and high art, like the work of the great underground film maker and mystic Harry Smith. Sometimes you have no idea what’s happening: you’re just washed in a flood of bizarre imagery and exquisite music. It’s the artiest thing Milwaukee has seen since the pandemic before-time. When Notanja Sieger, Thomsen, and Miller are all hovering over the glowing square of the projector, coordinating their tiny puppets, they seem like magicians, creating reality before our very eyes, or scientists, fusing image, music, and narrative into a plasmic fourth state of matter. And on a purely animal level, something about these moving shadows really works with the opera in this age when we’re so used to watching images on little screens: the wiggling shapes give non-opera buffs something to do with their brains and actually let them hear the music better.

And the music, under the lively direction of Janna Ernst, is gorgeous. Soprano Cecilia Davis brings great feeling to the role of Amina the sleepwalker, and aces the high notes of the Queen of the Night; David Guzmán’s bass voice delivers a powerful Wotan and Sarastro; Kathy Pyeatt’s soprano makes us feel the wonder of Iolante discovering sight for the first time. The whole cast fully commits to the offbeat premise. And as the show goes on, Bluebeard and Judith discuss their relationship, revealing things about their pasts: he’s been married before (eight times, to be honest); she’s had a girlfriend with whom she’s still in contact. This is all delivered in a matter-of-fact tone with a perfect touch of camp, like an avant-garde vaudeville routine.

It’s indescribably refreshing to see something again that’s so truly, daringly experimental, while at the same time utterly playful and unpretentious. This dreamy fusion opens up a liminal space between music and story, between high and low art, and even, perhaps, in the historic war between the sexes. Who knows: maybe Bluebeard and Judith can work things out.

Alas, this production has run it’s one-week course, but we can only hope to witness more collaborations like it.

Milwaukee Opera Theater presents

Impossible Operas

Featuring Music by Handel, Mozart, Bellini, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, , Prokofiev, and Poulenc

Created by Tim Rebers, Brian Rott, Jeffrey Mosser, ​Anja Notanja Sieger and Jill Anna Ponasik

Stage Directors: Jill Anna Ponasik, Jeffrey Mosser, and Brian Rott

Staying Alive

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

Whether you call them the living dead, zombies, or cannibal corpses, they lumber, groan, and hunger for your sweet, tender flesh. They have haunted the pop imagination ever since George Romero’s B movie classic Night of the Living Dead launched a whole genre of movies, television series, graphic novels, and computer games. Can a low-budget movie rise to the level of grand opera? Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s ever-ready Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik was not afraid to find out. She commissioned Night of the Living Opera, with music by Andrew Dewey and libretto by Josh Perkins, which had a concert reading, appropriately, on Halloween week.

Perkins is formerly of the puppet collective Angry Young Men, who, while being neither all that young anymore and including women (and seemingly not that angry), have performed their kooky Muppet-inspired version of the film for over 15 years in Greater Milwaukeeland. Along with his wife Julianne, who has a recent Masters degree in music performance, he obviously still has the story on his mind, and they were willing to give it the operatic treatment.  

People who might have come to the performance expecting a chorus of, say, “Cervelli Cervelli Deliziosi”  (brains, delicious brains), or an aria consisting of terrified screaming were surprised to see that the new work was presented with nary a wink at the ludicrous conceit. There was only one furtive zombie groan, issued, unless I’m mistaken, from the throat of Shayne Stelige. For the rest, composer Dewey is content to restrict his chorus to tasteful, if sinister, chanting. Now and then a couple of life-sized puppets lurch forward to menace the singers, but in a staged recital like this there is little opportunity for action; those scenes were narrated by Mr. Perkins from the side of the stage. The score, performed by Music Director Anne Van Deusen on keyboard and Kevin Eberle on Double Bass, with Dewey conducting,  conveys a fine sense of unnatural unease, and the libretto accurately recreates the story of the movie, with the important enhancement of the character Barbara, feelingly sung by Elizabeth Blood, who becomes a de facto heroine and sole survivor of the undead onslaught. This gives the story a bit of uplift, in stark contrast to the film’s unrelieved nihilism.

In a world where we face existential perils from every direction, and ideologies that should have died long ago are resurrecting before our very eyes to threaten us, the zombie analogy seems a bit too on the nose. At least Barbara’s journey reminds us of the stoic lesson that, while we can’t always control what happens to us, we can still master our own fears.

The cast did their best to dignify the material, and the exercise is over in an entertaining hour, but one can’t quite shake the feeling of a missed opportunity. The whole point of the movie is to fulfill our prurient desire to see hordes of undead burned, bludgeoned, and shot in the head as they chomp away at the living; to stare into the void with a knowing Nietzschean smirk. Some things are designed to be gloriously, unapologetically trashy: just ask John Waters. A little camp would go a long way towards giving the performance more bite.

Or maybe it was all just a Halloween punk, like serving Spam straight-faced on a doily.  If that was the case, then bravo!  Night of the Living Opera will be presented in a fully staged production in Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 2023 season. Bring on the zombie chorus!

A Glimpse of Eternity

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

The ensemble, clad in blue jeans and black T shirts, barefoot and glittering with gold jewelry, stands in a circle around the grief-struck hero. As the last sunlight filters through the stained glass windows of Calvary Presbyterian Church, ancient instruments play solemn music. One player pours water from a ceramic bowl into their neighbor’s bowl, and so on, until the water has completed its way around. It is a powerful embodiment of shared sorrow.

Thus Orfeo resolves to go to the land of the dead to rescue his lost lover Euridice, in a daringly unconventional performance of L’Orfeo, the world’s first great opera, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and first performed in 1607.  The enterprising folks of Milwaukee Opera Theatre have gathered a consort of Renaissance instrument players, collaborated with local sacred music collective Aperi Animam, and created a new English translation of the Italian libretto. The result is an original and conceptually daring work; a pure aesthetic experience unsullied by the demands of commercial entertainment.

Opera was originally conceived as a re-creation of Greek tragedy as described in Aristotle’s Poetics. L’Orfeo is clearly an early effort in what was later to bloom into the glorious emotional excess of grand opera. Musically, there is only one recognizable “hook,” and though the story involves high tragedy and supernatural adventure, the score consistently rings with the cheery pomp of a baroque court. Director/translator Daniel Brylow stages the opera as an initiation into the mystery of Orpheus. The action is stylized, with the feeling of a ceremony enacting a story that has been re-enacted for countless generations. The singers move with stately steps and slow, symbolic gestures. Their faces are passive masks, revealing only the most universal emotions. It’s like looking at a series of ancient friezes: the Elgin Marbles depicting the blinged-up patrons of a biker bar.

photo by Mark Frohna

As is customary with MOT, some of the characters are gender-switched. Jackie Willis sings the title role of Orfeo (pronouns: he, his) with dignity and subtle feeling, exerting all his musical power to win entry into Pluto’s realm. As Apollo, Nicole McCarty’s voice bursts in like sunlight suddenly flooding a dark room. But this is a staged recital, not musical theater, and music takes precedence over characterization and drama.

There’s deep history behind the the show’s culty vibe (which is similar to MOT’s last collaboration with AA, the goth/gnostic spectacle Utterance).  The figure of Orpheus, the musician with magical powers, has always been connected to mystery religions with secret rites and heterodox metaphysics. Some scholars trace their origins to orgiastic cults of Thrace that involved an obscure deity named Zagreus and predate recorded history. That cult evolved into the bacchanalian worship of Dionysus, where it became associated with Orpheus because of its themes of death and rebirth. Later, in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the rites were reassigned to the god Apollo and linked to Neoplatonist mystical concepts of reincarnation and immortality. Then, in the Renaissance, after Cosimo de Medici commissioned the first European translations of Plato, Neoplatonism and Greek mythology became all the rage once more, inspiring countless artists, musicians and poets. So yeah, that’s a lot of history. And from that we get L’Orfeo.

The new English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow (which was helpfully projected on the walls to facilitate our understanding),  reveals just how much the libretto invokes Renaissance philosophy. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Neoplatonists taught that the body is the prison of the soul, and through purification and virtue, we can return to our true eternal source in the One beyond the world of change. In this version of the story, Orfeo, just as in the mythic account, turns, sees Euridice, and loses her. But soon after he returns in sorrow to the world of daylight, the god Apollo appears and rewards him with eternal life among the gods, along with Euridice—just as the ancient Orphic cult promised its initiates.

Ritual is one thing for the believer and quite another for the casual audience. At its best, this production illuminates the transcendental metaphysics of its source material and, while it is too stylized to evoke any deep emotional catharsis, it could very conceivably serve as a kind of meditative therapy for the grief that fills our world. But despite all the love and labor that it clearly displays, it begins to feel like a staid church pageant after about the two-hour mark. Nietzsche wrote of the aesthetic struggle between Apollonian rational order and chaotic, visceral Dionysian energy. This L’Orfeo takes Apollo’s side with great integrity—but it’s hard not to wish for just a hint of Thracian revelry to spice the dish.

Milwaukee Opera Theatre and Aperi Animam present


Music by Claudio Monteverdi

Libretto by Alessandro Striggio

English translation by Daniel Brylow and Joseph Krohlow

Stage Director: Daniel Brylow

Music Director: Jackie Willis



A Spa for the Soul

photo by Mark Frohna

by Jeff Grygny

On the face of it, artist’s block wouldn’t seem to be the most compelling topic for drama. But in the hands of Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Preludes, a musical fantasia based on a crisis in the life of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, feels like what we need in our collective time of stress and long isolation: a wise and gentle path through despair to the vital force that inspires us. There are lots of reasons for putting this show—which plays this week only! — on your must-see list:

  • The appropriately elegant ballroom of the Woman’s Club of Wisconsin, with its high arched proscenium and Romanesque decor, is a very classy venue. Even the chairs have their own uniforms!
  • The impressive bulk and rich timbres of the biggest concert grand piano you’re ever likely to share a room with, ably handed by MOT Music Director Ruben Piirainen sitting in for the melancholy composer.
  • The contemporary stylings of two digital synthesizers, whose blooping, humming tones color the inner world of the artist on his dark journey, washing over you along with the ever-shifting hues of Jim Padovano’s lighting design.
  • The athletic yet nuanced performance of Joe Picchetti as The Artist Known as “Rach,” performing the non-piano parts of the character. Despite being given little to work with but infinite variations on the theme of angst, Picchetti anchors the show in honest, energetic feeling. This is not a depressed Russian composer, it’s a man who is energetically fighting to find his way to the other side.
  • The delightful comic relief of Joel Kopischke, who plays a multitude of famous figures with distinct and diverse qualities: Anton Chekhov (voluble and authentic, bringing his famous gun, and true to the rule, firing it off almost immediately); Tchaikovsky (enthusiastic and handsy); Tolstoy (brilliant and grouchy), and Tsar Nicholas to cap things off.

Natalie Ford brings vibrance and sensitivity to the role of Natalya, Rach’s live-in partner. In one song, she movingly expresses the struggle of people who try to support their loved ones through mental illness. In another speech, she recalls how they fell in love: playing together a four-handed piece by Beethoven. As Nikolay Dahl, the hypnotherapist who treats the composer, Jenny Wanasek brings a calm, gentle presence. Her method is simple. “I thought there would be more sorcery,” Rach says after his first session. But using insight as much as hypnosis, Dahl learns who Rachmaninoff  is, so that when he relives his trauma in trance, she knows just what chords to strike to bring him back into harmony. (The historical Rachmaninoff later dedicated a piano concerto to Dahl).

Molloy offers a curated selection of mostly Rachmaninoff’s works— resonantly delivered by Piirainen on that Cadillac of a piano— many set with original lyrics, along with original songs “suggested by” other Rachmaninoff compositions. The book is packed with evocative imagery: much of the dialog is delivered simultaneously with the music, which, despite the actors being miked,  sometimes leads to an unfortunate struggle to hear both.

Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik brings her usual playful inventiveness to the table, weaving narrative actions and abstract movements alike into the rhythms of the score. The show, which plays rather like a hybrid of opera, musical theatre, and recital, is set in “Rachmaninoff’s Mind,” which relieves the obligation to be literally historical; indeed, Molloy brings his concerns into the present day by dropping little anachronisms into the dialog. It’s not really about Russia; it could give heart to any folks in difficult times, be they Russian, Ukrainian, or American.

Making art isn’t all about the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves. Like a blossoming lilac, it comes into being of it’s own inner purpose; it effluoresces; it does what it needs to do to move life along. As you sit in the high vaulted space, with the melodies, harmonies, and colors. washing over you it’s like going into a revitalizing trance to connect with something deeper than identity, a place where the travails and the joys of life sound together like the voice of a river whose innumerable plashes merge into a complex chorus singing endlessly about time, the earth, life. It’s like a spa for the soul.

photo by Mark Frohna

Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents


Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy

playing through April 9