A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Mar 11, 2014
09:56 AM
Classically Speaking

Fresco Opera Brings a New Kind of March Madness to Madison


The cast of "Opera Smackdown," ready to wrestle with Mozart and friends

If it’s mid-March, then it must be time to start filling out those brackets—but  before you agonize over whether the Badgers can finally make a run to the Final Four, you’d better start out with a little opera.

That’s because Fresco Opera is bringing “Opera Smackdown” to the Overture Center. A group of eight singers have prepared a total of twenty-four arias—but only fifteen of them will be sung. Now before you start to feel shortchanged, here’s the tradeoff: The audience gets to decide, blow by blow as it were, who makes it to the next round.

Founders Melanie and Frank Cain are now in their fourth season of finding provocative, amusing and compelling hooks to interest people who have never thought of setting foot in a traditional opera house. Fresco Opera is another of those Madison groups that are finding ways to cut across traditional demographic lines, and their continued success is encouraging.

Held in the Promenade Hall of the Overture Center, the Fresco Opera productions always find ways to incorporate scenery/props, lighting, and most of all, costumes and make-up. Each of the singers in “Opera Smackdown” is cast as a character a la professional wrestling. Allison Waggener, e.g., will become “Primal,” and open her bracket with a Mozart aria, hoping to move on and sing the “Habanera” from Carmen.

A number of the singers have local connections, such as CatieLeigh Laszweski (“Asylum”); a veteran of Fresco Opera, she has also appeared at American Chamber Opera and is completing her graduate work at UW–Madison. Her opener is the “Jewel Song” from Faust. Among the guys we find J. Adam Shelton, also at UW–Madison in a DMA program, and appearing in the upcoming Madison Opera production of Dead Man Walking. He is “the Gladiator,” and starts his competition with “Here I Stand” from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Each singer will move on based solely on audience response—and while you’re having fun manipulating the proceedings, you’ll also get the chance to hear a wide variety of operatic styles from young singers who sing with passion and considerable gifts (and aren’t afraid to have a really fun time doing it). I still remember “Big Top Opera” from a few seasons ago…the circus can’t hold a candle to it.

“Opera Smackdown” can be seen Friday, March 14, at 8 p.m., and in a 2 p.m. matinee and 8 p.m. evening performance on Saturday, March 15. For more information, visit frescooperatheatre.com.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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