A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Sep 27, 2011
11:34 AM
Classically Speaking

It’s a Circus! No, it’s Opera!! Wait … it’s Both!!!

It’s a Circus! No, it’s Opera!! Wait … it’s Both!!!

From the time opera invaded the fabric of Western civilization around 1600, it has been an unwieldy amalgam of music, drama, stagecraft and controversy. The odds of being successful are lottery-like: Of more than 40,000 operas composed, well under one percent can be said to have achieved repertoire status. Once the near-exclusive purview of the elite, this tantalizing art form has managed to survive prima donnas, avant garde directors and the barrier of usually being sung in a language foreign to its audience. The plots can be ludicrous, the singing treacherous and the cost of production could bankrupt a small municipality (well, OK, maybe only if you’re staging Wagner’s “Ring” cycle). Which reminds me: Sometimes you need dwarves, dragons, giants, flying horses, statues that come to lif, and all manner of other absurdities.

In short, opera is something of a circus.

It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Madison’s own Fresco Opera Theatre would present their latest offering, Big Top Opera, in the context of circus acts. In case you’ve managed to miss it, Fresco Opera is the brainchild and consuming passion of Melanie and Frank Cain. Melanie completed her doctoral work in vocal performance and opera production at UW–Madison in 2007, and when no audition breaks large enough to pry her away from here emerged, she started what has become a thriving studio of about 35 singers, with a sizable number on a waiting list. One day Mr. and Mrs. Cain were enjoying a Willy Street event when they got their out-of-the-box idea to present opera in a way that would be fresh for experienced operagoers—but more importantly reach a new audience that had probably never heard of Figaro.

“Fresh” was the operative word, being the root definition of “fresco.” Brought to life in October 2009, the first performance, Dueling Divas, opened at Overture Center on March 5, 2010. That consisted of various arias set in a boxing ring, and led to last fall’s Ding Dong, the Diva’s Dead, with all sorts of death scenes featuring Frankenstein, vampires and other ghoulish backdrops.

So what will we hear at the circus? The obvious choice is the Prologue from “Pagliacci,” an opera that really is set against a circus troupe. But Cain and Co. have come up with a number of clever commonalities: Conjoined Twins for the sisters’ duet from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte; a Strongman for “There’s a Law” from Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti; a Tightrope Walker for Bellini’s La Sonnambula (“The Sleepwalker”); and a Wheel of Death for a duet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Along with the aforementioned are also works by Ravel, Beethoven and Massenet, so there can be no argument about the eclecticism of style and period.

There are three performances: Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. at Promenade Hall at Overture Center. Reserved seats are $25 and can be purchased online or by calling 608.258.4141.

If you really want to make it an all-music weekend (and skip that other circus known as the Wisconsin/Nebraska game), start on Friday with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble at the Union Theater. Eight members of the vaunted ensemble will offer works by Brahms, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn. The first glorious notes can be heard at 7:30 p.m.

Or you can go to Fresco Opera on Friday and still catch the Ancora String Quartet on Saturday night at the First Unitarian Society, also at 7:30 p.m. After quartets by Grieg and Beethoven, a champagne reception will follow—perhaps just in time to toast the Badgers’ victory. Whoops—there I go mixing my circuses again …

Photo by Max Wendt.

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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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