Friday, August 7, 2009

keep moving on: tuesdays with colin

the skylight: random thoughts on where we go from here

tuesdays commenters have raised more than a few important questions about the future of the skylight opera theatre, and one commenter alone asked three of the questions that seem most on the minds of skylight watchers. interim artistic director colin cabot agreed to address those concerns:

colin cabot: Here are my answers to your [reader's] questions. These answers haven't been vetted by Joan [Lounsbery] or Bill [Theisen] nor have I run them past anyone on the staff or on the board. I've been back at the Skylight for 23 hours and haven't had time to process them through conventional channels. So please remember these are my personal responses and do not represent any kind of official statement on behalf of the Skylight.

question: If the Skylight doesn't honor the contracts of the replacement artists, they are just as guilty as the man they have ousted. The Skylight Family claims to be about the artform and the artists...what about the artists that are now out of a job because you have decided that it is okay to return?

colin cabot: I spoke with the three artists (and their agents) who had signed contracts for The Barber of Seville. Each of them has what's known as a "pay or play" clause in their contracts which we mutually agreed will be honored in full.

I had hoped to send out payments this week to these three artists, but it turns out that it isn't practical to expect that [interim board president] Terry Kurtenbach and I will be able complete new signature cards on the Skylight's accounts until Monday. So the payments will go out next week.

I don't feel it's appropriate to talk about the amounts in the contracts. Suffice it to say that they were not huge sums of money by any stretch of the imagination. Having been away from the numbers for twelve years, I am sorry to report that the artists continue to be underpaid for their efforts and their talents. I talked with all three of the artists about working at the Skylight in the future and they all expressed interest in doing so. I have memorialized my conversations in a file that will be available to the next person whose jobs is to staff and cast the Skylight's productions. (To be honest, I haven't yet asked if there were contracts issued for shows later in the season; one day at a time...)

question: Since the creation of the Cabot Theater the vision has been decidedly different than what was being produced in the old space on Cathedral Square, understandably so, because of the financial obligations that came along with the new theater. There was no more baroque opera, or very little, and many more musicals, and a completely different managing team. But what exactly was the artistic vision before Eric?

colin cabot: In my opinion the artistic vision of the company didn't change when it moved from the tire recapping garage on Jefferson Street to the new theatre on Broadway, but the repertory selection did. Joan Lounsbery will a much better answer to this question because she was in charge at the time. But I remember serious discussions between board members and staff about the need to have several "blockbuster" seasons to make sure that the seats were filled in the first few years at the BTC.

This meant that shows like My Fair Lady and King and I replaced the more obscure musicals (the ones no one else would touch) that had been the Skylight's niche before the demise of Melody Top. I was concerned that the staples of American musical theatre could be pulled from availability by New York and national touring productions. And I was concerned that comparisons might be odious. I haven't seen the recent Skylight productions because I have been working on the farm in New Hampshire, so I won't express an opinion on their artistic merit.

As far as operas are concerned, it was clear that too much Handel produced by Chas Rader-Schieber was hurting season ticket sales. I was asked by Joan to write a Gilbert & Sullivan review to replace a proposed Handel opera that had been scheduled during a season that wasn't selling well. It was called Over the Moon With Gilbert & Sullivan and it went over like, well, a Handel opera. And it immediately preceded the tenure of Artistic Director Richard Carsey.

I think it is important to note that the repertory selection is driven, and appropriately so, by the person most responsible for choosing the repertory. Someone once said about my years at the Skylight that the repertory was as eclectic as I was. Better than being called quirky I suppose. I once proposed a season that included Shostakovich's The Nose, Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland, and Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea. In retrospect I'm relieved we never attempted anything so difficult or risky.

question: I want to know--what is the new artistic vision now? I don't care who is in charge, either way, I want an answer to that question. I want to know what the artistic goal is and how it will be implemented. If Eric should have been expected to give a clear answer to that question--and I believe he should have been, so should the returning artists and Eric's successors.

colin cabot: I have, therefore, no vested interest in defining an artistic vision for the theatre going forward. I left the job years ago because I had had my crack at it and felt it was time for a fresh face to shape the theatre's direction. And I think that's true now, too. There's an opportunity for someone to come forward with a currently compelling vision who can convince the board and the staff and the patrons, and the donors (!) and the whole community to make the journey towards life-changing art together. Blessings on that person, and may they never suffer the slings and arrows of a social networking uprising!

I realize that asking for support without being able to articulate a current artistic vision is like sailing without a rudder. But I came back to try to right the Skylight's ship because of the tremendous outpouring of support for the Skylight legacy among its constituencies during the recent crisis. I feel that my job is to be the oil that calms the waters so that the ship's carpenters can rebuild the rudder so that when the wind picks up again the crew will be able to steer it in whatever direction they think it should go.

Somehow I'm confident that support for new and interesting artistic endeavors will be drawn to the theatre as it has been in the past by the force of someone's aspirations.


  1. "I once proposed a season that included Shostakovich's The Nose, Victor Herbert's Babes in Toyland, and Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream, and Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea."

    sigh...this is a season I would have LOVED to see! I guess that puts me in the minority, at least for Milwaukee (?). I understand why Colin is happy that he didn't propose such a risky season, but I can tell you, that I would be more likely to by season tickets for a season like that, than for what is currently on the docket. Especially since Britten's Midsummer is my all-time favorite opera. But I digress...

    I posed the questions that Colin answered, and I thank you, Tony, for having them answered.

    I am happy to hear that the replacement artists will be compensated but still truly believe that a resignation is a resignation and not a firing. When you resign, you leave a position. You do not return after such a decision. But that is just me.

    I look forward to see what will be happening at the Skylight in a few short weeks.

  2. Colin, I agree with anonymous above. If I were in Milwaukee, I would be way more likely to subscribe to a season like the one you proposed than to a more standard-rep season. (Marriage of Figaro? Meh. Leave it to Florentine.)

    In fact, if Skylight were doing something like Midsummer Night's Dream and Poppea in rep so they could be seen in one trip (I know Skylight doesn't do that, but we're playing what-if here), and if the casts were good, I could see traveling to see them. It's not as if those operas are so easy to come by in New York...

    I'm curious as to whether Handel operas might sell better in Milwaukee now than they did when Chas Rader-Schieber was there. They're a lot more common in opera houses generally than they used to be, so they're a more familiar animal, and there are more singers around these days who sound comfortable singing Handel. More relevant to Milwaukee in particular, Handel operas seem to do pretty well these days in Chicago, at both Lyric and Chicago Opera Theatre, and I'd guess that some awareness of that success has reached the opera audience in Milwaukee.

    Anyone who's familiar with the current state of the opera audience in Milwaukee care to comment on that?

    I wonder if Skylight and Chicago Opera Theatre couldn't try a co-production of Handel at some point.

  3. The Florentine did do Handel (Semele), had a great success with, and will be doing more Baroque. Leave Figaro to the Florentine? I'm not sure what that implies, but we're doing new opera (Elmer Gantry), and traditional opera in new and interesting ways. So please don't drop and "old and tired label on us.

  4. Thanks for the dialogue. This is the way to avoid the social network uprising. Yes, I too would love to have seen the NOSE , etc. But consider, the Met is just getting around to producing the NOSE this year and it will probably lose money. I would love to be able to go to see it. I will always be grateful for Skylight's productions of BLACK WIDOW, BETROTHAL IN A MONASTERY, LOVE OF THREE ORANGES, THE WISE WOMAN, the Kern, Gershwin, and Sondheim musicals and countless other shows. Skylight to me is "lyric" theater at its best. Before I die, I would love to see Milwaukee productions of L'AMICO FRITZ and DER MOND, I don't care if it is Florentine or Skylight. Florentine did fantastic productions of MIDSUMMER and SEMELE and Skylight's production of SEMELE was disappointing. I like the mix of Opera, Operetta, Musical Comedy and that is why I prefer to use the term "Lyric Theater". There are many undiscovered gems in all of these genre and the Skylight has been a great place to explore them. However, it needs an audience that is willing to be entertained by something out of the ordinary. A loyal audience of subscribers willing to take this journey with them. To succeed you need a strong subscription base, and an identity.

    Tony the "Thank you" was a hoot!

  5. I understand the need to sell tickets. So what about using the Studio theater to produce interesting productions of lesser-known works, from different time periods? I think, although I understand that the idea was to do a Beaumarchais "cycle", that it is a bit dull to have only Rossini and Mozart on the docket, two composer so close to each other, time period wise.

    I am sure there are lots of eager and fine singers in the area who would love to do an experimental, bare bones production of something like, say, LA CALISTO, and that music is so delectable. Mark my words, it is things like that which will bring a new audience to opera. Also, workshopping new cabarets or new musicals in that space could be a possibility to get grants, etc. There is just a lot more interesting material, musically, out there that I would love to see explored.

  6. To Anonymousagain: These are interesting suggestions, but remember there are two other theater groups using the BTC Studio Theater. It is not a popular space with some of the audience members; they find the seats very uncomfortable and the heating and air-conditioning does not work well. Yes, it is a good space to experiment in. It is too late to change this season; however, there is talk of doing more in the summer months. This is a period when the Third Ward theater scene dies, partly because of the activity on the Lake Front. Summerfest was orignially designed as a festival that would happen all over the city, in Washington Park and Humboldt Park, etc. There was no permanent site on the lake front. Somehow the BTC has to become part of the Summerfest/Ethnic Festival scene. When Skylight was on the Cathedral Square it was part of the Bastille Festival with some success. The suggestion of co-productions with Chicago Opera Theatre was also interesting; however, I think the Skylight is working with a smaller stage and pit. All I can say, is come out of the woods and help plan for the seasons ahead. As an "operanut", I'm never too excited by another BARBER or FIGARO; however, for better or worse the Skylight usually has its own stamp or take. Who can ever forget the production of BUTTERFLY where all the wedding guests ran home in their stocking feet! Yes, the new house has not been as adventurous as the old house, but much of the music in the old house was provided by a much smaller pit ensemble or just a piano. It was magical and cheaper to produce, but many of the productions in the new house like PIRATES and IOLANTHE and PATIENCE and LITTLE PRINCE have been equally magical. It would be great if Milwaukee could build on this rescent publicity to make Milwaukee a travel destination for cultural tours that would include a week or weekend of Opera, Operetta, Theater, Symphony, Dance, etc. There are many weeks in the year when all of this is happening all at the same time. Why isn't it being pushed? The quality of our performing arts groups is very high.

  7. Bill, really, I was teasing. All I meant was "leave the already-well-known-quantity, easy-to-sell operas to the bigger, more conventional company with more seats to sell and less flexibility."

    If SEMELE sold well at Florentine, maybe that bodes well for doing other Handel at both companies. (I suspect SEMELE's being in English helped. As, surely, did the fact that Tom Strini loved it.)

    CALISTO is a wonderful opera, but I think it would be harder to pull off. (Let alone sell - Cavalli's not even as well-known to ticket-buyers as Monteverdi, let alone Handel.)

    CALISTO wouldn't be easy to cast - I'm not a big fan of most conventional opera singers in Handel (not even most Rossini coloraturas or Mozart soubrettes), and I find that Monteverdi and Cavalli really fall flat without singers who really get how to deliver the music. (And who aren't worried about impressing casting directors they hope will hire them for Mozart or Rossini or Strauss down the line.) You'd need Baroque instruments and players for similar reasons. And there's so much text, so much drama and comedy in a good Cavalli opera, that you'd need really good, really fast titles or (better) a good English translation.

    But if Skylight (or even Florentine) could get all those things, then LA CALISTO would be a wonderful idea. Even something worth traveling for.

  8. Yes, Konrad, the quality of performing arts in Milwaukee is high. (And, for the Symphony and maybe Florentine, will get higher with Edo de Waart there. That was really a catch.)

    I wonder if the city and state tourism commissions couldn't help with marketing Milwaukee cultural tourism in Chicagoland, the way that Philadelphia markets itself as a short-hop cultural destination to New Yorkers.

    While I'm thinking of it, what about using period instruments for Baroque opera in Milwaukee? (I see that the Milwaukee Symphony played for SEMELE.) Is it feasible? Too expensive (bringing people in from out-of-town)? Or (I know this happens some places) would the musicians' union local make the company's life a living hell for not using the regular players the company uses for everything else?

  9. I want to echo what anonymousagain said: "Mark my words, it is things like that [a good production of something like CALISTO] which will bring a new audience to opera." If you do things in English (and waterboard singers who don't enunciate properly), I really do think you could pull in a theater crowd with good music-dramas or -dramedies like DIALOGUES OF THE CARMELITES, LADY MACBETH OF MTSENSK, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, CALISTO (sure, why not?), THE MOTHER OF US ALL (get the literary crowd) or Conrad Susa's TRANSFORMATIONS (based on Anne Sexton's poems, some of which are howlingly funny). Maybe one of Philip Glass's better pieces. (SATYAGRAHA at the Met was PACKED, and it's in friggin' Sanskrit.) You could get plenty of media attention, and, ideally, some real community dialogue, by doing Adams's THE DEATH OF KLINGHOFFER.

    Marketing would be different from usual, of course, and to a different crowd. But I really do think it could work.

    - - -

    PS: I saw some commenter, presumably a standard-opera audience member, referring to Mark Adamo's LITTLE WOMEN as "avant-garde." What's up with THAT?? That piece is as retro as contemporary opera gets. Just to spite him, you should do Olga Neuwirth's LOST HIGHWAY (yes, based on the incomprehensible David Lynch movie). That was a sell-out in New York, too, by the way. And the lead role is just MADE for Alicia Berneche.

  10. Great ideas! Just to lend some perspective - the season after the last Operetta Carnival (1973) which btw saw THE GREAT WALTZ, THE BEGGAR STUDENT, DER FREISCHUTZ and THE STUDENT PRINCE, Clair was advertising a season that for whatever reason, didn't materialize as planned.

    Here was his season: CORONATION OF POPPEA with Baroque orchestra, EUGENE ONEGIN with MSO, ballet & cast of 105, PIRATES OF PENZANCE, PELLEAS AND MELISANDE with MSO, THE PEARL FISHERS, and THE THREE PENNY OPERA with jazz orchestra. This was after a full summer of Operetta. That guy had guts and energy.

  11. I was going to swear off posting, but these comments have been so great I can't help it. I, too, would love to see a production of "L'Amico Fritz," a lovely vehicle for a tenor who is, ahem, not in the first bloom of youth. I really want to see "Elmer Gantry!" And as a Victor Herbert fan, I would love to see "Babes in Toyland," or, even better, a revival of "Sweethearts." One caveat: I have done a bit of research on Herbert operettas, having co-created a two-person show featuring his music, and the librettos of his shows were acknowledged as hokey even at their premieres at the turn of the twentieth century; they would have to be extensively rewritten. But little things like that have never stopped the Skylight before.
    Also: Interesting article in New York Times about Rocco Landesman, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, at

  12. I can't say what anyone else will be doing, but season after next we will be doing a baroque double bill (one well known, the other not). We will also be using alternate spaces for those types of things. We will also be doing a world premiere in '10. There is no reason that Milwaukee can't be as well known for the interesting work that can do, and are doing as Chicago (or any other city) is. We got a JEM grant from the state tourism board a couple of years ago for Aida, and were able to market even more extensively to northern Illinois - and got over 20% of our audience from Chicago and the northern suburbs(as it is, over 10% of our audience comes from there).

  13. Bravo, Colin, and thank you. You are one of a kind.

  14. George Spelvin (love that name): Nice to know that someone else remembers the Operetta Carnival series. The reason it fell apart is Claire was having heart attacks and the managing director of the PAC where these ambitious three summers took place died suddenly. His name was Hoover, I think, and he was just as gutsy as Claire. The FREISCHUTZ was wonderful! As to that planned four season. Claire eventually staged EUGENE at the PAC with lots of sheets on the stage and men in long underwear and rubber boots. Charlie Kane was in the cast as Gremin. THREE PENNY OPERA has pulled the Skylight back into the black on many seasons. The productions have become darker and darker through the years. Under Colin CORONATION OF POPPEA (in English) and as part of a Montiverdi Cycle which Andrew Porter reviewed for the New Yorker Magazine. PELLEAS was done in a cut version, sorry but PELLEAS either cut or complete is box office poison. We travelled to Santa Fe in the 70s to see CALISTO all I can remember is Faith Eshem in a feathery bikini. It was before the days of supertitles; however, as much as I would like to see more Baroque operas, I find most of the music tedious. You need a lot of extra drama and action to sell it as in Chicago's production of GIULIO CESARE or the Florentine's imaginative staging of SEMELE. Also for today's audiences, they need to be cut.

    John just reminded me that we were in Santa Fe at the same time that Claire was and they were doing PELLEAS. In the La Fonda Bar after the performance, Claire stated that the Skylight would do PELLEAS over his dead body, and they did you know. His ashes have also been passed around the stage during a performances of MAN OF LA MANCHA, some have said. Claire did not like Offenbach, so we had to wait for Colin to come with some wonderful translations. His production of ORPHEUS IN THE UNDERWORLD at the Pabst was great fun. Would love to see it again. Any one in Milwaukee who wants to stage LADY MACBETH or PETER GRIMES has my blessing and support. They are both monumental works.

    Bill F. glad to hear of your plans for the future.

  15. I absolutely loved SEMELE. Thought it was brilliant.

    When Kurt did his 30 year retrospective and referred to all the past shows Skylight did, I said to my husband, "I wish Skylight would do shows like those again." I'd love to see some Weill, some Handel, some Britten.

    Oh, and could they put the show pics back up in the bar, please? I think that was a strong sign that the ties to the past were OVER under the Dillner regime. Let's put them back. Hopefully they're still around.

  16. (I'm referring to the Florentine's SEMELE, that is.)

  17. wow. now this is an online discussion.

  18. On counterpoint to the above discussions, please support the rail connection upgrade to the Chicago area. It will widen Milwaukee markets to growing audience. Imagine easy access by rail to the Marcus Center and Broadway Theatre Center for Chicagoans.

  19. as far as the period instruments are concerned, there are amazing early music specialists in chicago, i think in part because of the group music of the baroque. that would be a good resource for a good theorbist :).

    i don't know if this has anything to do with it, but while i love mister rader schieber's work, the stagings he did with handel in milwaukee were pretty out there. i really think skylight should take another crack at early music. it has been awhile since the old theater, and early music is far more popular now than then.

  20. Based on the feedback we got, and the crowds, we think there is a real audience for Baroque Opera here in Milwaukee, and will continue to do it, beginning with 10-11.


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