UW-Madison’s University Opera is on a roll. Both shows from last year, Transformations and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, have won awards in the National Opera Association’s (NOA) Opera Production Competition for 2015-2016. It is the second year in a row that UW-Madison has garnered an award from NOA, and the first time that each production was separately recognized. University Opera produces only two operas each year.
October 2015’s Le nozze di Figaro, with orchestra conducted by James Smith, placed second in Division IV, and March 2016’s Transformations, conducted by graduate assistant conductor Kyle Knox, garnered a first place award in Division III.
Both productions were directed by David Ronis, inaugural Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera, who is now a six-time winner of the competition. His previous awards occurred while he worked at Queens College in New York.
The two winning UW-Madison productions carried casts and crew of different sizes and strengths and were produced at different budgetary levels, hence their separation into distinct categories.
In 2014-15, University Opera won third prize in NOA’s Division III for Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring.
Ronis accepted the awards at the NOA convention in Santa Barbara last weekend. “Needless to say, I’m very proud,” he said. “While last year’s award put University Opera on the national map in a very public way, these two wins firmly establish us among the premier collegiate opera producing organizations in the country,”
The competition is blind, meaning that performing companies are not identified to judges. Those eligible include small professional opera companies and opera training programs from academic institutions, music conservatories, summer opera training programs, and opera outreach programs. Entries are separated into seven divisions by the judges; the criteria include the size and scope of institution’s music and opera program and the level of vocal training of the singers in the cast.
Though judging is always subjective, Ronis says he isn’t surprised that both shows won awards. “I was very proud of Figaro – the production was elegant, the storytelling clear, and it was well-sung, well-played, and well-conducted,” he says. “Transformations was definitely more of a challenge artistically, but very rewarding to produce. The students involved became quite personally engaged with telling Anne Sexton’s fairy tale settings, and the result was a wonderfully creative, funny, yet moving production which packed a deep emotional punch.”
Although both winning productions received praise in the local press, Transformations, a dark yet humorous opera based on Grimm’s fairy tales as re-imagined by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Anne Sexton, was singled out as being particularly imaginative.
“Ronis’s direction (he also serves as visiting director of the opera program) is richly inventive, with snippets of choreography throughout, including a conga line and a parody of the Supremes. The staging is delightful, using the full height of the set to frame and reframe action. This entire production would easily compare well to any professional opera company,” wrote author Jay Rath in Isthmus.
University Opera’s next production will be The Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten’s operatic setting of Henry James’s novella. Premiered in 1954, the composer’s final chamber opera tells of a young governess who is hired to care for two children in an isolated country house in mid-19th century England. She soon realizes that the children are haunted by secrets and spirits that harm them in very real ways. University Opera’s telling of Britten’s gothic horror opera chillingly challenges audiences to consider the very existence of ghosts.
The production will be directed by Ronis and conducted by Kyle Knox. Members of the cast will include Erin Bryan and Katie Anderson, who will split the role of the Governess, Alec Brown (Prologue and Quint), Cayla Rosché (Mrs. Grose), and Anna Polum (Miss Jessel). The roles of the children in the opera will be played by Elisheva Pront and Emily Vandenberg (Flora) and Simon Johnson and Amitabha Shatdal (Miles). Set design will be by Frank Schneeberger; lighting by John Frautschy, and costumes by Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park. Additional staff include Greg Silver, technical director; Meg Huskin, assistant director, and Meghan Stecker, stage manager.
Performance dates are March 3-7, 2017. Buy tickets online or at the Memorial Union box office.
Story courtesy of the Mead Witter School of Music.