‘Fish Fry’: the opera Wisconsin needed

Fresco Opera, Tap It team up for tasty production
‘Fish Fry’: the opera Wisconsin needed
Max Wendt
Liz Light (left) and Donna Peckett star in "Fish Fry."

In more than four centuries of opera, audiences have been treated to singing dragons, femme fatale gypsies, all manner of absurd mistaken identities and plots so convoluted that even the greatest music barely helps make the storylines comprehensible.

But what musically adventurous Wisconsinites haven’t had to date is an opera about a particularly beloved regional tradition: the fish fry.

The time for that opera has come with “Fish Fry,” an out-of-the-box presentation from Madison-based Fresco Opera Theatre and Tap It/new works Ensemble Theater. Fresco Opera has been delighting traditional opera lovers and introducing the form in fresh ways for nearly a decade, while Tap It/new works has been “under the radar since 1985,” according to Danielle Dresden of Tap It/new works.

It’s not the first time these groups have collaborated, however. The first occasion was in 2014 when the put on “Convenience” in the neighborhood they share near Schenk’s Corners on the eastside.

“[Fresco Opera’s] artistic perspective matches ours because they want to break opera wide open,” says Donna Peckett of Tap It/new works. “Tap It only presents original work that comes from inspirations regarding social justice and artistic excellence, and we seem to mesh.”

Dresden says that when the idea came to her last June, she immediately contacted Fresco Opera co-founder Melanie Cain. Cain selected some well-known arias from the likes of Verdi, Mozart and Bizet — to which Dresden composed new lyrics.
“It’s really a play, a comedy, but with some music added in,” Dresden says.
‘Fish Fry’: the opera Wisconsin needed

The plot has enough tomfoolery to satisfy even the most jaded opera buff. The story involves the proprietor of Sal’s Place, known for the best fish fry on Lake Cattywompus. When Sal decided to play professional pickleball, she contrives a contest in which the winner gets her secret recipe and the restaurant.

“There’s lots of action, intrigue, and unexpected romance,” according to the Fresco Opera website. “Ultimately, all candidates get their just desserts, ensuring a future full of good fun and good flavors.”

Speaking of jaded opera buffs, if you’ve heard certain tunes a little too often, there’s no better way to freshen them up than by pairing them with a zany story. For example, Dresden’s new lyrics set to the famous Papageno/Papagena duet in Mozart’s “Magic Flute” include the lines “I am rising to your bait, this must be my wondrous fate.”

All the singing is handled by Melanie Cain and George Abbott as they play a farm-raised fish and a wild fish. In all there is a cast of six, plus a pianist.

While there are plenty of performances — May 23-25 and 30-31 at 7:30 p.m. and May 25-26 and June 1-2 at 3 p.m. — the Tap It theater at 1957 Winnebago Street seats only about 50 people.

Greg Hettsmansberger covers the opera, classical and jazz scenes for madisonmagazine.com.