Incoming talent and shifting priorities guide University Opera’s upcoming repertoire
Some troupes, made more nimble by necessity, can and do successfully adapt as conditions warrant.
Social circumstances often govern the fate of performing arts companies. Consider 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced many local and national groups to postpone or cancel productions outright. Some troupes, made more nimble by necessity, can and do successfully adapt as conditions warrant. David Ronis, the Karen K. Bishop Director of Opera at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, knows well how the strategy works.
Like other groups, University Opera faced a challenging 2020-21 season. The fall production of “I Wish It So: Marc Blitzstein – A Man and His Music” evolved from a live performance into a creative online virtual format, filmed against historic photo backdrops with little reliance on the “Brady Bunch” embrace of Zoom technology.
The spring production of “The Crucible,” composer Robert Ward’s operatic adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Tony Award-winning play that used the Salem Witch Trials as an indictment of 1950s McCarthyism, was, unfortunately, too complex for such an adaptation.
Ronis’ ongoing challenge, however, has less to do with the pandemic and its aftermath than waiting to see what vocal talent comes through the university’s doors in time for the fall 2021 season. The mix of student voices helps determine which operas will be performed, he says.
“I don’t plan a repertoire until the end of April or early May, since we don’t know which graduate students will be at school,” says Ronis, who started in 2014 as visiting professor before formally joining the School of Music faculty two years later. “I always choose operas based on the students enrolled in the program, with an eye toward serving graduate students because they’re on a definite career track.”
Ronis’ reach goes well beyond that of a music educator. The Syosset, New York, native has helped found opera companies and directed operatic and theatrical productions nationwide, and his robust tenor has sung more than 50 operatic character roles with more than 30 companies throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia. He clearly understands the world his students will enter and does his best to make that transition as seamless and successful as possible.
“David tends to pick operas with lots of roles, meaning lots of students get a chance to perform, which is crucial to the education of young singers,” says Kathryn Smith, general director of Madison Opera. “All of that contributes to a pipeline for professional companies, building future production personnel, future administrators, future teachers and future audiences.”
Ronis’ efforts to give students the best educational experience possible, backed by School of Music resources, have borne significant fruit over his nearly seven-year UW–Madison tenure. The department has earned seven National Opera Association Opera Productions Awards since his arrival — the most recent for last year’s production of Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” — and has won The American Prize from the National Nonprofit Competitions in the Performing Arts multiple times.
“My predecessors in this role never entered competitions, but if you win something, it’s good for everybody,” Ronis says. “Students work within their own microcosm at the university level. It’s great for them to have a broader perspective of what other schools are doing and great for the community.”
Building on preexisting program goals when he arrived, Ronis introduced acting classes for the singers. Better acting contributes more accomplished character development and greater depth to the production’s interpretation, strengthening the content and adding to audience enjoyment.
“In the old days it was often ‘park and bark’ in which performers would plant themselves onstage and just sing,” Ronis says. “I started the acting course to make them the best performers they can be.”
Ronis also is searching for more diversity in operatic productions, both in terms of content and presentation. He plans to present material written by or featuring artists of color and to embrace social justice themes strongly.
In the same vein, he also seeks exemplary operas from the standard repertoire to give his students the broadest experience — and most complete performance resume — possible.
“An important part of the program is training young singers, and standard repertoire is critical to that effort,” Ronis says. “The goals and the market continue to evolve and I feel pretty good that we have been designing and executing productions that meet those goals.
“Students are here to learn,” he adds. “If we can provide experiences that check off many of the boxes, then I’ve done my job.”
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