MADISON, Wis. - One way to explain how much the Madison opera scene has improved since the 1980s is that I was once allowed to sing in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's "La traviata" and was applauded for my efforts.
The year was 1985 and, at the time, I wrote columns about the opera. Roland and Arline Johnson, who conducted and directed opera at the time, thought that if I were to sing I might bring needed publicity to the performance.
The problem was that I am a terrible singer, so terrible that, even today, when I attempt to sing in the church I pastor, the sound technician cuts my microphone until the hymn is ended.
Roland Johnson worked with me for weeks until he thought I was ready to bleat out "Dinner is served" in Italian and I kept writing about his efforts.
When the performance finally took place and I actually "sang" something similar to the score, I received a round of applause – something that brought strange looks from the imported professionals who sang the lead roles.
I am quite sure that John DeMain, who has been the opera's artistic director for the past 26 years, has never in his most lurid imagination ever thought of letting someone with my voice anywhere near the opera stage.
That's not to knock the Johnsons. They founded the opera and made it a central point of Madison's cultural life. Without them, there would be no city opera company (The UW also has an opera company).
But from the opening curtain to the final bows at last weekend's "La traviata" it was absolutely certain that this is now a professional company.
The first impact was visual.
The curtain raised and revealed a large stage, an extravagant ballroom set and some 50 singers milling about. The atmosphere conveyed was crisp, overwhelming and engaging. You would have liked to be at that party.
The plot of "La traviata" is typical Verdi. Violetta Valery, sung by Cecilia Violetta Lopez, is a Parisian courtesan who falls in love with Alfredo Germont. They move in together, but Alfredo's father convinces Violetta to leave him. Violetta falls into poverty, suffers from tuberculosis and dies, but not before Alfredo and his father come to their senses and show up at her apartment.
There are relatively strong performances by all the singers, but Lopez just blows everyone away – though I've always wondered how someone dying of consumption can actually hit those notes just before her death.
But my main takeaway from the performance is that everything worked. The singing, the orchestra, the sets and costumes all combined to make this a professional event.
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