MADISON, Wis. - When Kathryn Smith was a high school student in Seattle, she attended a performance of Antonin Dvorak's opera, “Rusulka.”
“I thought it was one of the most gorgeous things I ever saw in my life,” Smith recalls.
And that bit of teenage awe led indirectly to Smith becoming general manager of Madison Opera in 2001 and to “Rusulka” being staged at the Overture Center at 8 p.m. Friday and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
The opera, based loosely on Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid,” is a love story featuring a water nymph who gives up her beautiful voice in order to win the love of a prince. It is best known to most of us because of a 1989 Disney movie, which has a lot happier ending than either the fairy tale or the opera.
This weekend's performances mark the first time “ Rusulka” will be staged in Madison and, also, the first time the local company has sung an opera in Czech (it has English subtitles).
What makes me eager to be there, however, is that I'm curious to see what made a teenage Kathryn Smith found it to be “one of the most gorgeous things I ever saw in my life.”
That's because Smith is a key player in what appears to be another resurgence of excellence in the Madison cultural fabric.
The city and surrounding area has long been hospitable to the arts. Every generation of so, new leadership lifts that hospitality to a new level. Here are three of the numerous arts groups finding new life this generation:
American Players Theatre near Spring Green, for example, was founded in 1979 and quickly developed a reputation as one of the finest Shakespearean theaters in the country – and also for shaky finances. In 1990, David Frank became managing director and he, with the decided help of area business leaders, maintained the theater's professional reputation and also developed a sound business model that led to more than 20 years without an operating deficit. That's not easy to do when your main product can be rained out.
The Madison Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1925 as a small community orchestra, gained professional status under the leadership of Roland Johnson (whose wife, Arlene, managed the opera) but when John DeMain took the baton 25 years ago, it began a steady path toward musical excellence to the point that, today, the MSO is the equal of most any major city orchestra.
DeMain is still going strong but the MSO has a new musical star, organist Greg Zelek, 26, who performs in shirt sleeves, shares family stories with his audience and seems to delight in mingling with patrons during intermissions. His last concert sold out the Overture Center on a Tuesday night.
Smith is part of that resurgence. She joined the Madison Opera in 2011 after serving as general manager of the Tacoma Opera and what's she has done is to bring a cheerful openness to new or little-known opera works.
In 2014, for example, the opera staged “Dead Man Walking,” an opera about a nun, Sister Helen Prejean (who was here for the opening) and a death row inmate, a subject that might not make a Disney movie.
The only other American cast performing “Rusulka” this year is the San Francisco Opera.
The changes symbolized by Smith, DeVita and Zelek aren't revolutionary – in fact, their predecessors are or were among their chief proponents – but they are changes.
The three are characterized in part by the sense of joyous immersion in art forms that can often seem stuffy and formal. They are making a difference.
So, go see “Rusulka” and determine for yourself whether it is “one of the most gorgeous” things you will ever see.
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