Tom Strini

Andrew Wilkowske, a Skylight Figaro for all seasons

By - Jan 26th, 2010 04:32 pm
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The two Figaro operas — Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro — are the linchpins of The Skylight Opera Theatre’s 2009-2010 season. The operas almost didn’t happen, though, after a summer of crisis and strife led to a performer boycott.

But the administration changed, the actors, singers and artistic director Bill Theisen returned, and the show went on. Barber opened the season with a big hit in September. Marriage opens Friday (Jan. 29).

The operas are based on plays by Beaumarchais. Marriage is a sequel, set 10 years after Barber. Theisen’s big idea was to stage them as such. Most of the roles change voice types, so the same singers can’t play the same characters in both operas. Figaro is a baritone in both operas, but the two roles stretch that range in different directions. Not every baritone can sing both.

Andrew Wilkowske can and will.

“I’m lucky that my voice is right in the middle,” Wilkowske said, between rehearsals at the Broadway Theatre Center. “Marriage is really a better fit for me, and I’ve done it often; it’s  much more of a middle voice role, although it has its challenges. Barber is much higher, and it also has some really hard coloratura. Other than that, it was a pretty smooth ride. I had 12 performances to really work it out, and that was a gift. It took some work, but I felt that I got it.”

In Barber, in September, Almaviva (Gregory Schmidt) and Figaro (Andrew Wilkowske) hatch their plot. (K. Behl photo)

In Barber, in September, Almaviva (Gregory Schmidt) and Figaro (Andrew Wilkowske) hatch their plot. (K. Behl photo)

In Rossini’s Barber, the lovesick Count Almaviva befriends Figaro, who plies his trade from a pushcart on the streets of Seville. With the clever Figaro’s help, the Count outwits Rosina’s legal guardian, Bartolo, who has designs of his own on the girl. The two are married and, as it turns out, live less than happily ever after.

Marriage takes place at the Count’s prosperous estate 10 years later. He’s turned out to be a skirt-chaser and has broken Rosina’s heart. The Count even intends to revive the long-dead (and perhaps apocryphal) custom of droit-de-seigneur, the lord’s right to bed down servant girls before their weddings. The girl in question is Susanna, Rosina’s maid, and the bride-to-be of Figaro. Figaro is not about to stand for that. Hi-jinks ensue.

“The Count and Figaro were best buddies! And now, Rosina is almost unrecognizable — until she sings Dove sono, when she gets her groove back,” Wilkowske said. “There is a moral weight to this opera that isn’t in Barber. When the Count asks for forgiveness at the end, it often gets a laugh. But it breaks my heart.”

Wilkowske with Alicia Berneche, Susanna in the upcoming The Marriage of Figaro.

Wilkowske with Alicia Berneche, Susanna in the upcoming The Marriage of Figaro.

Theisen is carrying through the style and even some of the set elements. He very much wants to the audience to perceive this production as following through on the action it saw in September. Everyone in the Marriage cast came to the Skylight to see Barber so they’d have a feel for it. (Local casting has its advantages.)

“Figaro’s barber kit is hangs his room,” Wilkowske said. “And when I sing how if  the Count wants to dance, I’ll play the tune, I  play the very same guitar I used in Barber, when the Count was serenading Rosina.”

Wilkowske was a guitar player before he ever thought of singing opera. He had taken piano and guitar lessons at a music store in his hometown, Wilmer, Minn., and played in rock bands in and sang in musicals in high school. But he knew nothing of opera when he landed as a freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

“I was a music ed major,” he said. “I thought I’d be music teacher and maybe have a band.”

Then he met Paul Sahuc, a UMD voice teacher who heard something in Wilkowske.

“I’d never really heard an opera baritone,” Wilkowske said. “Paul had me listen to Sam Ramey, and I thought, ‘There’s man singing.'”

Sahuc put Wilkowske together with five other students to sing the glorious sextet from Marriage, and that was that. Wilkowske switched his major to performance, and a career wasn’t long in coming. Sahuc had a friend at the Minnesota opera and sent all his students to audition there. Wilkowske stuck, joined their Young Artists Program, and finished up his senior year at UMD from down the road in Minneapolis. After a year singing in the chorus, school shows and in minor roles, he went to the graduate school at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.

Lucky choice, for Wilkowske and the Skylight. In 1999, a baritone dropped out of the title role of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the last minute. Director Paula Suozzi called Mark Gibson, of the CCM faculty: Did he know anyone? Gibson recommended Wilkowske.

“Paula hired me sight unseen,” Wilkowske said. “I was 23 and playing a man in his 60s. I think the entire cast were replacements. We had a blast.

“I remember that Paula would look at me and say, ‘No no no this isn’t a cartoon! This is the Skylight! It’s so intimate. You don’t have to be a caricature. You can be a real person and it reads.”

That sort of thing appeals to a performer such as Wilkowske. At 34, he’s an 11-year Skylight veteran with many roles behind him.

“The Minnesota Opera has been so loyal to me, and so has the Skylight,” he said. “I feel like I have two performing homes.”

Wilkowske lives in St. Paul with his wife of 10 years (she does public relations for a health care firm) and their 2-year-old daughter. So Milwaukee is a handy hop-and-skip.

Still, if the troubles of last summer hadn’t been resolved and Theisen not reinstated, he wouldn’t be here now. Wilkowske joined the performer boycott when things looked bleakest.

“I was glued to my computer,” he said. “Every day was more unbelievable than the last.

“The project had become so compromised that the thought of doing both roles did not outweigh the prospect of being miserable while doing them,” he said. “It was a really hard decision, but I felt good about it. Now I feel lucky to be here.”

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro runs Jan. 29-Feb. 14 in the Cabot Theatre of the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 NN. Broadway. Tickets are $13.50-$64; visit the company’s website or call the BTC box office, (414) 291-7800. Like all Skylight productions, Marriage will be sung in English.

Cast and Credits

Stage Director: Bill Theisen; Music Director: Jamie Johns; Set Designer: Van Santvoord; Costume Designer: Carol J. Blanchard; Lighting Designer: Kurt Schnabel; Production Stage Manager: Jessica Berlin Krivsky;  Figaro: Andrew Wilkowske; Susanna: Alicia Berneche; Dr. Bartolo: Thomas J. Weis; Marcellina: Jennifer Clark; Cherubino: Diane Lane; Count Almaviva: Kurt Ollmann; Don Basilio/Don Curzio: William Lavonis; Countess Almaviva: Tanya Kruse; Antonio: Ryan Matthew Porter; Barbarina: Susan Wiedmeyer

Categories: Classical, Theater

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