Tom Strini

A Sweet Night at the Skylight

By - Sep 2nd, 2009 05:07 pm
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At its outset, the summer’s battle between the Skylight Opera Theatre’s board and management, on one hand, and the hundred or so local artists who populate its stage on a regular basis, on the other,  was about the shabby treatment of artistic director William Theisen. Former managing director Eric Dillner dismissed him abuptly June 16, in a bid to cut costs in a crisis situation.

When many of those artists quit their 2009-2010 roles in support of Theisen, Dillnerresponded this way: Fine. I’ll go out of town to cast and replace every last one of you.

From that point on, the conflict was about the local nature of the Skylight and the importance of the local cohort to the quality of work on its stage and its soul as a true Milwaukee institution.

Tuesday (Sept. 1) evening, the locals’ level of talent and skill, their commitment to the company and their importance to it became abundantly clear. Dozens of them showed up at 50th anniversary open house to sing, play and do comedy sketches gratis on the Skylight’s behalf. They took turns working the crowd and literally passed hats (outrageous numbers from the Skylight costume shop).

Singer after singer stepped up, first in the Skylight Bar, then in a two-hour street concert, and then in the Cabot Theatre. A few of them were not so good, but the level overall was remarkably high. Some of the locals — Leslie Fitzwater, Kathy Pyeatt, Diane Lane — were sensational. As they sang, the notion that the Skylight can afford to brush such people aside became more and more ridiculous.


Ding Lorenz, with Jamie Johns at the piano, honks out “La Habanera” Tuesday at the Skylight open house.

A surprisingly big — 800, at least — crowd turned out for this event, and enough of them stayed to pack the 350-seat Cabot until 10:45 p.m., 95 minutes past the advertised end of the event. Those who stuck around missed Mike Lorenz‘s priceless beeping out of the Habanera from “Carmen” on taxi horns and magician David Seebach sawing Norman Moses, in his Groucho Marx persona, in half. After that, 100 or so went back up to the Skylight bar to celebrate the institution for another hour or more.

It was a lovely event; love for the institution was in the air. These people care about the Skylight and they want to help save it.

Katherine Pracht

Katherine Pracht

Katherine Pracht sang early and stayed late. Pracht will sing Rosina in the season-opening (Sept. 18) “Barber of Seville.” She now lives in Philadelphia, but worked in Milwaukee for years and has sung many roles at the Skylight. Near the end of the evening, she told me that the “Barber” cast felt a great sense of urgency about their show. After the upheaval and bad PR of the summer, and given the dire financial straits of the company, they feel that they must put on the best “Barber” ever to help save the company.

I am sure that spirit will prevail throughout the season and will help to make 09-10 one of the best artistic and box-office years in the company’s history. That will help, but will it be enough? The Skylight’s problems are more on the donated side that at the box office.

I also spoke, Tuesday evening, with interim managing director Joan Lounsbery and interim artistic director Colin Cabot. They are important Skylight figures from the past who have returned to try to right the ship. They are smart and resourceful and will very likely fix things for the short term.

But Lounsbery and Cabot have committed to their roles for just a few months. Who will they — and a board of directors that may or may not be fully on board with their plans — find to take over this peculiar place? The Skylight doesn’t pay much, it has a lot of problems, and it’s hard to understand, as both a business and as an artistic institution.

Who will run it next? That’s a tough question. It must be answered, and soon.

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

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