What is “26”?
Voice teachers inevitably hand beginning students one of the standard anthologies of songs and arias. Most have 26 Italian numbers, from the late Renaissance through the Romantic era.
Singers Jill Anna Ponasik, 34, and Nathan Wesselowski, 39, and dancer/choreographer Kelly Anderson, 31, have made a show out of 26 Italian Songs and Arias, the anthology that Ponasik started singing when she was in high school.
“It’s the place where every singer starts,” Ponasik said, during a three vs. one interview.
“It’s the Great Italian Songbook revue,” Wesselowski said, of 26.
Milwaukee knows Wesselowski as a frequent Skylight Opera Theatre performer. The central Kansas native, after free-lancing out of New York for several years, came here in 2002 for family reasons and found Milwaukee congenial. Ponasik, likewise, was free-lancing in New York. She came here because her husband, a physician, got a job at the Medical College of Wisconsin in 2008. It happens that Ponasik grew up in Waukesha County.
Her voice teacher was the well know and widely respected Pat Crump. Ponasik was looking for something to do after she landed in Milwaukee. Crump is the head of Support for Opera Singers, which has raised money for Milwaukee Opera Theatre for years. She knew that MOT needed an artistic director. The next thing Ponasik knew she was it. It’s not the fancy job the title suggests; the annual budget is about $26,000.
“It all happened very quickly,” Ponasik said. “It feels like something that happened to me, not something I did.”
Historical note: The late Josephine Busalacchi started Milwaukee Opera Theatre in the 1960s, and soldiered on with threadbare productions of the classics for decades. When Busalachhi retired, Charissa York asked for and received rights to the name and launched a training company that was active for several seasons. Later, Dawn Riesing and Jillian Bruss (who remains general manager) tried to keep the company active, but it had largely drifted out of public view by 2008.
Ponasik started dreaming up unconventional events that might serve the singing community, cost little or nothing, and raise MOT’s profile. She hired a pianist and hosted monthly voice labs, where everyone is welcome to try out material and receive feedback (or not).
“I had a house with no furniture in it,” she said. “Plenty of room for a piano. We have snacks, and I buy wine. We hang out. There are crossovers — we’ve had folksingers with guitars.”
Ponasik put on a Seymour Barab’s Pizza con Funghi and other food-related musical oddities last spring at Carroll University and got an audience of 150, a landslide by MOT standards. Ponasik thinks she’ll do better than that with 26, which MOT is staging Friday through Sunday (May 14-16) at the Danceworks Studio Theater downtown. She’s booked four performances into a house that seats about 100. It should help to have Anderson in the mix; everyone in dance knows her as one of Milwaukee’s most daring choreographers and a powerful stage presence.
Anderson is thrilled that she gets to sing in 26.
“It gives the Jill Anna and Nathan a chance to show what it’s like when a beginning student sings,” Anderson deadpanned.
The singers get to dance, too. Wesselowski, who studied modern dance fairly seriously as a grad student, is all for it. Ponasik is game.
“I might make a gesture,” Wesselowski said, “then Kelly might enter and make it grander and I’ll stop moving.”
Wesselowski, who met Ponasik when they were both in that stunning 2008 Skylight production of La Boheme, is also a composer and arranger. He’s been taking liberties with some of the canonical songs.
“I’m going way off the map with some of them,” he said. “Some of it sounds like silent-movie piano playing. I turned some of the solos into duets.”
It all has to do with making the music fit a loose plot and the silent-movie style of the show. The big breakthrough came with Wesselowski’s idea of guiding the audience through the story with bits of text on placards, in the way of silent films. They ordered the songs to support the story, too.
“It’s a love triangle,” Ponaski said. “Nathan and I are in a relationship that pulls apart at the seams.”
“It’s love, death and sex,” Anderson said. “Very Italian.”
The Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s 26 runs at Danceworks, 1661 N. Water St., at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 14-16. Tickets are $25 and $20, $15 for students and seniors, at the Danceworks box office, 414-277-8480 ext. 6025.