Tom Strini

Milwaukee Opera Theatre showcases two big talents

By - Mar 31st, 2011 04:00 pm
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Milwaukee Opera Theatre presents Diane Lane (L) and Susan Wiedmeyer in one-woman one-acts. FroPhoto for MOT.

Jill Anna Ponasik, Susan Wiedmeyer and Diane Lane all performed in The Pirates of Penzance at The Skylight Opera Theatre in the spring of 2009. Ponasik, also artistic director of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, had designs on her Penzance colleagues.

Friday through Sunday, Lane will perform Dominick Argento’s From the Diary of Virginia Woolf and Wiedmeyer will do Ben Krywosz’s Meditations on Arion under the MOT banner, at the Sunset Playhouse.

“Now I’m doing the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Lane said, in an interview along side Ponasik and Wiedmeyer. “It’s 12-tone; I’ve found that I’ve circled every other note in red. Argento is hilariously specific about what he wants with each note, and his Italian is very good. I’ve spent a lot of time looking up Italian musical terms.”

Pianist Jamie Johns, Lane’s husband, will play for her.

“This is supposed to be fun, right?” Lane said, looking hopefully toward Johns, who was minding his own business at the next table in Brewed on Brady. He smiled and nodded. The piano part for Woolf isn’t easy, either.

Lane, a superb, seasoned singing actress and frequent Skylight star, isn’t complaining.

“I’d heard it a couple of times and found it deeply tasty,” she said. “Each piece is so different, so imaginative. As I’ve dug into it, I realized that this is a work of genius.”

Argento wrote it as a concert song cycle for Janet Baker. It won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Music. He set eight brief excerpts from Woolf’s diaries. Lane, with Ponasik directing, has made it theatrical; she will play the role of Virginia Woolf.

“The diaries begin in 1919 and run through 1941,” Ponasik said. “There are 26 volumes. The songs are little snapshots as the years go on. A theme in the diaires is of making something whole from scraps of life, and that’s what Argento does here.”

Ponasik performed the cycle theatrically in 2003 in Minneapolis.

“I wanted to share it with Milwaukee,” Ponasik said. “But I wasn’t sure I wanted to sing it myself. Then I conveniently got pregnant and it was out of the question. In my heart of hearts, I wanted Diane to do it.”

MOT artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik.

“Alicia Berneche (a Chicago-based singer and another Skylight regular) has been telling me for years that I should sing it,” Lane said. “I was thinking about asking Jill Anna to do it. And then she asked me. It was like The Gift of the Magi


Ponasik studied the Argento piece as a grad student at the University of Minnesota (where Argento was professor emeritus). Her Twin Cities mentor was Ben Krywosz, who coached her through it and helped her come up with a theatrical conceit for the cycle. He is artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater in St. Paul. The Krywosz connection also explains the presence of Meditations on Arion, Wiedmeyer’s assignment, on this MOT program.

Jennifer Baldwin Peden premiered the piece in 2005 and co-created it with Krywosz. They began with André Campra’s (1660-1744) cantata, for soprano and continuo. Its songs and recitatives recount the tale of Arion, whose singing so charmed a dolphin that it save him from drowning.

“It’s about the transformative power of art,” Ponasik said.

Krywosz, who is directing Wiedmeyer in this revival, and Peden assembled their Meditations by adapting existing music by Campra, Rachmaninoff, Bernstein, Villa-Lobos, Meredith Monk and Paul Simon. They wrote some of their own text and borrowed some more from Amitav Ghosh, Sebastian Junger and Simon.

“I knew of the piece and wanted to do it,” Ponasik said. “And then I knew Susie.”

Wiedmeyer, a Mukwonago native, attended St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. The school is famous for its choruses and vocal program.

“I was a black sheep,” Wiedmeyer said. “I majored in theater.”

Graduated and back in Milwaukee, Wiedmeyer became a voice major and pursued a master of music degree in voice at UWM, where she studied with Connie Haas. She works full-time at Danceworks as a Zumba fitness instructor and as community programs manager-assessment. She also helps out in the box office. On top of all that, she is a skilled sculptor and draws in charcoal.

Pianist-music director Donna Kummer, cellist Ann Morrow and clarinetist Jon Lovas will accompany Wiedmeyer. Jan Kellogg designed the lighting for both one-acts.

The double bill runs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 1-3, at the Sunset Playhouse, 800 Elm Grove Road, in Elm Grove. Tickets are $20, $16 for seniors and $1o for students. Order at the Sunset box office,  262 782-4430, or click here.

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