Viswa Subbaraman comes to the Skylight Music Theatre by way of Paris and Texas.
Repeat after me: Vish-wa Sub-ba-RAH-man. Again… good. It’s not that hard.
Pretty soon, the name of Viswa Subbaraman will roll trippingly from the tongues of Milwaukee’s music and opera fans. Subbaraman, 35, will succeed Bill Theisen as artistic director of the Skylight Music Theatre in June, when Theisen completes his ninth and final season. Such smooth transitions are great for any performing arts institution.
The incoming AD, a conductor by trade, arrives with a formidable résumé: Dual degree in biology and music from Duke University, master’s in music from Texas Tech, a Fulbright Fellowship to study conducting with John Nelson in Paris, three years as assistant conductor under Kurt Masur at the Orchestre National de France, in Paris. He founded Opera Vista in Houston in 2005, served as its artistic director ever since, and while he was at it took an MBA at the University of Texas. He hails from West Texas, the son of an Indian immigrant doctor. He expected to be a doctor, too, until Duke University sent him to study abroad in Vienna, where music claimed him.
Subbaraman, who plays trombone and violin, plans to visit Milwaukee often over the next 10 months, to get to know the Skylight, the town and its cultural life. In the mean time, he will continue to lead Opera Vista for the next few years, to guide that company through transition. He will move to Milwaukee before the 2013-14 Skylight season, which he will plan.
His history aims toward a certain career trajectory; shouldn’t he be working in a European municipal house, conducting operas and symphony concerts?
Subbaraman is a serious cook; foam and transglutaminase are elements of molecular gastronomy, the most avant-garde approach to cuisine. Opera Vista is the molecular gastronomy of opera. The line-up for this season: Houdini the Great, by Andy Pape; Ainadamar, by Osvaldo Golijov; The Annual Vista Competition for New Opera; Voir Dire by Matthew Peterson (premiere); and New York Stories, by Waukesha native Daron Hagen.
“The Skylight will never become Opera Vista North,” Subbaraman said. “I think you’ll see more adventure, but I love the diversity here. I love living composers, but every once in a while it’s nice to have the composer dead. I plan to be active on the conducting podium here in both opera and musical comedy.”
Subbaraman will bring a decidedly different perspective to the job. Theisen grew up as a Skylight actor-singer and became a stage director out of that experience. Before him, Richard Carsey was a conductor-pianist, but also an actor, and had worked a good deal at the Skylight. Francesca Zambello, Stephen Wadsworth, Chas Rader-Schieber — all theater people.
Subbaraman isn’t, and he has never worked at the Skylight before. But he respects the tradition of credible acting in an intimate setting; it has defined the Skylight from the start. That was at the top of his reasons for taking the job.
“I love theater and I love music,” he said. “One strength of this company is its high production values. I don’t want to lose that quality. And that jewel box of a theater — incredible.”
Another Skylight tradition, of building each show from scratch, with no rentals or revivals, is an expensive one. Last season, in the charming Daddy Longlegs, the company broke with that tradition and trucked in a show that made the rounds of the member companies of a funding consortium. The Skylight, while it has to some extent rebounded from the disastrous, contentious summer of 2009, is still in a financial bind. For 2011-12, it posted an (unaudited) operating deficit of $285,000, on a budget of about $3.2 million.
The business side is not lost on Subbaraman.
“Being an artistic director is not just conducting,” he said. “It’s understanding marketing and how to put a season together. Nobody teaches you that. I could have stayed in Europe — the Orchestre National offered me another year. But I’d already had three years. I wanted to conduct opera, and I wanted to do it in a way that would teach me the business.”
Opera Vista and the University of Texas McCombs School of Business went a long way toward that.
The budget Opera Vista budget maxed at about $150,000 per year, but it was Subbaraman’s budget. He had to form a board, and he had to cancel half a season and form a new board with an eye toward institutionalizing Opera Vista so that it survives his exit. (“It was too much of a one-man show,” he said.) Subbaraman and some friends started the company almost on a whim, over drinks at a bar, after the young conductor had landed in Houston with no particular plan beyond hanging out with friends. They came up with a gimmick that served marketing, audience engagement and their own musical interests all at the same time: An annual opera composition contest. They narrowed submissions to six composers. The orchestra could be no more than 1o players, with six singers and no chorus, and no more than 100 minutes long. They stage excerpts from the opera, professional judges grill the composers, and the audience votes for its favorites. The winner gets a full staging the next year.
“It’s like American Idol,” he said. “It’s amazing how our audience responded. We’re always sold out on competition nights. It’s educational. The audience actually gets it.”
Naturally, Subbaraman kept his cards face-down about exactly what might happen at the Skylight in 2013-14. But he did talk about general principles.
“I want to transcend musical theater, to communicate something about ourselves as humans,” he said. “I want to put a season together that includes lectures, film, discussions, to create a community that’s greater than what we put on the stage. I can imagine opera, musicals and operettas all coming together to say something over the course of a season. I can imagine a season on the role of women in the world, or a season about why we love fairy tales.
“I’m interested in diversity of programming and diversity of audience, too. Opera’s going to be different here. It won’t be what you expect. I hope people will leave the theater saying: ‘Wow. Did they really do that?'”
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