Matthew Reddin

Milwaukee Opera Theatre makes “Candide” a learning experience

Director Jill Anna Ponasik's classroom settings are tailored to educate audiences.

By - Oct 2nd, 2012 02:13 pm
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Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s “Candide” features a DIY aesthetic, including costumes composed merely of t-shirts with character names. Photo credit Dale Reince.

Jill Anna Ponasik has made engaging student audiences a key part of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s M.O. since becoming artistic director in 2008. For the company’s latest show, Candide, they’re making that connection literal – staging the production in actual classrooms.

“We wanted to bring it to their [students’] turf,” Ponasik said. “People have to acquire a taste for opera, and one does that through exposure and engagement.”

The production opened last week at UW-Parkside in Kenosha last week and will run three more times, at Pius XI High School Wednesday, UWM Friday and Carroll University Saturday.

Leonard Bernstein composed Candide in 1956, with Lillian Hellman as lyricist. Many other literary hands worked on it over the years. The final version dates to 1974. Hugh Wheeler’s book for that version is closer to the original source, Voltaire’s classic work of satire. In both book and opera, the eponymous Candide must overcome an overwhelming onslaught of catastrophes and remain optimistic in a quest to gain the hand of his true love, Cunegonde.

Ponasik, who directs the show alongside Catie O’Donnell, said the production’s conceit is that the performance takes place at the end of a class on Voltaire, a key revolutionary figure in the French Enlightenment. The cast plays students performing the play as a final Voltaire project. Actors wear black t-shirts with character names printed on them. The set is the classroom as-is. All the props fit into five laundry baskets.

This do-it-yourself Candide poses some unique challenges to the cast. Close proximity to the audience allows no room for error, and the singers must resist the urge to over project the songs and arias. And perhaps most daunting, every show is in a new place; they can’t rehearse in these spaces. So the student shows before the public ones serve as dress rehearsals.

Ponasik said her cast is up to the challenge, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been anxieties along the way.

“Wednesday’s show was nerve-wracking,” she said. “It was a relief to see that the audience received the story so enthusiastically.”

And it’s not as though the play is all challenge – in fact, Ponasik said this version of the Bernstein operetta is well-suited to intimate venues because it’s an episodic staging of the original picaresque novella. Scenes start from all different parts of the room, creating a circus atmosphere. It’s easy for the cast to double as orchestra, ducking over to the nearby piano and other instruments as necessary.

Candide’s other benefit, according to Ponasik, is the quality of the cast.

“It’s like you know you’re going to get an A+ [on the performance/project] because of the talented people you’re working with,” she said.

You can grade Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Candide Wednesday, Oct. 3, at Pius XI High School, 135 N. 76th St.; Friday, Oct. 5 at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts Music building, 2400 E. Kenwood Blvd.; and Saturday, Oct. 6 at Carroll University’s Shattuck Music Center, 218 N. East Ave., Waukesha. All performances are at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $20, $15 for students/seniors and $25 for premium reserved seating. Order at Brown Paper Tickets or call (800) 838-3006.

The Cast: Matthew Ecclestone as Candide; Susan Wiedmeyer as Cunegonde; Timothy Rebers as Pangloss and Voltaire; Brian Myers as Maximillian; Colleen Brooks as Paquette; Kerry Hart as the Old Lady; and ensemble members Julianne Frey, Teresa Gracyalny, Danny Brylow, and Henry Parker Hammond. Adam Baus serves as music director.

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