A new era begins
Skylight Music Theatre's Viswa Subbaraman's debut season as AD comprises seven shows new to the company.
Viswa Subbaraman and the Skylight Music Theatre would answer seven ways in 2013-14, with seven shows that address the question head-on or obliquely. Subbaraman, 35, will succeed Bill Theisen as the company’s artistic director when Theisen completes his tenure at the end of the current season. So Subbaraman’s first full season at the Skylight will be truly his own.
Beethoven’s Fidelio, Sept. 20-Oct. 6, is the first and most obvious response. This opera, from 1805, tells the story of a political prisoner, Florestan, rescued by his wife, Leonore. She disguises herself as a boy, “Fidelio,” to gain access to the prison and manages to keep Florenstan alive until an enlightened nobleman more powerful than Pizzaro, the evil prison governor, arrives to set things right.
Subbaraman has adored Fidelio ever since seeing a Vienna State Opera production while studying abroad. He looked at the opera through his particular lens and thought: Bollywood, especially Tamil films from the 1950s. So he moved the story from Spain to India and added Bollywood style dancing.
“There are so many similarities — the idealized, pure heroine kept at a distance, the deus ex machina ending,” he said.
The parallels he sees in the rescue tale — a popular theme in Europe at the turn of the 19th century — and 1950s Bollywood spoke to him. Also, in Bollywood films, the music sometimes overwhelms the story, as it does in Fidelio.
“What better way to introduce myself than with a German opera set in India?”
Touring companies of Les Misérables have landed in Milwaukee innumerable times over the years, and of course it was recently released as a high-profile movie. But Nov. 22-Dec. 29, the Skylight will offer the first local production of the Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer show. They based it on Victor Hugo’s novel set around the Paris Uprising of 1832. Skylight favorite Molly Rhode will direct, and former AD Richard Carsey will be the music director.
Why take on such an ubiquitous and familiar musical?
“The intimacy of the Cabot Theatre,” Subbaraman said. “That much passion in such proximity will be unmatched. We build our shows from the ground up. That’s different than pulling up a semi, unloading, doing the show, loading up and moving on.”
Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón is Subbaraman’s daring choice for the annual post-holiday show in the company’s black-box Studio Theatre, Jan. 3-12. The text is from a book of the same name by Miguel Barnet; the subtitle is Biography of the Runaway Slave Esteban Montejo. So it fits the season’s theme. Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote the German libretto, which comes with an English translation approved by the late composer (1926-2012). Eugenia Arsenis will direct and Subbaraman will be the music director.
The band comprises a percussionist, a flutist (playing the entire family of flutes) and a guitarist. Henze, a leading European avant-gardist also known for his leftist politics, employs aleatoric techniques and a number of idioms in this theatricalized piece of chamber music.
Subbaraman and his staff are still considering how far to go with the staging. It could be elaborate, or it could be a guy at a music stand. It’s been produced a number of different ways.
In the Heights, a 2006 musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Algería Jones, is a slice of life musical set in the Dominican community of Washington Heights in New York City. Jamie Johns will be the music director, with a director to be announced. The show will run Jan. 31-Feb. 23.
“It tells of an experience most of us have never had, of barrio life,” Subbaraman said. “It’s also about being an outsider within your community. What I love about this show is that it’s honest without being too earnest. And it’s fun, with a lot of energetic dancing. The orchestra is like a Latin dance band.”
A chance encounter between composer Philip Glass and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg eventually resulted in Hydrogen Jukebox, the scandal of the 1990 Spoleto Festival. The six characters represent six American archetypes – waitress, policeman, businessman, cheerleader, priest, mechanic. The Skylight will stage Jukebox, its first Glass piece, March 14-30, 2014. Theodore Huffman will direct and Subbaraman will conduct.
“This fits the idea of the season and was on the docket since the planning stage,” Subbaraman said. “It captures the America of the 1960s, with the interest in Eastern religion, anti-war sentiment and this desire to be a free spirit.
“The Skylight has never done Glass before, and whether you like him or not, he’s important. Nadia Boulanger once wrote a letter for him to get the Fulbright foundation to extend his grant. She said that this young man would change music, and he did.”
Composer Daron Hagen is assembling and will direct — but is not composing — I Hear America Singing, to run in the Studio Theatre May 9-25.
Hagen, a Waukesha native, goes back a few years with Subbaraman. Hagen has served on the jury for the composition contest Subbaraman’s Opera Vista runs in Houston, and Subbaraman staged Hagen’s Vera of Las Vegas last year.
I Hear America Singing began when the two friends started swapping opera audition stories. They came up with the conceit of a bunch of singers trying to outdo one another in order to win a part in a show called I Hear America Singing.
“It’s more of a revue,” Subbaraman said. It will have an eclectic reach, from art songs to show tunes to distinctly American songs going back to George M. Cohan and Stephen Foster before him.
Hair, the 1967 hippie musical by Galt McDermot, James Rado and Gerome Ragni, will close the season May 16-June 8. Ray Jivoff will direct, and Subbaraman will be music director.
“Ray’s great passion for the show got me excited about it,” Subbaraman said. “Hair is of its era. It might be dated to some people, but it’s fun to go back to another era, and the show still works.”
Although it might seem naive today — even quaint — in its day Hair was a political hot potato. Its anti-war fervor and celebration of the drug and sex subculture — not to mention the infamous nude scene — make it a good vehicle for an examination of the nature of freedom. It fits the season theme.
“My hope is that the entire season will be a discussion of ideas, not just a musical theater season,” Subbaraman said. “I want everyone to come to see how the discussion progresses. This season is for opera fans, for musical theater fans and for freedom fans.”
Subbaraman has found some freedom at the Skylight already.
“We’re one of the few companies in the world that could do this,” he said. “Henze to Hair — that’s the beauty of a job like this.”
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