Guns N’ Rosenkavalier
MOT -- the "O" is for Opera, but it could be for Outrageous, as electric guitar meets Schubert at Milwaukee Opera Theatre.
We know Andrew Wilkowske as the Figaros in the Skylight Music Theatre’s brilliant Barber and Marriage cycle of 2009-10, just two among many of his roles at the Skylight. And just this month, he played The Vicar in the Florentine Opera’s Albert Herring.
It turns out that Wilkowske has a dark side. Or at least a loud side. Tuesday afternoon at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, I heard him waling on his electric guitar and belting Van Halen’s “Panama” while the piano part to Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig” rumbled beneath the fingers of Ruben Piirainen.
That number is part of the “Sledgehammer” set of Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s Guns N’ Rosenkavalier. Wilkowske and New York composer John Glover cooked up this show at the behest of Jill Anna Ponasik, MOT’s endlessly charming and outrageously daring artistic director.
“When you play these (classical) licks on electric guitar, it sounds like Metallica,” Ponasik said.
Wilkowske and Glover worked out arrangements that also combine REM with Faure, Brahms and Alicia Keys in a “Sad Bastard” set. A “GNR” set mashes up Strauss, Schumann, Sufjan Stevens and Guns N’ Roses. As if that, “Winterreise Train Wreck” and two “Girl Pop” sets weren’t enough, Ponasik is bringing in the Genghis Barbie horn quartet from New York to cover tunes by Queen, the Eurythmics, Schumann and Radiohead.
“But it’s going well,” Glover said. “Ruben hasn’t quit yet.”
“But it’s only Tuesday,” Wilkowske said, getting a laugh from the pianist.
Glover has to share some of the blame. The whole project arose from their meeting at Glimmerglass Opera, where they were both in residence in 2005. They got the idea of doing rock songs as art songs and art songs as rock songs.
Ponasik has long wanted to do something with Wilkowske for Milwaukee Opera Theatre. They sang together in the young artist program at the Minnesota Opera in the 1990s and reconnected when the Skylight cast them both in Kirk Mechem’s “The Rivals” in 2010.
Ponasik initially approached him and Glover about The Monkey Opera, with a libretto by Kelley Rourke, another Glimmerglass crony. Rourke also did the English translations for the songs in Guns N’ Rosenkavalier. Their Monkey Opera — a one-man (i.e., one-Wilkowske) show — is based on a story they heard on RadioLab about a guy who had a monkey.
But when Ponasik heard about this other idea, the art-song/rock-song mix, she went with that. Wilkowske, who lives in St. Paul, stayed on in Milwaukee to pursue it after his Florentine run, which ended March 17.
“We were all really nervous last week,” Wilkowske said. “Until then, we had a good idea, but that’s all we had.”
The process has been more garage band than classical rehearsal. Wilkowske played what he could of the piano scores, he and Piirainen filled in and Glover did some arranging, both written and on the fly. This is not new to Wilkowski.
“I got my first guitar at 13,” Wilkowske said. “I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. Then it turned out that Eddie Van Halen already existed.”
Still, he did what aspiring young rock stars do, played along with records and formed a garage band in his home town, Willmar, Minn.
Glover, a Detroit native now based in New York, played piano and saxophone as a kid. He knew early on that he wanted to be composer, but believed that was a closed profession.
“I thought composers were all dead,” Glover said. “Then my band director gave me a CD of Philip Glass string quartets. My teen rebellion music became Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians.”
Wilkowske and Glover cemented their friendship in 2006, when Glover happened to be in graduate school at USC and Wilkowske had a residency at the Los Angeles Opera. One of their favorite activities is to take turns playing recordings and comparing music, a practice that led directly to Guns N’ Rosenkavalier. Wilkowske has a way of pointing out the similarities of apparently unlike things.
“I had this idea that art songs are important and precious,” Glover said. “Then Andy would say, ‘You know, [Schubert’s] ‘Der Atlas‘ is just a bunch of power chords.’ And he’d get out the guitar to demonstrate.”
Kelley Rourke made new translations with an eye toward unifying the English in the art songs with the English in the modern songs. That makes a difference, especially, on Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht.”
The protagonist of the text declares no hard feelings for the girl who’s discarded him. After all, now he can see the snake in her heart.
“When you sing Kelley’s translation and play acoustic guitar, it sounds like a country song,” Wilkowske said. “A Schumann country song.”
“The thing is, we’re not actually doing anything different,” Glover said. “That’s what the songs are.”
Info and Tickets: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, March 22-24, Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave. Tickets: Premium Reserved $25, General Admission $20, Student/Senior $15. Order online at Brown Paper Tickets or call 1-800-838-3006.