Claire Nowak

Creating An International Opera

Theater pros will be traveling to Milwaukee to see the world premiere of The Snow Dragon.

By - Mar 11th, 2015 03:59 pm
The Snow Dragon.

The Snow Dragon.

The Skylight Music Theatre will present the world premiere of Somtow Sucharitkul’s newest opera, The Snow Dragon, this weekend. But for company members, this is more than just an opera. It’s an opportunity to start a conversation.

The libretto is based on Sucharitkul’s 1982 short story, “The Fallen Country,” which he later adapted into a young adult novel. Children’s counselor Dora Marx (played by Colleen Brooks) is trying to help a physically abused foster child, Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood), despite a loss of motivation in her practice. Billy, meanwhile, uses his rage to open the doorway to a perpetually cold, apathetic world called the Fallen Country, where he befriends The Snow Dragon (Cassandra Black). To overcome his real struggles, Billy must defeat the Fallen Country’s dictator the Ringmaster (Dan Kempson), but only after he can convince Dora to believe him.

Skylight Music Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman recognizes that society in general is reticent to talk about domestic violence, though it affects approximately one fourth of the country in some way. The Skylight partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin to educate the cast about the psychology of abuse in relation to their characters. Hospital staff will also be part of Skylight’s pre-show talks—one hour before all Wednesday and Sunday performances—to discuss domestic violence. Subbaraman hopes audiences use The Snow Dragon as a catalyst for starting meaningful conversations about the issue.

“I think it’s always easier to have that conversation when we talk about it through art,” Subbaraman says. That’s often how fairy tales works, he notes. “If we can have the discussion through the lens of a boy and his dragon fighting a ringmaster, that’s a lot easier, and it opens the door much better than having to hit the topic head on.”

The popular cinematic retellings of fairy tales often makes them more light-hearted than originally intended. Cinderella was about a mentally abused girl and her step-sisters mutilated their feet to make them fit in the glass slipper.

“To a certain extent, we’ve sanitized fairytales and gotten away from the darker side of them,” Subbaraman says. Fairy tales dealt “with child labor and all kinds of issues and over time, we’ve made it about being saved by a prince,” he notes.

While he was running Opera Vista in Houston, Subbaraman worked with Sucharitkul on his opera, The Silent Prince. He later asked the composer to write an opera for the Skylight. The original idea was a sequel to The Silent Prince, but Sucharitkul’s concepts for that would have been too big to fit in the Cabot Theatre. He sent Subbaraman two of his short stories, one being “The Fallen Country,” as the potential basis for a show. The musical director loved it, and The Snow Dragon was born.

As music director, Subbaraman needs to become intimately familiar with Schuaritkul’s composing style. But their previous collaboration makes that much easier. Subbaraman compares it to reading a great novel by an author like Tolstoy. The first time you read it, you need to become familiar with his way of putting words together. The second time you can absorb more because you’re already familiar with the style.

Sucharitkul stayed on site as Composer-In-Residence to help the Skylight cast and crew bring the characters of his imagination to life on stage. Giving advice during a premiere is not an uncommon occurrence with composers or playwrights, but this can be particularly insightful since Sucharitkul wrote the short story, novel and libretto and composed the music. “The entirety of this comes from his own creation. To have him give us insight on all the characters from a truly knowledgeable place is really fascinating,” Subbaraman says.

Milwaukee is the first city to see the new work from the renowned international composer. It will be produced later in Thailand, and artistic directors from across the country are expected to be in attendance. That puts added responsibility on the shoulders of the cast and crew, but they are using it as an opportunity to make a statement about the piece itself, about domestic violence and Milwaukee’s theater scene.

“We’re all trying to create an artwork that is greater than the sum of the music or the plot,” Subbaraman says. “All the decisions we make will also reflect the show from here on out. It’s been a big challenge, and one that we’re honored to take on.”

Opens 7:30 p.m. March 13 and runs through March 29 at Cabot Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets range from $32-77, available online or by calling 414-291-7800.

Five Presidents

The premise of Five Presidents sounds a bit like a sitcom: Presidents Carter, Ford, Reagan, H. W. Bush and Clinton are all locked in a room and eventually start to squabble. But while the newest show from the Milwaukee Rep is humorous, it also shows the humanity of the most powerful men in the world.

Playwright Rick Cleveland brings audiences to 1994 at President Nixon’s funeral, where the five presidents are gathered to pay their respects. They are put in a holding area before the service and end up spending more time together than they anticipated. They gradually air their grievances and disappointments, occasionally squabble and discuss their legacies and hopes. Their guards are let down, and these influential men reveal their flaws.

Political content is Cleveland’s forte. His previous television writing credits include “The West Wing” and “House of Cards.” He even wrote a stand-up routine called “My Buddy Bill” about his unlikely friendship with President Clinton. While he was working on “The West Wing,” he saw a picture of Carter, Ford, Reagan, H.W. Bush and Clinton standing together and wondered what would happen if they were forced to stay like that. The result was Five Presidents.

Reese Madigan plays Mike Kirby, Nixon’s service man who brings the presidents together in the first place. He says that Cleveland’s knowledge of presidential affairs and previous writing was evident during production.

“To begin with, Rick had a fascination with presidential trivia. During rehearsal, sometimes he’d come in with a presidential fact for that date in history,” Madigan says. “He really knows what he’s writing about.”

But for Madigan, the real genius behind this work “is watching these men who we associate with such power and dignity and composure, there are moments when each one lets that slip a little bit in the play, when each of them reveals themselves to be really painfully human and fallible and just regular guys like all of us.”

Opens 8 p.m. March 13 and runs through April 5 at the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Tickets range from $20-85, available online or by calling 414-224-9490.

Five Presidents Gallery

Our Country’s Good

For Next Act Theatre’s latest production, the industry professionals will be taking to the wings. A collaboration with Ronald Reagan IB High School, Our Country’s Good, is an all-student production, meaning students from the school will be responsible for all acting, scenery, costumes, props, lighting and sound, save for professional direction and supervision.

The play takes audiences back to 1788 in Australia’s first penal colony, where a British soldier convinces prisoners to put on a play of their own. The result, as outcasts and their keepers struggle to work together, has been described as a “painful and funny” drama.

7:30 p.m. March 13, 7:30 p.m. March 14 and 2 p.m. March 15 at Next Act Theatre. Tickets cost $12, available online or by calling 414-278-0765.

Love, Loss and What I Wore

Fashion is a universal language, especially when it comes to theater. Based on the best-seller by Ilene Beckerman, “Love, Loss and What I Wore” is a play written by Nora and Delia Ephron. Playing this week only, it uses clothing, accessories and the memories associated with them to tell stories for women by women. Director Karen Carpenter directed the show when it opened Off Broadway.

7:30 p.m. March 13, 2 & 7:30 p.m. March 14 and 2 p.m. March 15 at Wilson Theater at Vogel Hall, Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets cost $43, available online or by calling 414-273-7206.

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