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Madison Opera Commission on Track

"This thing is growing so fast we can hardly believe it," reports Ann Stanke, executive director for Shining Brow, a new opera based on the early 20th-century biography of one of America's most outstanding architects, Frank Lloyd Wright. The opera will receive its world premiere next April in Madison. "We're working on all kinds of new things. The very latest is that our workshop in New York the third week of October will end with a preview night at Leonard Bernstein's apartment in the Dakota. In addition, we're hoping to set up a seminar here for music critics. Our national press representative, Sheila Porter (the sister of New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter), will be in and out of town repeatedly, working from her base in New York."

Stanke is clearly more than a little enthusiastic about the burgeoning project. "The orchestration has now been completed and we are working from the fourth version of the piano-vocal score," Stanke notes. "The parts are being copied, and although the cast has been selected, I can't reveal the names until our press conference on September 15th. Ticket sales are already mind-boggling, with orders coming in from all over the country."

The opera, commissioned by the Madison Opera from composer Daron Aric Hagen with the blessing of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, will have its world premiere under the baton of Roland Johnson at the Oscar Mayer Theatre April 21, followed by two additional performances April 23 and 25.

The title "Shining Brow" is the English meaning of the Welsh word "Taliesin," the name Wright gave to his remarkable homes at Spring Green, Wisconsin and Scottsdale, Arizona. The action of Paul Muldoon's libretto is based on architect's life during the stormy years 1903-1914, which witnessed the early influences of architect Louis Sullivan, a fateful relationship with clients Edwin and Mamah Cheney, the building of the first Taliesin in Spring Green, the passionate alliance of Wright and Mamah Cheney, and the tragic burning of the house by the moralistic chef Julian Carleton, killing Mamah and her two children.

Milwaukee native Hagen was selected in 1989 to carry out the Opera Guild's commission following an interview in which he expressed great interest in subject matter and the challenge of writing a full-length opera. The 30-year-old composer's music has been recognized increasingly over the past few years by commissions and performances by such leading groups as the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony, and Milwaukee Symphony, among others. Press accounts of Hagen's scores use such expressions as "dangerously beautiful," "distinctive American voice," and "vocally graceful."

Hagen selected the Irish poet Muldoon, who now teaches at Princeton, as his librettist for Shining Brow. According to the Observer, Muldoon is "generally regarded as the leading Irish poet of his generation." He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1990, and has published several collections of poetry from 1973 to date.

Shining Brow will be directed by Stephen Wadsworth, whose credits include a stint as librettist collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on the opera A Quiet Place. He is also a teacher, translator, and writer.

The $50,000 fee for composer and librettist was provided by two Opera Guild donors. Total production costs are expected to reach approximately $500,000. A complex assortment of grants, special funding events, and routine sources of revenue will be used to offset these costs. "As of now," Stanke revealed, "we have $271,000 of the money we need, and the funding effort is right on track." The project is the second operatic world premiere in the Madison area since 1985, when Chester Biscardi's Tight Rope was commissioned for the rededication of Old Music Hall on the UW campus as the Carol Rennebohm Opera House.

Isthmus, August, 1992
Copyright 1992 Jess Anderson

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