"I'm a born gambler," declares Madison Opera general director Ann Stanke, concerned about lagging ticket sales for this weekend's production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. The stakes are high. Completing its second season since becoming an independent organization, the Opera cannot afford a major financial catastrophe with Hoffmann. Unlike the company's production of Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing earlier this season, which garnered weak to middling reviews, there's every reason to expect that Hoffmann will succeed brilliantly from the artistic viewpoint. I heard portions of two rehearsals and can attest that the lead singers are top-notch. They include tenor Randolph Locke in the role of Hoffmann, coloratura soprano Erin Windle as Olympia, and Madison native mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter Foss as Nicklausse and the Muse of Poetry.
In addition to its excellent lyrical potentials -- Hoffmann is loaded to the gills with really gorgeous music -- this production is brand new, the creation of its highly acclaimed stage director, Elizabeth Bachman, whose work is known to Madison area audiences in the form of her successful productions of Candide and Brigadoon. "The traditional setting is the 1830s," Bachman told me, "but I've moved this forward about 100 years, to the 1920s and 30s, mirroring the deterioration of Hoffmann's character in the deterioration of society." This setting should also relate strongly to the opera's central conflict, the tension between art and love.
It remains to be seen, however, whether local audiences will be won over, even by high quality in the production or in the work itself. As Stanke pointed out, handing me a list of the 20 operas most frequently produced in the U.S. in 1993- 94, Hoffman is not on that list. "We've taken the risk because we feel its important to expand beyond the limitations of these perennial favorites. We were in the black for our first season (last year), and this year we've seen a gratifying growth in coporate funding. Indeed, individual giving has exceeded the budgeted amount for the first time ever. Our administrative organizaiton is strong and getting stronger."
Where's the problem, then? "Where we are weakest," Stanke admits frankly," is in marketing. The Madison Opera is good. But we haven't brought that message home to the audience as effectively as we might, I think. We want to educate the public about the importance of going beyond the top-10 mentality and of commissioning new operas. We want to help them realize that the Madison Opera is superior -- far superior -- to the touring ensembles of the national and international opera companies." I don't find this claim at all exaggerated. The MO's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute last season was extraordinarily fine. I think the key element in assuring the future success of our opera company rests squarely on the hopes and aspirations of area audiences. To have any legitimate claim to supporting the arts, our community must take it upon themselves to support not only our art museums, theaters, and concert venues, not only our symphony orchestra, but also the Madison Opera. My admonition to all enthusiastic supporters is to buy two tickets and take a friend.
Performances of Tales of Hoffmann, with John DeMain conducting, will be in the Oscar Mayer Theatre on Friday evening (Mar. 29) at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday afternoon (Mar. 31) at 2:30 p.m.
Isthmus, March, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson