Last week, Skylight Opera Theater announced the elimination of its artistic director and company manager positions, and consequently, the termination of the two people filling those positions, Bill Theisen and Diana Alioto. I have worked with both Bill and Diana – Bill in the 80s, when we were both in the Skylight’s Gilbert & Sullivan choruses, and Diana when I sang Pilar in Rosina in 2001 and Dottie in Viva La Mamma in 2003. And later in the week, they also fired the music director, Jamie Johns, who is probably the best musician in the city – no, the region.
Although I haven’t done anything with Skylight since 2003, its place in my heart and in my history has never diminished. It’s the Skylight that set me on the right track as a performer.
After college, I studied with Judith Erickson for a couple of years. During that time, she suggested that I audition for the Skylight. I hadn’t heard of the company – my very sheltered Sout‘ side upbringing and Alverno education had limited me quite a bit (when your parents don’t let you go east of 27th Street, you don’t do much). I was really only familiar with the Florentine Opera, with whom I was singing chorus. So Judy gave me comps to see A little night music, which was being performed in Wehr Hall. I loved it and wanted to audition – so Judy set something up. (Judy was not the teacher who gave me the wrong rep, as referred to in an earlier post.)
I auditioned for Colin Cabot and Donald St. Pierre – I had no idea that this was a big deal audition, so I wasn’t particularly nervous. I sang “Una voce poco fa” and “Memory” (back in the days when “Memory” was a viable audition piece) and at the end of the audition, Colin said, “Christine, did Judy misrepresent you?” and I said, “I… I don’t know… what do you mean?” And he said, “Well, she said you just wanted to be in the chorus.” Again, I stammered out a response. I had no thoughts of doing anything other than chorus – I had no idea of what else I could do.
I sang 6 shows with Skylight over the next few years – Pinafore, Patience, Pirates & Mikado (the latter of which broke the alliteration cycle) as well as The Student Prince and Desert Song. It was Skylight that offered me my first role – Pitti-Sing in The Mikado. Going on tour with Skylight for Pirates and Mikado exposed me to other singers who had career aspirations and showed me that my current direction was limited and that I needed to learn more, do more, find more.
It was also Skylight’s co-artistic director, Stephen Wadsworth, who asked me the question, “Why are you singing this aria?” and more importantly, told me why I shouldn’t be singing it, which resulted in my re-educating myself about fach and context. It also made me leave my then-teacher and seek out someone who could give me what I needed.
I left Milwaukee the June after the 1986-87 season but whenever I came home, I tried to catch a show at the Skylight. When I came back in 1996, I auditioned for Skylight and was cast the ensemble in Sweeney Todd, which was a magical experience. My role in Rosina resulted in my first and only review in Opera News, which was thankfully positive (and that issue arrived on my birthday, to boot!) and my 2003 performance in Viva la Mamma resulted in my meeting Matt Flynn, who performed my wedding to Bill.
The Skylight’s cabaret series also opened my eyes to a venue in which I have found myself at home – through the inspiration of performers such as Becky Spice, Joel Kopischke, Carolynne Warren, Linda Stephens, Jack Forbes Wilson, and always, always, the incomparable Jamie Johns.
The Skylight has given me a great deal, personally and professionally. The short-sighted and knee-jerk reaction of TPTB at the Skylight, ostensibly to save money, has resulted in an outcry of artists and patrons alike. No one wants to see the Skylight fail – but no one wants to see the Skylight become a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all kind of company with no passion, that takes no risks, that brooks no challenges to its authority.
I hope to work at the Skylight again someday – I hope there will be a Skylight at which to work. I think things need to change in order to grow, but that change needs to be organic and well-thought-out, not the result of what some have called a coup.