Madison and the Overture Center: A blog duel

A couple weeks ago, Wyndham Manning and I got into a lengthy discussion in the least appropriate space short of adjacent stalls--Twitter. 140 characters at a time, in blasts that rarely maintained chronological order when viewed from above, we debated the merits of Madison's Overture Center for the Arts, and whether Madison was a city that could support such a large arts venue.

This conversation was spurred on by comments from newly-elected old mayor Paul Soglin. His outlook on Overture is grim, and his plans apparently so distasteful to the Common Council that he has little hope of salvaging the current operational model in any form.

"The best I can do is put the community in a position that when this plan fails we might be able to right the ship," he says. "I do not know if we can. It may be too late by then."

"I am deeply concerned about it," he continues. "A majority of the council will not support the path I recommend, so the best I can do is just wait for this to crash and burn. It is going to be pretty horrible."

I'm not a fan of this outlook; it sounds petty. Images of scuttling ships, arson for the insurance money, and cutting off one's nose to spite one's face all came rushing into my mind upon reading it.

So there are two questions. Can Madison support an arts venue with so many stages and seats and such a large infrastructure? And secondly, should it ever have been built in the first place?

One of Wyndham's postions throughout our dialogue was that the 1,000-seat Capitol Theater, formerly the Oscar J. Meyer Theater, was "enough." All the big shows that have come through Overture--Broadway shows, major recording artists, other stage performers--could just as well have been carried off in the Capitol. The Overture renovation wasn't needed.

I took a semi-random sampling of the venues coming up on the tour for Wicked, a production that recently ran in Overture's 2,200-seat main hall. The Creighton Orpheum Theater in Omaha, Nebraska (population: 409k) seats 2,600. The Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, British Columbia (population: 578k) seats 2,900. The Peoria (Illinois, population 115k) Civic Center seats a massive 12,000 for stage events.

The Wharton Center in East Lansing staged a production of The Lion King in which the 2300-seat capacity was barely enough, according to management. I don't think a thousand-seat venue is going to be able to draw the kind of production Overture Hall can attract.

And according to Rob Chappell from Overture (in a press release dated 5/24/11), those big shows are drawing a lot of bodies to the venue.

Sales, attendance and fundraising results for the 2010/11 season at Overture Center for the Arts exceeded expectations and bode well for the future, Overture officials announced today.

The total number of Broadway subscriptions -- ticket packages that included Wicked, Young Frankenstein, Legally Blonde and Les Miserables -- came in at more than 5,300 -- more than double the total for 2009/10. And total Broadway attendance exceeded 87% of capacity.

While Chappell acknowledges that these shows don't generate a lot of retained revenue--much, I imagine, like convenience stores don't make money on fuel sales--they do generate visibility and consumer loyalty.

In his email to Wyndham and I, Rob addresses one of Wyndham's other complaints: that Overture is a black hole of sorts, drawing attention away from the small venues and local artists that are either bleeding overhead or leaving town completely. "[W]e booked about 100 touring artist performances altogether and local artists put on about 150 here in our building," Chappell says.

Overture Center has a lot of seats and stages, yes. Could it have been developed just as well with one fewer? Maybe. But it's there now, and doing a controlled burn on the investment--like Soglin seems to be resigned to doing--isn't going to fill the seats at Bartell, or Broom Street, or the Project Lodge. It's a matter of efficient utilization; smaller cities than Madison have supported similar venues without letting things "crash and burn".

My example of choice is Appleton, Wisconsin. Appleton's population is just over 78,000. The Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, with two stages totaling 2,500 seats (2,100 alone in the Thrivent Financial Hall), still manages to put on the same Broadway shows as Overture.

Using the metropolitan area populations for Appleton and Madison (source: Wikipedia), there are 144 available citizens per seat at the Performing Arts Center. For Overture Center's 3,701 total seats (according to its online seating chart site), there are 151 citizens per seat. The PAC generated its first annual gain in 2010, after opening in 2002. The Overture Center opened in 2004, and its financial state is the subject of this entire conversation.

Poorly managed? Sure. Inefficiently utilized? At times, probably. I'm not an expert on the performing arts, so much of my position is speculative. But if, in eight years, little Appleton can generate an annual performing arts gain from a strikingly similar profile of shows and events, then I think Madison's Overture Center can do the same, even considering the hit the arts have to endure in a down economy.

I say "can", because it cannot--it will not--if the leader of Madison's city government would rather let the entire operation fail than engage someone else's baby (philanthropist Jerome Frautschi got the ball rolling during Sue Baumann's administration, and it was built during Dave Cieslewicz's) and make it work. While it is perhaps not currently supporting Overture, I firmly believe that Madison can.

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I just turned 33; it was no big deal. But mileposts are mileposts, and this one is as good as any to use as instigation to refresh my commitment to this blog. So I'm going to do my best, marshal my thoughts, and try to produce something worthwhile here again.
If you happen to follow me on Twitter--and also follow Wyndham Manning--you were treated to a far-too-long-for-the-medium conversation on Madison's bedeviled Overture Center for the Arts, the general arts scene in Madison, and how city government plays a role in fostering the growth of that scene. We ended the conversation with a friendly gauntlet-slap to produce a blog post on the subject in the near future. You'll find mine here; I have yet to determine where Wyndham does his blogging, but I'll be sure to give you a link once I do.
I'm sorry to say my time as a Top Chef recapper has probably come to a close. Not to say that I won't post thoughts on the empire as they come to me, but full recaps are a thing of the past, I suspect. It's just not an expenditure of time I can still support. But I'll see you all again soon, with something scintillating and fresh.
Or, just something. One or the other.

What's opera, doc?

Get ready for something unprecedented at Irony or Mayo: Friday night live-blogging! That's right. I'm going to take a little time out of my busy schedule propping up the cultural and gastronomical significance of the McRib to cover something a little less intellectual.

I'm going to the opera.

I know, I know--you're thinking, Why is he wasting his time on something so trivial and insubstantial, when he could be telling us how much he loves pretzel M&Ms or something? Well, the short answer is: the Overture Center asked nicely, and offered wedding cake.

In all seriousness, I was invited to attend the Madison Opera's performance of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro for Blogger Night, and I couldn't resist. I like Mozart. I saw Amadeus. And while I've never attended an actual opera, I've seen the "Ride of the Valkyries" Bugs Bunny cartoon about a billion times. I even own a CD of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, which is pretty operatic.

Still, this will be a new experience. Taking in opera, a foreign mode of stage entertainment for me, and responding critically on the fly. I'm looking forward to it, but be prepared for a Homer Simpson-esque analysis: "That thing is really, really.. really.... good."

The live-blogging shall commence below, shortly before curtains-up. I'll be back to continue during each of the show's two intermissions, and then again after the close of the performance. If you're at Overture for the event, stop by the blogger station and say hi.

In the meantime, enjoy some of the aforementioned Bugs Bunny operatic shenanigans.

The namesake of this post, "What's Opera, Doc?".

"Long-Haired Hare"

"Rabbit of Seville"


7:10 PM

Having just completed the tour of the backstage area, I have to say it's a little surreal being in the guts of a theater again. The last time was a year ago July--for my wedding.

So, hey, Marriage of Figaro, at least on a titular level, is mighty appropriate.

We saw Figaro and his gang getting all made up (hello, kabuki faces!), and were warned that there could be boobage! Sadly, that was a false start. Madison Opera Communications Guru Brian Hinrichs gave us the rundown on the structure of this opera, at least--arias for emotional outbursts interspersed with sung dialogue (recitativo in the Italian) to move the plot along. So, kind of like porn!

I hope no one's lurking in the shrubbery, for this corset must come off!

We'll be clattering away here, like nerdy zoo exhibits, until the show starts. I'm trying to convince a dubious Laurie of Your Ill-fitting Overcoat that Leroy Anderson's "The Typewriter" is appropriate blogging music.

There's something strangely old-school about sitting at a desk with three other people, everyone typing, making faces ranging from studious (everyone else) to dorkily emotive (me). It's the Electronic Theatre Bureau! I gotta make t-shirts.


7:40 PM

Ah. Alcohol.

Unfortunately, no sippy cup. This is a dry performance.

Can I mention how absurd I feel, checking Wikipedia on the synopsis of Figaro. I'm terribly delinquent in my haute culture. I will say that I'm really looking foward to the harpsichord. Tiny little thing, it looks like a bar game version of a full piano.

We're getting a cool dissertation on ornamentation and ad libbing from A. Scott Parry (PARRY, Lindsay. Parry.), the stage director of the show. He's a cool guy, and much younger than I'd expect for the director of an opera. Pretty sweet gig.

Bell's about to ring, better go get cultured!


9:45 PM


"Thus the suspicious are condemned." A great line, and one that sums up the closing action of the first half of the opera.

Act One covers the interpersonal relationships well--Figaro and Susanna, servants set to wed; Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina, schemers set to ruin the nuptials; and a Count and Countess set at odds by varying degrees of infidelity.

But Act Two really cranks up the Benny Hill music. There's ducking, lying, hiding, jumping out of windows--you could almost see Scooby and the gang running from the villain of the week.

In my minimal ability to critique opera, I'll say that Susanna (Anya Matanovic) and the Countess Rosina (Melody Moore) are stealing the show for me. Their voices carry better than all the male performers, and their stage presence is both endearing and evocative. (There are many a moment of shoulder-to-shoulder girl power in Act Two, and these two ladies carry it off like Thelma and Louise.)

I will give a special shout-out to Emily Lorini, doing the yeo(wo)man's work of playing a pubescent young page boy, Cherubino. It takes a moment for unsophisticated me to figure out that it's a woman playing a man, in the old Globe Theatre tradition, but her lanky, awkward strides across the stage set her gender firmly in the adolescent male category. Lorini and Moore play well off of each other as well, with the former's affections for the latter forging an irrefusable tie between the two.

I'd say more, but what the hell do I know? Plus, they're gonging for us and everyone's fingers are FREAK. ING. OUT.


11:20 PM


The latter half provided the majority of the recognizable tunes, culminating with "Sul l'aria," the duet between "those two Italian ladies," Susanna and the Countess, that Andy plays over the loudspeaker in The Shawshank Redemption. I'm guessing that, from what I can tell, most comic operas end about as tritely as Figaro does, so I'm okay with the "everybody run and play!" exeunt.

I'll close with this thought. The Madison Opera is not an expensive night out. As my wife pointed out to me, tickets started at less than $20, and maxed out for this show at around $115 for the best of the best seats. I'm wearing jeans, for crying out loud; you don't need a monocle or tails for this.

So that's it, more or less. There's cake and champagne that isn't going to consume itself, and we're on the invite list.

Oh, and never, at any time, does anyone in this opera stand up and belt out, "FIIIGARO. Figarofigarofigaro!!" That's The Barber of Seville and a whole 'nother Blogger Night at the Opera.


12:20 AM

Back home. Making a frozen pizza. I can't take this much culture. (We had to spring our dogs, anyway, so skipped the afterparty.)

Can I say, though, that my caption for the above photo--meant as a riff on the porn joke--actually proved to be pretty accurate given what's happening in that scene? I'm, like, an opera savant or something. (The picture is credited to the Madison Opera, by the way.)

And lastly, sincere thanks to Brian Hinrichs, Manager of Communications and Community Outreach, for the invite and the hospitality. He's doing a great job bringing a younger demographic into what can be a tough sell sometimes. We got a lot of response from folks in the lobby, and Brian himself got specific praise from outgoing Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton before the show. He deserves it; thanks, Brian!



One of the best gags of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, by the way. The fact that he can't hear any version of "shave and a hair-cut," whether spoken or percussed or hummed, without belting out the finale of the jingle. Predates Cartman's fixation on "Come Sail Away" by years and years.

ANYWAY, that's not why I'm writing today. I'm writing to tell you that, should any minor earthquake, small-engine plane crash, water main explosion, or ill-timed sneeze occur tomorrow, this might be my final blog post.

I'm getting a free straight-razor shave at Overture in conjunction with their coming production of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Rob Thomas from 77 Square got one last weekend, and for the first time in roughly 100 shaves, the barber made an errant slice.


The barber is Stephen Baraboo, who recently opened Thorps barber shop on Atwood. I took note of this place last week during a run to Alchemy for a birthday party, and it looks cool. (Were I not hooked in to Blues on Willy, I'd consider it)

I'm not the most hirsute fella you've ever seen, so I'm hoping a shave of this nature isn't made more challenging by mediocre scruff. I'm going to be on 50+ hours of no-shaving, and I probably won't look much hairier than Shaggy's chin. My friend, who'll be dulling the razor before me, is a friggin' bear. We'll look like Lurch and Cousin It walking in.

Mostly, I kid. I'm not really concerned, nor do I think the barber's got a habit of dropping the razor. I feel pretty bad for him that it happened on-camera (watch the video though, it's fascinating to see such a small slip result in a cut like that). It's funny, because I don't have any interest at all in Sweeney Todd. But damned if I don't want to get a Bluephie's meat pie afterwards.