The Wisconsin winter is conducive to reflection, and so it feels right that we continue our series on Madison Opera history today. It perhaps is especially appropriate because it was in December 1962 that plans were busily coming together for Madison Opera’s first fully staged, full length performance of an opera.
Last we left off, the Johnsons had arrived in Madison, the Opera Workshop had been born, and the new ensemble debuted with “A Night in Vienna.” The reviews were encouraging, and a May 28, 1962 profile in The Milwaukee Journal was titled “Opera Sounds New Note in Madison: Roland Johnsons lead renaissance.” The piece opened by stating “The birth–and apparently successful debut–of the Madison Civic Opera Workshop surprised no one more than Mrs. Roland Johnson.” The writer goes on to note that though Arline Johnson had determined to retire temporarily from music after leaving Alabama, the enthusiasm of local singers to venture into operatic repertoire upon her arrival in 1961 made her continuing involvement inevitable. After “A Night in Vienna,” plans had already been laid for a full production of La boheme the next year:
“Next May we plan to do a full length ‘La Boheme,'” [Roland] Johnson said, “and we think we have enough local singers to do a good job. It is terribly familiar and we will do it in English, so it should be a good bridge for reaching the audience for musicals.”
Puccini came knocking sooner than expected. On November 8, 1962, Viola A. Ward wrote to her friends and peers in the community that Madison had determined to launch its own Civic Opera Group, which was to present a fully staged production of La Boheme. She stated that it was imperative to form a supporting guild to sponsor the event: “This is not a money making event as such. If the enthusiastic support of an opera guild can achieve sell-out performances, the project will support itself financially.” She invited guests over for desserts and coffee on November 15th, and it is safe to conclude that on that evening opera in Madison started to look like a sustainable venture, as a Guild was formed with the purposes of:
- Personal promotion for this project.
- To inspire a group of patrons and guarantors.
- To co-ordinate and handle ticket sales and publicity campaign.
- Public schools as liason (as the youth are our future public).
The local papers were abuzz. Sets were being built with the cooperation of the Madison Theater Guild. Over 75 local singers, as well as the Madison Symphony Orchestra, were set to perform. And despite the fact that no auditorium in Madison had a pit for the orchestra, a suitable situation was arranged at Madison East High School. The Capital Times wrote in December that “The atmosphere for the initial presentation will be colorful and intimate as though it were being done in France.” The Wisconsin State Journal published an editorial with the headline, “Don’t Miss City’s New Opera.” Tickets for $3, $2, $1.50, and $1 were sold in advance at Manchester’s, Ward-Brodt, Forbes Meagher, Victor, and Monona Grove Music House. A dress rehearsal was broadcast on local radio station WHA the Sunday prior to the premiere, featuring intermission interviews with Roland and Arline Johnson.
Performances of La Boheme took place on January 11 and 12, 1963, at 8:30 PM, with an additional “Matinee for Young People” at 2 PM on January 12. The production was cast as follows:
By all accounts, La Boheme was a huge success. In The Wisconsin State Journal society pages, Louise C. Marston wrote:
It came off with professional finesse before a loyal but critical audience which enjoyed every second of it – and showed it by enthusiastic clapping and a few sophisticated “Bravos” at the right moments. The audience, which filled the rather hard seats of East High School’s auditorium to overflowing, managed to look quite “dressy” despite jillions of boots and galoshes, sensibly donned in view of the night’s heavy snowfall.
Carmen Elsner’s review in The Wisconsin State Journal was equally enthusiastic:
Madison’s fledgling Civic Opera tried its wings Friday night, and its first flight was a delightful one into musical fancy…The music and action had its desired effect – one wanted to cry. But shouted “Bravo” instead. The whole performance, using all home talent and sung in English, was a valiant effort and a good one…But it was Roland Johnson, director of the orchestra, and Mrs. Johnson who masterminded the whole production, and have given this city a budding opera troupe.
And like that, the Opera Workshop of 1961 and 1962 became the Madison Civic Opera, a true company with the goodwill of the city of Madison behind it. Enjoy these photos of the first La Boheme in Madison: