Unusual & Hypnotic, PRELUDES Admission to the Milwaukee Opera Theater
The Milwaukee Opera Theater is back to live shows, finally filling a post-pandemic void. How I missed the powerful spirit of this small company, their dedication to the unexpected and the unusual, and their knack for delivering such singular experiences to audiences.
Under the direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, the Milwaukee Opera Theater (MOT) returns to center stage with Preludes, a musical fantasy set in the hypnotized mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff. The music, lyrics and book are from David Malloywho also wrote and composed the Tony-winning Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812a musical based on part of War & Peace.
Before the figurative curtain rises, Ponasik took a moment to note that this is admittedly an odd time to start a Russian-centric tale. Corn Preludes was supposed to debut in the spring of 2020 – alas, here we are. The hope is that in the end, when the war is over, art will reunite us.
But back to Rachmaninoff. A bit of history: He wrote Prelude in C# minor when he was only nineteen, propelling him to stardom. But his First Symphony fell into total disaster. Much to blame was the conductor, who under-rehearsed the orchestra, made absurd cuts, and was likely drunk while conducting. One music critic was particularly cruel, comparing the symphony to something like “a conservatory in hell”.
Following the failure, Rachmaninoff sank into a three-year psychological breakdown and deep depression. He wrote almost no new music. Eventually, he was referred to hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl who, through hypnosis, helped Rachmaninoff regain his sense of self and confidence. The result was The End of Suffering – and Piano Concerto No. 2.
As I have said, Preludes takes place in the depths of this hypnosis. Knowing this, the show is naturally chaotic, going through various moments, encounters, and conversations – some real, some imagined, some I’m not so sure about. As a theatergoer, it might be useful to have some prior understanding and appreciation of the great Russian composers, authors, etc. But it’s not an obligation, just a benefit.
Either way, as with almost all MOT performance, you have to be prepared to give in to it. They never fail to deliver a wonderfully immersive experience, and that’s what I love most about them. Let’s face it: opera is a difficult threshold for many, but MOT offers multiple entry points beyond opera.
For example, take their thoughtful locations. Preludes is played at the Wisconsin Women’s Club. It is a majestic and historic space in the heart of East Town Milwaukee. With antique furniture, ornate decorations and a sense of a bygone era preserved, the Women’s Club is the perfect place to create a scene from the 1900s. Even if you’re lukewarm to opera, discovering this venue is exciting and carrying.
Preludes is also a more recent work, having debuted off-Broadway in 2015, and is sung largely in English. If you like musicals Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, you would be a perfect audience for Preludes. So the lack of a language barrier, plus the semi-newness of the material — those are two other entry points for the opera-attempt.
Then there is the musical talent that MOT brings together. In Preludes, we have Ruben Piirainen as Rachmaninoff on piano. As a masterful pianist, Piirainen is calm, cool and confident – the part of Rachmaninoff’s psyche that can still play music smoothly, even if he can’t write it. The deeply troubled Rach is played by Joe Picchetti, who must run the gamut of emotions, from childlike wonder to throwing himself to the ground in a fit of despair. It’s a lot, but Picchetti pulls it off.
Rach’s lover and dearest confidante is Natalya, played in an angelic voice by Natalie Ford. What’s particularly captivating is when Ford gets to show off her range and, for a brief interlude, her ability to sing in Russian. Also alongside Rach is his friend Chaliapin, delightfully played by Gage Patterson. His voice is strong, as is his jovial humor. Rach’s latest friends, acquaintances, and heroes are all played by Joel Kopischke. It’s fun to watch it transform with ease from Chekhov to the drunken conductor of Symphony No. 1, to the Tsar himself and more.
The final piece of the puzzle is the wonderful Jenny Wanasek from hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl. She is always present everywhere Preludes, prodding a tortured Rach with questions and conversations, trying to get to the heart of his depression. It’s only at the end that Wanasek graces us with a beautiful song and a longer monologue detailing what Rach “owes” him for curing his depression. These last moments are among the most enchanting.
Congratulations also to the rest of the orchestra: Marty Butorac and Dave Bonofiglio on synthesizers. Their instruments bring an otherworldly layer to the music.
In the end, amidst the manic chaos of a broken spirit, Preludes turns out to be an original and beautifully written piece, lovingly delivered by the MOT team. We left with a lot to ponder: the relationship between audience and artist, the repercussions of a critic’s words, and the impact art can have on everyone. And questions like: why do we think art has to be widely shared and adored to be considered a success? Isn’t it enough to create for creation and not for fame or even acceptance?
Tackle the questions, indulge in the experience, and appreciate the artistry of Preludes. See you this Thursday and Friday April 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. or Saturday April 9 at 2 p.m. Information on milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.