Opera Theatre

Quirky & Hypnotic, PRELUDES Entrances at Milwaukee Opera Theatre

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BWW Review: Quirky & Hypnotic, PRELUDES Entrances at Milwaukee Opera Theatre

The Milwaukee Opera Theatre is back to live performances, at long last filling a post-pandemic void. How I’ve missed this small company’s mighty spirit, their dedication to the unexpected and unusual, and their gift for giving audiences such singular experiences.

Under the stage direction of Jill Anna Ponasik, Milwaukee Opera Theatre (MOT) bursts back onto the scene with Preludes, a musical fantasia set in the hypnotized mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff. Music, lyrics, and book are by Dave Malloy, who also wrote and composed the Tony-winning Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a musical based on a portion of War & Peace.

Before the figurative curtain rose, Ponasik took a moment to note that it’s admittedly a strange time to debut a Russia-centric tale. But Preludes was supposed to debut in the spring of 2020 — alas, here we are. The hope is that, in the end, when war is over, art will knit us back together.

But back to Rachmaninoff. A little history: He wrote Prelude in C# Minor when he was just nineteen, launching him to stardom. But his First Symphony fell to total disaster. Largely to blame was the conductor, who under-rehearsed the orchestra, made absurd cuts, and was likely drunk while conducting. One musical critic was particularly cruel, likening the symphony to something out of a “conservatory in hell.”

Following the failure, Rachmaninoff spiraled 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 an end to the suffering — and Piano Concerto No. 2.

Like I said, Preludes takes place in the depths of this hypnosis. Knowing this, the show is understandably chaotic, shifting through various moments, encounters, and conversations — some real, some imagined, some I’m not so sure. As a theatergoer, it would perhaps be helpful to have some understanding and prior appreciation for great Russian composers, authors, and the like. But it’s not a requirement, just a perk.

Regardless, as with nearly all performances by MOT, you have to be prepared to give yourself up to it. They never fail to deliver a marvelously immersive experience, and that’s what I love most about them. Let’s face it: opera is a tricky threshold for many to cross, but MOT offers multiple points of entry, beyond opera.

For instance, take their thoughtful locations. Preludes is performed at the Wisconsin Women’s Club. It’s a stately, historic space in the heart of Milwaukee’s East Town. With its antique furnishings, flowery trappings, and sense of a bygone era preserved, the Women’s Club is the perfect spot to set a 1900s scene. Even if you’re lukewarm on opera, experiencing this venue is exciting and transportive.

Preludes is also a newer work, having debuted off-Broadway in 2015, and is sung largely in English. If you enjoy the musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, you’d be a perfect audience for Preludes. So the lack of language barrier, plus the semi-newness of the material — that’s two more entry points for the opera-tentative.

Then there’s the musical talent MOT gathers. In Preludes, we have Ruben Piirainen as Rachmaninoff at the piano. As a masterful pianist, Piirainen is calm, cool, and confident — the part of Rachmaninoff’s psyche that can still flawlessly play music, even if he cannot write it. The deeply troubled Rach is played by Joe Picchetti, who must run the gamut of emotions from childlike wonder to throwing himself on the floor in a fit of despair. It’s a lot, but Picchetti pulls it off.

Rach’s lover and dearest confidante is Natalya, played with an angelic voice by Natalie Ford. Particularly captivating is when Ford gets to show off her range and, for a brief interlude, her ability to sing in Russian. Also on Rach’s side is his friend Chaliapin, delightfully played by Gage Patterson. His voice is strong, as is his jovial humor. The last of Rach’s friends, acquaintances, and heroes are all played by Joel Kopischke. It’s fun to watch him breezily morph from Chekhov to the drunken conductor of Symphony No. 1 to the Czar himself and more.

The final piece of the puzzle is the wonderful Jenny Wanasek at hypnotherapist Nikolai Dahl. She’s ever-present throughout Preludes, nudging the tortured Rach with questions and conversations, trying to get to the heart of his breakdown. It isn’t until the end that Wanasek gets to grace us with a lovely song and a longer monologue detailing what Rach “owes” her for curing his depression. These final moments are some of the most enchanting.

Shoutout to the rest of the orchestra, too: 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 mind, Preludes proves to be a quirky, beautifully-written piece, lovingly delivered by the team at MOT. We left with much to muse on: the relationship between audience and artist, the repercussions of a critic’s words, and the impact art can have on the everyman. And questions like: Why do we feel art must be widely shared and adored to be considered a success? Is it not enough to create for the sake of creation and not for renown or even acceptance?

Grapple with the questions, indulge in the experience, and appreciate the artistry at Preludes. Catch it this Thursday and Friday, April 7th and 8th, at 7:30pm, or Saturday, April 9th, at 2pm. Information at milwaukeeoperatheatre.org.

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