You want to stage an opera, but you have this commitment to letting new voices and new ideas be heard and seen – even if it means you sometimes have to climb out on that limb while the only thing you hold in your hand is a baby monkey clad in cute little jump suit.
Sure, that sounds like an opera, right? Well it is, especially if you are Jill Anna Ponasik, the charismatic and adventurous leader of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre whose obvious goal is to bring great music, great singing and great new stories together on one stage.
And that’s what happens when MOT opens "Lucy" at the In Tandem Theatre's 10th St. spot on Friday, Nov. 7.
Lucy was a chimpanzee, adopted in the 1960s by Dr. Maurice Temerlin and his wife. They raised her as a human child, and the story captured the public imagination. The monkey became famous, even appearing on the cover of Life Magazine.
But as with so many brief flings with childhood fame, the chimp became an adult and the world changed. She was no longer a malleable little baby girl chimp. She had grown bigger and stronger than her "parents." She had begun to explore the natural nature of sexual awakening. She wasn’t meant to live like this.
And so, she went home to Gambia, where it took years and years for Lucy to learn the kind of skills she would need to survive as a chimpanzee. She learned to sleep in trees, to forage for food and to live with and interact with other chimps. The only thing she couldn’t learn was to be afraid of human beings.
Temerlin was just about the final attempt at something called "cross-fostering," a field of scientific study to determine if nurture of a specific sort could overcome the nature of the subject. If you raise a chimpanzee from a baby like a real child, would that chimp become a "real child"?
In 2010, lyricist Kelly Rourke and John Glover heard a RadioLab show about Lucy. They had been looking for a story for the wonderful baritone Andy Wilkowske, and they began to look into the story of Lucy. Nobody is going to stage an opera with a monkey, but the toil of memory gleaned from Temerlin’s memoir seemed grist for an operatic mill.
"At the time the RadioLab episode aired, we were searching for an ideal show for Andrew," Rourke said. "After reading the memoir, it was clear we had found one.
"The folly of raising Lucy in a human home seems obvious to us now, but — whether due to willful ignorance or well-meaning naivete — the inevitability of an unhappy ending seems not to have occurred to the Temerlins or the others who signed up for the adventure of raising a young chimp in the 1960s," Rourke continued. "The projects destroyed the lives of the chimps; based on further research and interviews, we suspect many of the humans were never the same either."
Glover said this opera imagines Temerlin "years later as he struggles to confront his story's terrible postscript."
"Sometime in 2012, I sat down to breakfast with Andrew," Ponasik said. "He wanted to tell me about an opera in progress called, ‘Our Basic Nature,' a piece he was working on with friends Glover and Rourke about a psychotherapist who raised a chimp as a daughter. He thought it might be a good fit for Milwaukee Opera Theatre. I thought so too, but we got sidetracked and ended up producing 'Guns N’ Rosenkavalier' instead.
"That concert was so successful, so electrifying, that it was easy to commit to another project together," Ponasik continued. "I asked the team what they would rather do: marshal their forces and finish writing their opera – now called "Lucy" – or begin something new. They chose to complete "Lucy," and I am so pleased they did. We are now honored to be producing the world premiere of this remarkable piece."
Wilkoske, Rourke and Glover all came together at the internationally renowned Glimmerglass Festival, an annual summer opera festival in Cooperstown, N.Y. The baseball Hall of Fame may be Cooperstown’s top claim to fame, but Glimmerglass isn’t far behind.
Doing an opera about a 50-year-old experiment with a chimpanzee might seem a little odd, until you sit with the uber-enthusiastic and uber-smart Ponasik.
"We kind of describe ourselves as a microbrewery for opera," she said. "We produce small batches of high quality, locally produced lyric theater. That’s our mission, in a nutshell. We produce small and local and adhere to high standards but we don’t have an enormous reach."
Ponasik along with James Zager from Carroll University, created memorable work when she stage directed the dazzling "Cinderella" for Skylight early this season. And her obvious dedication is no less for a little company that has a staff of one, no permanent home and a quixotic view of the world of opera.
"We constantly cross genres, looking for gateways, for new points of entry for opera," Ponasik said. "Like ‘Guns "n" Rosenkavalier’ is a perfect example. We took one art song from over here and a rock song from over there and just kept mushing them closer. It was taking incongruent things until we had this opera."
Now it is on to what may come to be known as "The Opera About The Monkey." There will be three performances – beginning Nov. 7 and running through Nov. 9 – and tickets are available from the MOT website here.
And if history is any indicator, this opera will be both interesting and high-level. As Ponasik says, "One thing we think about a lot is how to take the familiar and make it strange, and how to take the strange and make it familiar."
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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