By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Nov 08, 2014 at 11:36 AM

When the average person draws a picture around the word "opera," you probably end up with images of big blonde ladies with helmets, a sad clown or a hunchback fighting to protect his daughter all in the middle of dozens of singers, people with spears and costumes with every color of the rainbow.

Nothing in the world of opera, however, could possibly prepare anyone for the absolutely mesmerizing Milwaukee Opera Theatre production of "Lucy" that opened Friday night at the Tenth Street Theatre.

The very best in the world of opera is a story told with fascinating music and spectacular singing. Toss in inventive staging, a flashing and meaningful projection show and a toy piano, and you have an evening of theater that ranks at the top of the risky and dashing musical skyscape of Milwaukee theater.

This opera was so spectacular that I’d put it in the same class as Skylight’s production of "El Cimarron" which is one of the most daring and entrancing shows I’ve ever seen on a stage in this city.

The opera tells the story of Dr. Maurice Temerlin, who, along with his wife, raised a chimp named Lucy as a child of their own. This experiment in cross-fostering ended after Lucy had been returned to her natural habitat, and her remains were found on the island.

The opera begins when Temerlin – played, sung, acted and enwrapped by the spectacular Andrew Wilkowske – hears the recording of the report of her death. It kicks him into a journey of memory of the years they lived as a family.

Wilkowske begins to guide our travel down this lane a capella, singing of Lucy, a word he draws to exquisitely tender precision. He and his wife "devoted ourselves completely to raising Lucy." Wilkoske’s baritone is full and rich, and he has a remarkable ability to be playful and dramatic in quick turns, depending on what part of the story he is telling.

While the entire cross-fostering movement has long since been discredited and even denounced as a cruel and fruitless experiment, the story of Lucy is not without humor. And Wilkowske’s Temerlin uses that humor to explain the depths of his devotion to this monkey.

"I prefer an organized world," he sings, "in which feces are deposited in the proper place." Lucy, of course, doesn’t get it 100 percent. Temerlin describes the gradual growth of Lucy, from the cute little chimp to a chimpanzee caught somewhere between being a human being and being a wild animal. And the presence of Lucy in their family didn’t make friendship easier.

"People were hesitant," he sang. "They would say ‘I’m afraid of your ape.’ It was like who can we trust? We had difficulty finding babysitters."

There was a moment in this opera that was so incredibly poignant and dramatic that the opening night audience seemed to have been turned into statues. Lucy learned over 100 words in American Sign Language. Wilkoske sat in his office chair, and without a word being sung, he went through each of those words.  

The music by John Glover and libretto by Kelly Rourke were both inventive and sparkled with the kind of creativity that lives in a rare atmosphere reserved for the special few. A piano, a toy piano, a violin, a cello and a bass clarinet of the highly acclaimed Redshift Ensemble tackled a difficult score with both gusto and skill.

I sat next to the wonderful baritone Wayne Tigges, who just completed a successful run in "The Flying Dutchman" at The Florentine Opera. When the final moment came Friday night, he turned to me and said, "Beautiful. Just beautiful."

I turned from him and to my right Rourke stood, hands clasped in front of her as in prayer and tears glistening in her eyes as she watched her words come to life in this world premiere.

Who in the world would ever think that an hour-long opera about a monkey could elicit this kind of reaction? But this team, headed by MOT artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik, delivered a profound lesson to those of us who love and respect the performing arts.

The formula for creating the kind of memories that will last a lifetime is one part brains, one part talent and one part courage. This production of "Lucy" hits that artistic trifecta.

"Lucy" runs only through Sunday, Nov. 9. Information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

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.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.