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"Powder Her Face" will have its Wisconsin premiere at the Skylight Music Theatre beginning tonight. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

New Skylight opera tells of tabloid drama before TMZ and Twitter

We're all connected 24/7 to computers, tablets, phones and television. But there's more to life than being online – even for a digital media company – so this week we're excited to show you ways to connect with family and friends, even when there's no signal. Steinhafels presents OnMilwaukee Unplugged Week, a celebration of all things analog. Sit back, log into these stories and then log into the real world.

Before Kanye and Wiz got into a Twitter beef, before the phrase "Twitter beef" actually became a meaningful phrase and not just gibberish, before TMZ made an industry of grainy club videos and stalking celebs, and before the Kardashians, Brangelina, "The Bachelor," DJ P Hilty – pardon me, Paris Hilton – and the entire concept of reality TV, there was the Duchess Margaret of Argyll.

Coming into the public spotlight as a debutante and already a popular name thanks to her first marriage to amateur golfer Charles Sweeny, Ethel Margaret Whigham eventually joined her substantial money with the substantial estate of Ian Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, a quickly doomed relationship.

"The love and desire aspect of their union was definitely short-lived, and they began to live their own independent lives," said opera director Robin Guarino. "But at a certain point, her money ran out, and the Duke basically looked for evidence to frame her for having affairs with 88 men – including members of the royal family, aristocracy, Errol Flynn and et cetera."

The Duke – who had his own fair share of affairs, though certainly less scrutinized – and his hunt for divorce material reached its unfortunate peak with a lewd polaroid of the Duchess, naked and in a compromising sexual position, famously reported as The Headless Man photo. The media's ravenous coverage of the scandalous image would quickly change her glowing spotlight to a harsh limelight, crashing Margaret down to Earth.

Her catastrophic rise and fall – ending with her death, far from her early glamour and far from any friends, in 1993 – forms the center of "Powder Her Face," an opera making its Wisconsin premiere at the Skylight Music Theatre starting tonight and running through Feb. 14. It's a story seemingly, several decades later, all too familiar – and all too fickle.

"She went from being the beautiful, perfect socialite – the woman who had everything: beauty, fashion, title, privilege – to being toppled in the tabloids, the victim of the bottom-feeding press," Guarino said. "It's very tragic and also says a lot about society and the kinds of things that we're hungry and rabid for. The technology's changed, but the hunger and desire to topple people who we've idolized is still the same."

Set on the day the Duchess is set to be evicted from her hotel – the cost of a 27,000-pound bill – "Powder Her Face" flashes back through time to key moments in her glamorous rise and infamous fall, with stage lights left on the stage and a frame within the theater arch emphasizing her life in the spotlight, always performing and an audience always watching. Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the opera isn't what's on stage, however, but what greets the audience before the curtain even comes up: a warning that the show is for mature audiences.

Like all art forms, opera is no stranger to controversial material – rape, sexual assault and murder all play parts in some classic shows – but it still comes as a potential surprise for an audience member, as well as an extra challenge for the show's director.

"It's how you go about it," Guarino explained. "I think we've handled the subject matter in a way that doesn't exploit it, that in fact deals with the Duchess' humanity and the disparity in how these two people were handled.

"This opera has always been directed by men, and often it leans toward exploitation and camp and send-up," she added, "but it's an incredible piece that can be done with integrity that reveals human beings."

While the warning may be what initially piques audience members' interest, what originally grabbed Guarino was the music. Composed by Thomas Ades when he was just 24, the music in "Powder Her Face" combines musical influences and references ranging from Stravinsky to Kurt Weill to Benjamin Britten.

"It's like you hear the 20th century in your ears, and that is miraculous," she noted.

As Guarino spent more time reading and researching the show, however, her interest began to focus on her lead character, a person who, she admits, wasn't very nice or particularly deep – "she didn't really have goals or ideals beyond being in the press," she says – tragically craving a spotlight that would eventually burn her. At the same time, however, she was a massive pop cultural figure, earning namedrops in songs like Cole Porter's "You're The Tops," and a woman, even with her flaws, ahead of her time. It's telling that, when it comes time for the judge to release his verdict on their divorce, the most rotten thing he can think to call Margaret is "a modern woman."

"She was absolutely ahead of her time," Guarino said. "They had an open marriage, and she did what she wanted. They were not tethered. They did not make false pretenses until it became not useful for him. She no longer had any money, and he was trying to cut his losses."

Perhaps even stronger than Guarino's professional and artistic connections to this particular production, however, is an unfortunately personal one. The show's original director was set to be Sandra Bernhard, a close friend of Guarino's. The two even joked that she was always following in Bernhard's footsteps, taking over positions, moving and developing works after one another.

"We belong to a family and community of women directors in opera, and we've really worked very hard to support one another and be a team, because it's hard to get to do this job, and we didn't want to take each other down," Guarino noted.

Some tragic developments, however, would put Guarino back in Bernhard's footsteps one last time with "Powder Her Face." As early planning began on the Skylight's production, Bernhard – who had been battling cancer for years – called Guarino in the spring after a meeting in Milwaukee, concerned she wouldn't have the energy to direct the opera, and that she wouldn't be alive long enough to see it to the stage. She then asked her longtime friend if she would take over the show if she would be unable.

"I said, 'Yes, I'll do it, but I'm going to do it because I'm going to be your umbrella,'" Guarino recalled. "'I don't want you to worry, and I want you to know that I will do it. That is my pact to you.' So then I put that away, and we talked about life and her and said that we would remain in touch."

That would sadly be the last time Guarino would talk to her dear friend, as Sandra Bernhard passed away last June. When Guarino received word that her friend's health was deteriorating, she reached out with a letter, but at that point, Bernhard was spending some of her final days with her close family. She didn't forget, however, her final request for her friend and colleague.

"Viswa (Subbaraman, Skylight artistic director) called me a week after and said that another director had gone to visit Sandy, and as he was leaving, she sat up in bed and said, 'You have to get Robin to direct this!'"

Of course, she obliged – even with the extra emotional weight and pressures.

"Coming into a situation like that, first of all, it's a huge responsibility, and second of all, half of the people in the room making it together really loved Sandy and really were passionate about theater and opera the way she was," Guarino said. "So we've dedicated our work to her. It's been a collaboration very different from any other I've had, because we all came into the room having lost somebody we deeply cared about, but wanting to give to her and to work in a way that spoke about the best parts of her and what she believed in."

Building the show back by scratch, "Powder Her Face" will serve as a fond tribute to a strong woman who worked just off the stage, as well as to the woman who will be portrayed on it. And Guarino hopes the audience will came away learning just as much about themselves as they do about the Duchess of Argyll.

"It is much more about who we are, and it's a cautionary tale to try and make deep human connections to people and make your life about that."


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