In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

Subbaraman will be tough to replace as artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre. (PHOTO: WikiCommons/Joewhite)

Milwaukee loses a shining light as Subbaraman steps down at Skylight

No matter how it gets spun, Milwaukee's performing arts community took a severe hit Wednesday when Viswa Subbaraman announced he was leaving his post as artistic director of the Skylight Music Theatre.

Subbaraman, who joined Skylight from a small opera company in Houston, has been with the music theater for three seasons and has continually pushed the envelope as far as what the venerable company has produced.

He recently signed with L2 Artists, a prestigious New York-based management company that focuses on some of the brightest young artists in the world of contemporary and classical opera. He resigned from Skylight in order to pursue his career as a conductor.

"I've been wrestling with this for a few months," he said Wednesday after telling the Skylight staff that he was leaving. "I love the work here and the Skylight, but I am convinced that my greatest joy and greatest strength is on the podium."

Subbaraman began to challenge the orthodoxy in Milwaukee from his very first production, a Bollywood version of Beethoven's 200-year-old opera, "Fidelio." My review of that first performance captured what came to be his calling card. I wrote:

"It may well be helpful to understand what 'Fidelio,' the opera that opened Friday night at Skylight, is not before we get to what it is.

It is not your father's 'The Music Man,' nor your mother's 'The Sound of Music,' nor even your friend's sparkling 'Avenue Q.'

The reign of Viswa Subbaraman as the new artistic director at Skylight took wing Friday night as a giant and powerful eagle soaring majestically into the sky and inviting all of us to come along for the ride of a lifetime.

Subbaraman has arrived in a coach gilded with an incredibly high level of risk in the hope of an equally high level of reward. If 'Fidelio' is going to set the pace, the rewards that await are huge."

"Skylight has been a wonderful place for me," he said. "To allow us to do some of the riskier productions takes courage. The entire staff at Skylight has been amazing to work with. The work they do is amazing."

Under Subbaraman's leadership the Skylight produced classics like "Tosca," "The Sound of Music" and "Avenue Q." But he also brought unseen and unusual productions to the stage, such as the magnificent "El Cimarron," the world premiere of "Snow Dragon" – that also toured Bangkok – and Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face." These performances may well have ruffled the feathers of some Skylight regulars, but they were tantalizing in their bravery and style.

"Skylight is the only theater I know that can bring audiences such a diverse range of programming, and it has been exhilarating to be part of it," said Subbaraman. "In each of the past three seasons, I was honored to have been able to share with audiences exciting stories focused on themes of revolution, fairy tales and women's journeys. It has been a privilege to work with the extraordinary artists and staff at Skylight and to be part of Milwaukee's vibrant arts community."

"We appreciate the vitality and bold vision that Viswa brought to Skylight these last three seasons," said Alec Fraser, president of Skylight Music Theatre's Board of Directors, in a statement. "With his reputation as an internationally acclaimed conductor, particularly for contemporary new works, we understand that this is a logical progression in his career. We wish him the best and know that he will be successful. We also look forward to having Viswa return to conduct at Skylight next season and beyond."

Subbaraman frequently collaborated with Michael Pink, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet and another artist known for pushing the envelope.

"I applaud Viswa Subbaraman for his artistic courage and the diversity he brought to the Skylight Music Theatre," Pink said. "As an artistic director, you're presented with the challenge of presenting programming that is entertaining, challenging and representative of your own artistic vision. I'll always appreciate the refreshing contributions Viswa added to Milwaukee's arts landscape. I wish him all the best as he pursues his next adventure."

Everybody will put a brave face on this and wish him well and Skylight may well find another courageous and inventive artistic director.

But this city will be poorer once Subbaraman moves back to Houston and only drops in occasionally to conduct a show.

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