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Farlow celebrates 10 years with campus opera

February 11, 2009 By Gwen Evans

When other 11-year-olds were out doing whatever 11-year-olds did in 1960, Bill Farlow could be found in the library in El Paso, Texas, head buried in an opera score, following along to the music as he listened to the recording. “I had watched old opera movies on television, and El Paso had a fine symphony and opera. I started learning about opera 50 years ago and it took,” says Farlow.

Director of opera and school of music professor William Farlow (left) critiques the cast’s performance during a 2004 stage rehearsal of University Opera’s production of “Così fan tutte.”

Photo: Jeff Miller

And the best opera movie of all time? “‘Night at the Opera’ with the Marx Brothers. Sure, it’s funny, but the music just knocked me out,” says Farlow.

Fast forward 50 years, and Farlow is still enamored of opera and has the great fortune of combining his passion with his vocation. The last 10 of those 50 years have been at UW-Madison as director of opera and professor of music at the School of Music. As director, about all he doesn’t do is conduct the orchestra. He selects the repertoire; stage directs; casts singers; finds and hires stage, set, technical and lighting managers; orders the music; and takes care of countless other details that go into creating the magic of an opera performance.

Farlow began his musical career studying violin and piano. By age 15 he was playing violin with the university and civic orchestras in El Paso. He primarily worked with professional opera companies before joining the Madison faculty, but had five years with the University of Arkansas–Fayetteville and numerous stints as guest teacher and director at other universities along the way, participating in some 250 productions as director, producer or performer.

Farlow made the jump to Madison for two reasons, neither of them vocal: Music Hall and university orchestras. “With Music Hall, I get to have my own theater. I adore this space. It’s perfect for students. It only seats 380 and has great sound balance between the pit and the stage. And when I heard the student symphony and chamber orchestras, I knew I’d never have to worry. I knew they could play anything,” Farlow says.

Farlow likens singing opera to running a marathon, rather than a sprint. It is physically demanding and requires conditioning and training. “You have to have stamina. I’ve heard of singers losing six pounds during a performance,” says Farlow.

There has been opera on campus since before the time when Farlow was spending time in the El Paso library: He found files from the 1960s documenting the work of Karlos Moser and others. “What was not in place was an organized, regimented opera program,” says Farlow. “I know it sounds simple, but you can’t start without a plan; you need an artistic view of what you hope to accomplish.”

The mission of the opera program is to provide training and practical experience for singers, conductors, musicians and, when possible, student designers, actors and dancers. The School of Music offers a master’s in opera performance (one of just a handful offered in the country) as well as master’s- and doctoral-level voice instruction.

The reputation of UW-Madison’s opera program has been gaining strength and is known as a small program in a large university, which means more performance opportunities for students. “We have fewer castable singers [than at schools with large opera programs] but the quality here is very talented,” Farlow says. “And it’s not just graduate students being cast, we’ve had undergrads cast in major roles. That is very rare.”

When Farlow says talented, he’s not exaggerating. This Sunday, Feb. 15, tenor and graduate student James Kryshak will compete in the semifinal round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, after clinching the Midwest region audition in January. If he advances on Sunday, he’ll sing in the grand finals on Sunday, Feb. 22. Some recent alumni of the program have gone on to positions in the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at London’s Royal Opera House, the San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program, the Frankfurt Opera and solo engagements with U.S. opera companies.

Farlow says getting talented students interested in the program is easy; getting them here is another matter. “Our strongest point is our size. The difficulty is a lack of funding for scholarships and fellowships,” says Farlow. “And with the budget crisis, I just don’t want to think about it.”

Farlow likens singing opera to running a marathon, rather than a sprint. It is physically demanding and requires conditioning and training. Singers’ voices must have carrying power and enough resonance to be heard over an orchestra. They must not lose sight of their vocal technique while keeping their character in focus, staying connected with the audience and, at times, running, falling to their knees or being flung about. “You have to have stamina. I’ve heard of singers losing six pounds during a performance,” says Farlow.

Farlow wishes people weren’t intimidated by opera, although he has noticed more young people and students attending productions “probably because someone dragged them to a performance and they liked it,” Farlow laughs.

To commemorate Farlow’s 10th aniversary on campus, University Opera held a gala evening last fall with performances of selections from operas staged over the years. The performers included alumni and current students. The celebration continues on Friday and Sunday, Feb. 20 and 22, when University Opera presents the world premiere of a commissioned work, “Art and Desire,” based on the life of abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock. Set in a bar, Farlow says it is contemporary, but tonal, and will have a small chamber ensemble, including a vibraphone and saxophone player on stage with the singers.

“I try to pick operas we present to give the greatest opportunities to the greatest numbers of students, although I would like to do “The Magic Flute” and “La Traviata” one more time,” says Farlow. “Opera is hard to do. It takes vocal and instrumental talent, acting, dancing, costumes and lighting. But when it all comes together, it’s unbelievable to me.”