Skylight Opera Theatre's world premiere staging of Ballymore, two related one-act operas by Richard Wargo drawn from Brian Friel's play, Lovers, will debut on Milwaukee Public Television and Wisconsin Public Television Sept. 24.
Ballymore was the first commissioned work in the 40 year history of Skylight Opera Theatre, an Equity troupe that performs English-language operas and musicals in downtown Milwaukee. The two-act opera, Winners and Losers, premiered at Skylight's Cabot Theatre Jan. 29-Feb. 14, 1999.
Dorothy Danner directed, and Skylight artistic director Richard Carsey musical directed. Bill Werner produced and directed the television taping, shot in performance at the Cabot. The Milwaukee broadcast is on WHA-TV, Channel 21.
Marni Nixon helped christen the premiere, starring as a frustrated and selfish mother in Losers. The show marked the first time Irish playwright Friel allowed one of his works to be musicalized.
Nixon, the movie-musical vocalist who provided the singing voice for Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady), Deborah Kerr (The King and I) and Natalie Wood (West Side Story ), performed with Leslie Fitzwater, David Barron, Jennifer Clark and Alicia Berneche. Winners featured Berneche, Jeffrey Picon, Neil Michaels, Hillary Nicholson.
Based on Friel's "play in two parts" (its original billing) known as Lovers, Ballymore was the centerpiece of Skylight's 40th anniversary season. Ballymore is the opera's title and the play's setting, a fictionalized version of Friel's hometown of Omagh, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.
The "through-sung, character-driven" piece by Wargo has the flavor of both opera and popular musical theatre, Carsey told Playbill On-Line at the time. "The language of the music is very tonal — there's melody to the writing."
Friel, who OK'd the Wargo adaptation, is author of such Irish plays as Philadephia, Here I Come!, Dancing at Lughnasa and Molly Sweeney. Lovers originated at the Dublin Gate Theatre and had its New York premiere (starring Art Carney) at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1968-69 season, moving to the Music Box.
"Since he met Richard Wargo and heard his music, [Friel] has been very free that Ballymore is now an opera and it's going to be a separate piece," Carsey said. "The first act sticks very closely to Friel's play — most of it is a word for word adaptation."
Carsey said that Friel questioned, impishly, if sticking so close to the source was a virtue. That, said Carsey, encouraged Wargo up to adapt more freely in Act Two.
The second act, Nixon's section of the show, is called Losers (following Act One, Winners) and opens with a section called "Hannah's Rhumba," a melodic story song that establishes a spinster's (Fitzwater) competing urges to both cater to her bedridden, manipulative mother (Nixon) and welcome a suitor (Barron). On Broadway, Art Carney played the suitor.
"[Nixon's] voice is perfectly suited for the role," Carsey said. "She has a combination of sweetness and earthiness that seem very right for who this person is."
Designers were Carol Bailey (set), Dawna Gregory (costumes) and Andrew Sullivan (lighting).
Wargo is an Eastman School of Music graduate whose A Chekov Trilogy, three one-act operas based on the Russian master's short stories, was presented last season at Skylight, introducing Wargo to Milwaukee. Workshops of Ballymore were sponsored by Skylight, Opera Company of Philadelphia and Curtis Institute of Music.
-- By Kenneth Jones