Marni Nixon Warms Up in Milwaukee for Friel-Based Opera, Ballymore, Jan. 29-Feb 14


29 Jan 1999

Marni Nixon and Leslie Fitzwater in Act II of the world premiere of <I>Ballymore.</I>
Marni Nixon and Leslie Fitzwater in Act II of the world premiere of Ballymore.
Photo by Rich Bauer.
Movie musical legend Marni Nixon will help christen the world premiere of Ballymore, a Brian Friel-based opera, Jan. 29 at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre.

Movie musical legend Marni Nixon will help christen the world premiere of Ballymore, a Brian Friel-based opera, Jan. 29 at Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre.

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 ), has been in rehearsals this month for Skylight's commissioned two-act opera by composer-librettist Richard Wargo.

It will play one (free) preview Jan. 27 and open Jan. 29, continuing to Feb. 14, in the Skylight's 360-seat tiered, Baroque-style theatre.

Based on Friel's "play in two parts" (its original billing) known as Lovers, Ballymore is the centerpiece of Skylight's current 40th anniversary season. Ballymore is the opera and the play's setting, a fictionalized version of Friel's hometown of Omagh, in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.



This is the first new-work commission in the history of the Skylight, which produces opera, operetta and new and classic 20th century musicals under an Equity contract. The 1998-99 season (supported by some 3,200 subscribers) opened Sept. 25 with The Pirates of Penzance. Ballymore marks the first time Friel has allowed his work to be adapted for the operatic stage, according to Skylight.

What's it like working with a famous voice?

"She doesn't carry that reputation around with her at all," Skylight artistic director (and the show's musical director) Richard Carsey told Playbill On-Line Jan. 25. "The thing that struck me the most about her is what a great musician she is, which would explain why she did all the work she did."

*

The "through-sung, character-driven" piece by Wargo has the flavor of both opera and popular musical theatre, Carsey said. "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 (Leslie Fitzwater) competing urges to both cater to her bedridden, manipulative mother (Nixon) and welcome a suitor (David 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."

Dorothy Danner directs a cast that also includes Alicia Berneche, Jeffrey Picon, Neil Michaels, Hillary Nicholson and Jennifer Clark. Designers will be 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.

Nixon, a California native who worked in the early days of the Pasadena Playhouse, is a New Yorker whose career as a "crossover" singer-actress includes the worlds of TV, opera, concerts, movies, cabaret and recordings.

*

The Skylight Opera Theatre's season includes:

March 19-April 4, 1999 Don Pasquale
May 14-30, 1999 The World Goes 'Round

Skylight is located in the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway in downtown Milwaukee, a 1992 building that also houses a cabaret bar and a 100-seat black box used by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Theatre X. The Chamber Theatre also uses the Skylight's proscenium space.

Ticket prices are $10-$44. For Skylight Opera Theatre ticket information, call (414) 291-7800.

-- By Kenneth Jones