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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Green Light at the Skylight

New director takes charge

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  An important new voice has been added to the Skylight with the recent appointment of Eric Dillner as the new managing director. Dillner arrives from a successful tenure with the Shreveport Opera, where he served as both general and artistic director. Dillner replaces Christopher Libby, who has accepted a similar position with the Vancouver Opera Association in British Columbia.

  Founded in 1959, the Skylight produces opera, musical theater and cabaret at the BroadwayTheatreCenter in the Third Ward. With a $3.2 million budget, the company presents over 100 shows a season, placing them in the top five of American opera companies in terms of performance dates. The company recently shortened its name from the more familiar Skylight Opera Theatre to better reflect their diverse programming.

  Though Dillner was hired as the top administrator, his credentials include impressive achievement as a professional singer, vocal coach and stage director. He recently directed a production of La Traviata in Shreveport, but here in Milwaukee he will focus on managerial duties. “My job is to enhance the current support system so those creating art have all the tools they need,” says Dillner. “Besides, artistically the Skylight is in phenomenal shape. I’ll focus my first years on the budget, forging ties with fellow arts groups, and listening to the stories and history of the company. I also love playing hockey, but had little opportunity in Louisiana. I’m looking forward to getting back on the ice in Wisconsin.”

Reaching the Public

  Expanding the audience base is another goal for Dillner. “The Skylight has a top-notch education department that has engaged students,” says Dillner. “I would like to expand the department to reach the retirement community, many of who have supported the arts throughout their lives. Now that some live in communal facilities or may no longer drive, we need to outreach to them.” While in Shreveport, Dillner developed an award winning touring program that made opera accessible to all ages, reaching nearly 50,000 people in its first season.

  Though new to the job, Dillner is aware of Skylight’s esteemed reputation. “I’ve heard great things about the company for years, plus I’ve been a long time friend of Chris Libby. I recognize the amazing talent here, including Artistic Director Bill Theisen, Principal Conductor Richard Carsey and Music Director Jamie Johns. Any house would be thrilled to have one of them; we have the great fortune to have all three. I am also extremely lucky in that I am joining an organization that has a passionate, committed staff and a spectacular board of directors. Our board members are hands on, generous with money, time and effort.”

  As a tenor, Dillner has performed operatic roles and has appeared as soloist with several orchestras, including the Milwaukee Symphony. “When I was a guest of the MSO,” Dillner says, “I felt an immediate connection to the city. I called my wife, telling her that this was the coolest town. She joined me and we loved how this city offers and prides itself on high-quality art forms.” Dillner is married to Susan Yankee, a professional singer and voice teacher. They have a five-year-old son.

  Current artistic director Bill Theisen is enthusiastic about his new colleague. “It took us eight months, but we found the perfect fit. Eric knows both the business side and the musical repertory, plus he is an incredible people person. Audiences will get a chance to meet him later this month when we open the final production of our current season, The Spitfire Grill.

  “Next season we open with La Bohme, which hasn’t been done here in over 40 years, and we close with the Pirates ofPenzance,” says Theisen. “We are very excited that Skylight is one of just a few regional companies that has been given permission rights to stage the musical The Producers. For the future, I hope to continue to bring contemporary, relevant American opera to the Skylight stage.”

Dillner joins the Skylight just in time to help plan their 50th anniversary season. “I hope to bring back some of the performers who have graced our stage in the past—sort of a living retrospective,” says Dillner. “Works by Mozart and Gilbert & Sullivan are being considered, as both have been staples of the Skylight repertory since the beginning. But, I can’t do this alone. I am a collaborator with the community. I want to hear everyone’s ideas—the more people that communicate their passions, the better.”
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