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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

When Guns Meet Rosenkavalier

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"This next one is by country legend Robert Schumann," joked the opera singer Andrew Wilkowske as he introduced his arrangement of the Romantic German composer's “Ich grolle nicht.” In the translation by Kelley Rourke, Schumann's lonely lament concludes, "I might as well be dead." Wilkowske then stood at the curve of the grand piano and put his big, gorgeous voice at the service of Richard Strauss' haunting “Morgen,”accompanied by pianist Ruben Piirainen. Next, he carefully sang Sufjan Stevens’ terse pop ballad “Futile Devices” (the title refers to words) accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. He then switched to electric guitar for a rocking “Sweet Child O' Mine” by the ’80s hair band Guns N' Roses, joined by Piirainen and the "leading post post-feminist feminist all-female horn experience," a French horn quartet called Genghis Barbie. The heavy metal anthem performed by six classically trained musicians brought the folks in the beautiful Helen Bader Recital Hall of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music to their feet.

The above is a poor description—Sufjan Stevens has it right—of the closing segment of Guns N' Rosenkavalier, a joyful recital developed by Milwaukee Opera Theatre and its artistic director Jill Anna Ponasik. Wilkowske is a Minnesota native who performs with many national opera companies and just ended a run with the Florentine Opera's Albert Herring. With Ponasik's support, he and new music composer John Glover of New York arranged some of their beloved rock songs as art songs and vice versa.

The consistently innovative Milwaukee Opera Theatre loves to mix classical, pop and avant-garde traditions. Here, songs by Van Halen, Queen, Springsteen and Madonna seemed happy beside Brahms, Faure and Schumann. Wilkowske and Glover even constructed a coherent song cycle from tunes by Schubert, Gnarls Barkley and Lady Gaga. The excellent Genghis Barbie added a perfect four-horn rendition of the Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams”and a moving account of Kate Bush's “This Woman's Work” played from the four corners of the hall. Piirainen’s solo performance of Radiohead's “Let Down” made the tune timeless.