Wake up, Madison opera lovers -- the gloves are off.
Fresco Opera Theatre made its clamorous debut on Friday night in the Overture Center Playhouse with "Dueling Divas," a noisy, light-hearted event that pitted singers (mostly sopranos) against one another in pursuit of a heavyweight-like top diva belt and a $250 prize.
After a series of video screens showing performers' "alter egos" (performance credits), and "K.O.'s" (prizes), a soprano and a mezzo came bouncing down the aisles with white satin robes over their gowns, sparring like boxers.
What followed was an hour's worth of operatic appetizers: little bites of "La Bohème," a taste of "Tosca," bits of Bellini and Verdi and Strauss.
Frank Cain, Fresco Opera co-founder, introduced each snippet with a bit of explanation and humorous commentary; pianist Jess Salek, dressed in a tux with a referee's uniform underneath, accompanied the singers.
It was like teasing when Crystal Buck launched into the laughing song from "Die Fledermaus," or when Caitlin Cisler tackled a section of Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria. They sang a minute or two max of each piece, just enough to think, wait, what was that again? Opera is known as slow-moving performance, but for once, I was struggling to keep up.
Singers competed two at a time, two rounds each in four categories: best coloratura, best high note, "biggest pipes" and most heart-wrenching. Fresco co-founder Melanie Cain deserves ample credit for the fact that everything moved quickly and smoothly, with just enough heckling the ref and denied handshakes to emphasize the "dueling" of the divas.
As each singer performed, the other, back in her corner of the "boxing" ring, would pretend to yawn, examine her nails, check her watch. While Erin Sura sang her heart-wrenching best, a pre-death aria from "Madama Butterfly," tenor Scott Chachula pretended to take a call on his cell phone. (Whatever, man. We all know reception is crap in the Playhouse.)
This was great music, even (especially?) out of context, and these were fine singers. It seemed unfair to get rid of one of them each round. But then, maybe the Cains knew exactly what they were doing, bringing us scurrying back after intermission for the long-awaited full-length arias.
The conceit of cheering for the best performer and using a "Clap-O-Meter" to determine the winner was cute but imprecise. Instead of who really had the most moving aria, it felt like a game of "who has more family and friends in the audience?"
Also, far too many audience members could not stop fiddling with their noisemakers. As Colleen Brooks sang a beautiful excerpt from Mozart's "La clemenza di Tito," ratcheting sounds echoed all over the audience, like popcorn. It was annoying.
In the final battle, four sopranos competed with full-length arias, and I'll confess: I was bummed that Saira Frank didn't take home the title. Her aria, "Sempre Libera" from "La Traviata," was fantastic, confident and expressive, a clear winner.
But then, Caitlin Cisler gave her a run for her money with the sparkling "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." And Sura's rendition of "Song to the Moon" from "Rusalka" by Dvorak was lovely, like a lullaby.
Christina Jenkins took home the belt and the title of top diva with a sorrowful aria from "Manon Lescaut," proving she coulda been a contender in the heart-wrenching category (her first win was in "biggest pipes," against the talented soprano Michelle Hackman).
"Dueling Divas" wasn't the most polished evening of opera -- there were a few pitch problems, a few clipped phrases. But Fresco's fun-loving spirit and enthusiastic energy were infectious. I'd love to see the same event with more guys and a snotty panel of judges, with a Simon Cowellesque critic and a vapid Paula imitator tossing out funny nonsense.
Based on this single evening, it seems that Fresco Opera Theatre may live up to its name. The Cains' approach is fresh, light-hearted and thoroughly entertaining, a winning combination.
On the Clap-O-Meter, they're well past 8.