In 2007, Karen Bishop took fellow opera fan Dan Shea aside and broke the news: She was ill, and had to step away from her role with UW Opera Props, a fan-run organization that helps support University Opera for which she had served as a board member for four years.
Instead, she wanted to devote her artistic energy to performing opera and working on her doctoral thesis, a research into lost works. Bishop had returned to school to study opera in her 40s after leaving behind a successful business career. She immersed herself in the art form — as a scholar, musician, fundraiser, advocate — and had roles in the University Opera productions “The Consul” and “The Elixir of Love.”
In January, Bishop, 54, died after a 20-year fight with breast cancer, leaving behind a family and a gift expected to change the history of opera at UW-Madison.
A gift of $500,000 from Bishop’s husband Charlie, along with a matching grant from the John and Tashia Morgridge Foundation and funds from University Opera supporters, has ushered in a new era for the art form on campus, supporters say. A star graduate of the university’s opera program, Brenda Rae, will perform a Sept. 27 concert in Madison to raise even more funds and visibility.
The initial goal of the Karen K. Bishop Fund for Voice and Opera was to endow a professorship for the director of University Opera, a key position if the program is to thrive — or even survive at a time of serious budget cuts.
“This professorship gives a kind of stability that we were missing, and that allows the whole department to be strategic in what we’re doing,” said School of Music director Susan Cook.
“It’s very exciting in this time when we’re all facing resource crunches and complications to be able to continue to do things that have been the strength of the program — and to in fact to be able to strengthen them in this way through outside philanthropy,” she said.
The School of Music will kick off its search for a new University Opera director this fall to replace longtime director William Farlow, who retired last year. Visiting opera director David Ronis is temporarily filling the job.
This year’s University Opera productions include Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” in October and the Conrad Suza opera “Transformations,” based on the poetry of Anne Sexton, in March 2016. Although the School of Music plans to break ground next fall on a new building next to the Chazen Museum of Art, Music Hall will remain the performance home for campus operas, Cook said.
The Bishops’ gift “seems to have been a step forward … that has really engaged a lot of momentum from other supporters,” Charlie Bishop said from his Miami, Florida office, where he is CEO of the renal division of OPKO Health, a multinational pharmaceutical and diagnostics company.
For Bishop, who has raised millions for pharmaceutical startups and still keeps a home in Madison, this is just the beginning of fundraising for University Opera, he said.
“It’s our hope that we can bring additional funds to the School of Music to make it one of the leading opera programs in the nation,” said Bishop, whose two children were also students at UW-Madison at the same time as their mother.
“What an amazing opera program the university has,” he said. “And how unusual is it that a university school of music program actually has a student opera that puts on numerous professional opera productions every year.”
University Opera has a long list of alumni who have gone on to professional careers, including Rae, whose voice the New York Times has called “sweet” and a “rich-voiced lyric soprano.”
Rae, born and raised in Appleton, transferred from Lawrence University to UW-Madison as a sophomore and — though she wasn’t sure which way music would take her — got hooked on opera.
“I don’t know how they did it, but they must have known I would fall in love with this music,” she said in a recent interview.
Rae’s training at UW-Madison led her to the Juilliard School of Music for graduate work, and on to an international career from her home base in Frankfurt, Germany.
“You think opera is opera, but the scenes in America and Germany are so different,” said Rae, 33. “There is so much opera going on in Europe that there’s a little more room to experiment with it.”
In her Sept. 27 concert in Mills Hall, Rae will sing Gliere’s Concerto for Coloratura Soprano with the UW Symphony Orchestra. She will also conduct a master class Sept. 25, and encourages the public to come watch.
“I think people will find it fascinating” to see singers working behind the scenes, she said. “It can provide a very different look at the world of opera.”
University Opera is also backed by the 35-year-old organization Opera Props, which has helped fund graduate teaching assistantships for years and whose members raised $150,000 this year, said Opera Props president Dan Shea.
“The program now has the beginning of a real endowment that will provide basic funds for basic things: scholarships for talented students, facilities and resources that inspire,” he said.