While the UW Badger Men’s Basketball team is poised to take the court for the NCAA tournament this month, it’s another version of March Madness on stage with the Florentine’s production of Don Giovanni. Three recent University of Wisconsin graduates are featured in the cast.
Neenah-native and soprano Emily Birsan, plays Donna Anna in her Florentine Opera debut. Current Florentine Opera Studio Artists, Ariana Douglas and Thomas Leighton, are also in the cast—the soprano Douglas as Zerlina, and the tenor Leighton in the chorus.
Birsan, who went on to the Lyric Opera of Chicago Ryan Center after she received her Masters of Fine Arts from the UW in 2010, said she is happy to return to her home state. She credits her professor, Julia Faulkner, with much of her continued success.
“It really feels like a family there,” Birsan said of the UW opera program. “Wisconsin has a huge tradition for music.”
Douglas also studied with Faulkner at the UW for her undergraduate work. The Appleton native said her choice of college came down to the campus environment and opportunities.
“It was between the UW and Oberlin. But, Madison had everything I needed. The right teacher, the opera program, other great general education classes. I also loved the city. It’s very artsy, and just a great place for an 18-year-old to experience,” said Douglas.
Douglas said her experience with the faculty “gave her a grounding” of what to do, and what not to do, while singing. “The professors were really encouraging me towards success, both on stage and off,” she said.
Like Birsan, Thomas Leighton also was awarded a fellowship for his graduate studies at the UW. Originally from Saugerties, New York, Leighton said the excellent staff at the UW drew him westward.
“Paul Rowe is the teacher I wanted to work with. His daughter is one of my good friends from college,” said Leighton, who did his undergraduate work at the Eastman School of Music. “Before I could even take a voice lesson there or get on campus, I fell in love with the city immediately. There was a great sense of home.”
Leighton said the most rewarding experience was the opportunity to teach, both as a teaching assistant in the classical voice classes, and through his own private studio—through which he met a Badger that many sports fans would recognize.
“[Badger men’s basketball forward] Vitto Brown took my vocal performance class as a freshman,” Leighton said. “After that, he continued to study with me privately with my studio.”
Brown has performed the National Anthem at several NCAA basketball games since, most notably before the Final Four game in 2015, in which Wisconsin beat Kentucky to advance to the National Championship. And despite his 6 foot 8 inch height, and fame on the court, Leighton said Brown wasn’t overly recognizable in his voice class.
“He’s on ESPN every night, but as soon as he walked into the music department in the Humanities Building, nobody really knew who he was,” laughed Leighton.
Aside from teaching, Leighton said he received what “felt like on-the-job training” through roles on stage with the UW opera program.
“Living in Madison, and being close to Milwaukee, I had opportunities to sing with the Madison Opera, as well as Present Music.
Birsan agreed, adding that the opportunities she received are rare in comparison to other schools.
“I was able to do three leading or title roles in my time there,” said Birsan. “I had so much growth through those roles.”
When asked what advice they would give aspiring singers in the Badger state, each artist had a unique answer.
“If you love opera, you don’t necessarily have to be a singer to be successful in the business,” said Douglas. “There are so many things you can do—from artistic administration, directing, or marketing. You can still make a difference.”
“Be open. Don’t get tunnel vision. It’s typical for college students to want to box themselves in with one genre or style of music. There are so many different ways to ‘make it.’ Always be open to opportunities,” said Leighton.
“Just know yourself,” said Birsan. “Learn how to connect and open up on stage. Find someone who can harness your talents. The thing that matters most is that you have a good teacher. It doesn’t matter what school or city you start out in.”
However, these artists are glad their alma mater is receiving the recognition for vocal talent that it deserves. The reputation of the program will soon be enhanced by the new $55 million Hamel Music Center performance space on the UW campus.
“There is a lot of talent in this area. Everyone thinks it’s only in New York or somewhere on the coasts. There are a lot of great singers right here,” said Douglas.
The Florentine Opera’s production of Don Giovanni is on March 17 & 19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.