Relishing UI opera's opportunities
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He’s certainly no stranger to the University of Iowa, but now Bill Theisen can call this place his home.
Theisen, who served as the interim director of opera at the University of Iowa in 1998 and continued that relationship for the past 15 years, is now the full-time director of opera in the UI School of Music.
Theisen has directed more than 100 productions for theater and opera companies from coast to coast. Recent directing credits include The Pirates of Penzance for Santa Fe Opera, Showboat with Gateway Playhouse, H.M.S. Pinafore, The Barber of Seville, and The Mikado at Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Sweeney Todd with Cleveland Opera, The Fourth Wall at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, The Magic Flute for Virginia Opera, A Little Night Music with Seaside Music Theater, The Mikado with Opera Carolina, Seussical at First Stage Children’ Theatre, and Into the Woods at the Capitol Center for the Performing Arts.
Theisen’s first production as director, Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill, will be staged at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8 and 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, in the Englert Theatre in downtown Iowa City. (More information, including ticket prices, can be found in our preview article.) In the days leading up to the show, Theisen spent some time talking with Iowa Now about the joys of helping students attain their goals, the appeal of working in a higher education setting, and his appreciation of contemporary American opera.
Tell us a little bit about your background—where you've been, what you've done, and so on.
I spent the last nine years as the artistic director of Skylight Opera Theatre in Milwaukee. In addition I have a very active freelance career directing for opera and theater companies throughout the country. Much of my time has been spent as a visiting professor/guest director for numerous universities and music conservatories.
When were you bitten by the performing arts bug?
I consider myself a late bloomer compared to many friends in the business. I sang in choir in high school but didn't perform in a stage production until age 21. I started out in musical theater and transitioned into the opera house both as a performer and a director. While I still perform on occasion, the last 20 years has been primarily spent as a stage director.
What’s been your favorite moment on stage?
Many years ago I was performing in the national tour of Oklahoma! and we played in my mother’s hometown, Iron Mountain, Mich. Our show played in the main auditorium in town, which is where my mom had performed in high school. It was one of those great moments that bring the family connection full circle.
What are your goals now that you are in this position full time—do things change now that the interim tag is gone?
I could not be more excited to be here full time. I have been interim and a guest artist since 1998 so have often thought about the possibility of settling down in Iowa City but didn't know if it would ever really happen. There is so much potential with the opera program here, and I relish the opportunity to explore everything possible.
A true passion for me is contemporary American opera, and I hope to share that with both students and the community. So many incredible operas have been written by American composers in the last 25 years, and I want to showcase as many of them as is possible. The worlds of opera and musical theater are changing and quite a few new works now being written blend the two worlds. These exciting new productions are the future of the medium, and I truly want to embrace them.
What can you tell us about this fall's production—what will audiences enjoy most?
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill is a very unique revue. Not only does it showcase the incredible songs Weill wrote, but it also takes us on a journey that Weill and his wife, singer-actress Lotte Lenya, experienced, which definitely dictated his future creations.
The melodies Weill wrote speak to the soul in a way that no other composer does, and I hope by presenting this work those who were not familiar with Kurt Weill will come to appreciate his immense contributions to the worlds of opera and musical theater.
Talk about what you most enjoy about working with students.
In all of my guest artist jobs on the university level, the great joy has been working with students. Coming from a professional background I feel that I have a great deal to share with these young artists and help them to prepare for a career on the national and international level. It is also a joy to have one-on-one time that is not always available professionally to help each singer realize his or her true potential.
The atmosphere on campus is such a nurturing world, and I hope to mirror that in the work that I do with the students. Getting to know each student as an individual and then crafting a course for them to achieve whatever goals they may wish to attain is something only possible in the higher education setting. That possibility is incredibly exciting to me.