Retiring director Farlow brought high expectations and humor to the stage

Written by Paul Baker
Photographs by Michael R. Anderson

In his 16 seasons as director of University Opera at UW-Madison, William Farlow has become known for high expectations coupled with a devilish sense of humor.

This is his final year, his final opera: Hector Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, to be performed in Music Hall April 11, 13, and 15. Now, in near-daily rehearsals, a group of voice students are receiving their very last chances to experience the Farlow Method.

(Click here for a news release about this show.)

It is not always easy. He can be brutally honest one minute, and chuckle with mirth the next. Students may accept his comments with a professional “thank you” or jokingly threaten to post questionable comments on his Facebook page. On the other hand, during one rehearsal a few years ago of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, known for a somewhat-oppressive tone, he donned bunny ears to lighten the mood.

He does not compromise. He wants the best. Some young actors sometimes find it difficult to deliver their spoken words, he confides. “They overdo it. They don’t yet know how to underplay less important lines.”

To a pair of male actors, clearly still working on their delivery: “That dialog sort of went reasonably well.”

To the chorus, who failed to show sufficient fear when the inept Somarone brandishes his conductor’s baton, he invoked the name of a famous household appliance: “Your inhalation must sound like a giant Hoover [vacuum], sucking up in Chicago!”

To the chorus, again, celebrating Don Pedro’s military victory over the Moors: “You will have to put out a lot more sound. The longer you sing, the less energy there seems to be. It should be the opposite. Especially when the orchestra is here.”

At a recent rehearsal, Farlow never sat for long. He constantly jumped onto the stage to position actors and chatted during breaks when conductor James Smith worked with musicians. His need to be in the middle of things stems from his time at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, he says. The director would suggest a change, and Farlow would sprint down the aisle, grab the actors and push them into new positions. He developed a response to the common adage that “directors must not invade the actors’ space”: “Baloney!”

Farlow well remembers this stage of a singer’s career. Before he began directing, he performed half a dozen or so Gilbert and Sullivan roles. The experience became critical to his directing. It’s like being a good orchestral musician before you conduct, he says, or a good shortstop before you coach.

Stress is always part of performance, and the last thing Farlow wants to do is add to it. So much is going on at any given moment that rehearsals can seem like a circus. He tries to keep pressure low, unless he’s really ticked off about something. He knows that actors must be comfortable to give their best.

The two-act Béatrice et Bénédict is based loosely on William Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing. Written by Hector Berlioz and premiered in 1862, it is scored for lead singers, chorus, and a large orchestra. The story line leads up to a double wedding ceremony.

Although the singers deliver dialog in English, they sing in the French. Farlow decided that was the way to go, following his success with a production of The Magic Flute with English dialog and German singing.

The modestly-sized chorus consists of six female and six male undergraduates. A professional company doing Béatrice et Bénédict would employ a chorus three times that size, Farlow says, but Music Hall doesn’t require such forces.

Lead parts are sung by Lindsay Metzger (Beatrice), Benjamin Schultz (Somarone), Anna Whiteway (Hero), Daniel López-Matthews (Benedict), Erik Larson (Don Pedro), Jordan Wilson (Claudio), Kathleen Otterson (Ursule), and  Annisa Richardson (Adèle).

Farlow stayed on as Director of University Opera this last year because he knew he had two more master’s students majoring in opera performance left to graduate. He loved last semester’s production of Handel’s Ariodante (“It was beautiful”) and he thinks he can see the Berlioz through to the end. “Just needs a little tightening up here and there.” And that’s exactly what he was doing.

Later, over lunch, Farlow takes a minute to reflect. Four weeks from tomorrow my directing career is over, he says, a glint in his eye. He’s already been asked to direct four productions and he’s turned them all down.

Even though he will no longer direct, he will continue to serve as artistic advisor for Madison’s Fresco Opera and artistic consultant and master teacher for Des Moines Opera. 

Working his way through a delicious looking spinach quiche, he was reflective, yet upbeat, when we talked. Béatrice et Bénédict has been on his wish list for at least 30 years. He first saw it performed on public television and thought, “it was the greatest thing I’d heard.”

The most rewarding challenge

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in El Paso, Texas, William Farlow benefited from strong public school music programs. His first career ambition was to direct a high school orchestra; he graduated college from the University of Texas-El Paso as a music theory/composition major. But that impulse passed very quickly. His eyes were opened to the possibility of a professional career as a director when he did graduate work at UT-Austin with Walter Ducloux, the internationally known conductor, pianist, translator, writer, and educator whose career spanned over 50 years.

A former pianist and violinist, Farlow chose opera as his life work because it combines singing, dancing, lighting, costumes, poetry, prose, stage design, and orchestral conducting. Opera is the most rewarding and the most frustrating challenge of all, says Farlow. “To make all those elements come together at the same time is a huge undertaking, but when it does all come together it’s unlike anything,” he says.

Most operas he’s witnessed have been good. Unforgettable performances are rare. One can enjoy outstanding performances by individual singers in an otherwise mediocre production. But a really extraordinary experience requires everything to sparkle: singers, orchestra, the conducting, the sets, the costumes. He places the Chicago Lyric’s recent La Clemenza di Tito in the “wonderful” category, and not only because UW alum Emily Birsan played the role of Servilia. (Note: Birsan is scheduled to perform in this weekend’s performance of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, in Mozart’s Requiem. Students may purchase tickets for as little as $12. She will also give a master class at the School of Music Thursday, April 3, at 1PM in Mills Hall.)

Farlow’s years of experience prepared him for directing Tristan und Isolde for the Pittsburgh Opera (where he served as operations director from 1990-1992), Turandot for the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Salome for the Los Angeles Opera. He has also directed productions for the Canadian Opera Company, Los Angeles Opera and the Kalamazoo Symphony.

People sometimes ask when his career really took off. “I don’t know that it ever did take off,” he says. “I just started working more in opera and working less at Barnes and Noble.”

The anatomy of the UW Opera program

“Wonderful” is a term voice professor Mimmi Fulmer uses to describe Farlow’s work. She credits him with transforming the program in two ways: using the university orchestra, rather than using a “pick-up” ensemble. And rather than assigning meaty roles to faculty and guests, he picked only students.

Plotting out operas for the coming year, Farlow always chose works by surveying his resources and solving an equation, of sorts. It went like this: Here are my singers. What operas can they do now? Is the orchestra part workable? Does it require a huge chorus? If it requires five baritones, do we have five baritones? Will this role prepare this student for where she or he should be next year? “I choose operas that will afford the most parts to the most singers,” he says.

He developed a policy of accepting students into the opera performance program only if he knew if he knew they could be cast in three major roles. He wanted to understand their strengths and their potential so that he could plot their growth and pull out the best they have to offer. “When a really talented student lands on my doorstep,” he says, “I want to know I can work with them for a few years, and that gives me some leeway.” Two dozen Master’s of Music in Opera Performance students have graduated during his tenure.

After graduation, when their professional careers start to develop, singers need to be patient, Farlow says. If you want a career as a musician, you have to give it everything, he says, “and that means doing all kinds of temp work that you never thought you would, and you have to give it at least five years. And you’ll see if that’s what you want to do, or not.”

Mimmi Fulmer says Farlow always listened to a student’s voice, then mentally placed what that voice will be able to do several shows ahead. Farlow’s hunches generally proved to be correct. It’s not just that he had a crystal ball, Fulmer says; he also provided students opportunity and training. He could tell where the voice was going and help them make the next leap.

Fulmer updates her list of vocal and opera program graduates. The alumni, and what they’re doing, are a tribute to Bill, she says. The program has sent graduates (of the master’s and doctoral programs-there is no undergraduate opera major) to choice positions all over the world, and she credits that to Farlow’s leadership. Farlow recently saw former student Emily Birsan sing in the Lyric Opera’s production of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. But Emily is just the tip of the iceberg, says Fulmer. Click here for a partial list of opera graduates: UW-Madison Opera Graduates2013

Farlow appreciates his UW faculty colleagues, who demonstrate their commitment in myriad ways. Longtime university orchestra conductor James Smith, for example, attends every rehearsal of every production, something Farlow has seen nowhere else. “Bill has an immense knowledge of all areas of music: vocal, orchestral, chamber music, and theatrical,” Smith says. Indeed, Farlow has directed operas ranging from works by 17th century Italian composer Cavalli to a 2009 world premiere of Maura Bosch’s Art and Desire, based on the life of Jackson Pollock.

Other faculty members have gone to great lengths to realize certain shows. With Mimmi Fulmer and emeritus professor and pianist Bill Lutes, Farlow presented a semi-staged version of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, one of his “absolute favorite things,” even though Schoenberg’s music is difficult and Fulmer said learning it was the hardest thing she’d done.

He also appreciates his tech colleagues, not only for their talent but for their longevity. Costume designers Sydney Krieger and Hyewon Park have worked with Farlow on nearly every production. He’s had only had three tech directors, including incumbent Greg Silver, who’s been with him for seven years. Set designer and scenic artist Liz Rathke and lighting designer Steven M. Petersen have been stalwart as well.

He’s had help from a supportive media. Farlow credits Scott Herrick and Perry Allaire of WORT-FM with promoting his productions faithfully. Journalist Jacob Stockinger has supported UW opera for decades, beginning with his Capital Times columns and now with his blog, The Well-Tempered Ear. Many times Wisconsin Public Radio’s Jonathan Overby invited Farlow to guest on his program Higher Ground. And not just to plug the opera, but to stay in studio for an extra hour to play Ed McMahon to Overby’s Johnny Carson.

Besides faculty and staff salaries, the major part of University Opera’s funding comes from private donors and outside grants. Both Bill and Mimmi Fulmer, like many in the arts and on campus, have taken on larger roles in advancement and fund raising, work that now serves as a model for the entire School of Music.

Who will likely replace him? Farlow says whomever is hired will bring a skill set that overlaps, but does not duplicate, his own. “Professionals have their own way of doing things,” he says. “There are certain things that must be done but, beyond that, it’s up to the person.”

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