Melanie Cain’s Fresco Makes It a Public Domain

By Heather Owens

Accessibility and quirkiness are not typical operatic attributes. But thanks to Melanie Cain, her husband Frank and their company Fresco Opera Theatre, perceptions of what opera is—and whom it’s meant for—are changing. The couple founded it in 2009 after being inspired by the welcoming sense of community and creativity from the Willy Street Parade. Fresco’s objective is to provide a “fresh” twist and is a gateway to how opera can be experienced.

“You can give credit to the Willy Street Parade for the start of Fresco Opera,” Melanie Cain says. “We were inspired by its energy and atmosphere and started to wonder how we could bring that feel into this genre. Opera has a stereotype of being stuffy or untouchable. I want to change those stereotypes by offering a unique take on the genre.”

The joy, excitement and passion Cain has for the visual arts, music and Fresco shine through and are integral to her life. Growing up in a small town in Iowa she loved singing, but cultural opportunities weren’t readily available; she only knew about opera from a well-known cartoon parody. While working on an undergraduate degree in art and music at Luther College, a professor suggested opera based on her singing ability, which led to her future “home” and a new path.

She moved to Madison to complete a master’s degree in music and a doctorate of musical arts at UW-Madison and has lived here since—occasionally being on the audition circuit, but usually finding more joy and inspiration when creating off-stage.

Cain incorporates her visual arts background into the whole production process from choosing songs to designing costumes and sets. Her muses for original works include collaborating with other artists, finding distinctive locations and listening to a wide range of musicians from Karen Carpenter to Jay-Z. She’s also fascinated by how audiences respond to unique productions, especially when pop culture references are thrown into the mix.

Such themes were evident in Fresco’s first production “Dueling Divas” in which the performers sung arias in a boxing ring and the audience chose their favorite winner. Staying on top of trends and appealing to horror fans—one of Cain’s favorite genres—and to pop culture fans, “Paranormal Playhouse” and “The Divas of Dane County” in later seasons helped make opera more relatable to a contemporary audience.

And as a reaction to the political climate and budget cuts to the arts, the Cains made a bold move in the 2017-2018 season by forging ahead with “Giving Opera Back to the People.”

“We decided to make this season free because we wanted to reach as many potential opera fans as possible. Our season literally brings opera to the people. Whether it’s in their neighbor’s garage or on the street corner,” she says.

Also this fall’s “Opera Storytellers” will be at local bookstores, coffee shops and Picnic Point. In spring 2018 “The Queen of the Night” will premiere as the prequel to “The Magic Flute.” Stay tuned— because one never knows what Cain and her troupe will take to the stage next. frescooperatheatre.com.

This story is part of our “Inspiration Takes Stage” article. Click to read about the other two featured artists – Rachelle Butler and Erica Berman.

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