By Nicole Gruter | Photo Courtesy Mark Fay
No one place embodies the symbiosis between culture and community quite like the stellar opera houses dotting Wisconsin. They equip their communities for civic needs while providing entertainment and artistic awareness. With grandiose design melding expertly with intimate scale, they use an historic journey of the imagination to connect the audience to modern-day productions.
Often referred to as the “jewel of the city,” these theaters are historically multipurpose. Built in 1901, Stoughton Opera House was once home to a library, fire station and police station (complete with a basement jail cell) in addition to the city hall, which remains today.
Since its inception, the theater portion has housed an incredible array of entertainment, from vaudeville and circuses in the early 20th century, to its current roster of Western Swing, chamber choirs, and wouldn’t you know it, opera. “We try to play to the strengths of the room, which is an acoustically strong space,” explains Bill Brehm, Stoughton Opera House director. “And no matter where you’re sitting, it feels very intimate.”
Much like its beginnings, the opera house continues to “act as an economic engine for the community, bringing people and dollars into town,” says Brehm. After crumbling into disrepair for decades, a nearly 20-year intensive restoration brought the Stoughton Opera House back to life, reopening in 2001. Pressed gold leaf fleur-de-lis accents, refurbished chandeliers and the original asbestos fire screen (encapsulated during restoration) painted with whimsical early 20th century ads take you back in time, creating an enchanting theater experience.
Heading northwest to Menomonie, discover the extraordinary Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts, named by prominent lumber baron parents for their daughter who died at age 19 in 1886. Touted as one of “15 spectacular theaters in the world” (CNN Travel), the building’s majestic Richardson Romanesque architecture and Moorish Revival interior impress upon us that no cost was spared in creating a tribute honoring Mabel, a lover of art and music.
Having undergone restoration in 2007, “the building has evolved after going through some rough times, but has come back full circle to what it was meant to be,” says Lucy Weidner, a longtime Mabel Tainter docent and volunteer. “The Tainters wanted to provide a place for educational, cultural and spiritual enrichment. They truly gave back to the community.”
Sometimes a theater’s drama extends past the proscenium, as is the legacy of Oshkosh’s Grand Opera House. Restoration of this stunning Victorian-style 550-person capacity theater was highly contested but ultimately approved. Patrons now enjoy national, regional and local acts in a modern, exquisite facility.
Additional historical Wisconsin theaters saved from demise include both Mineral Point Opera House, whose original grandeur was restored in 2008, and Thrasher Opera House in unassuming Green Lake. Thrasher was home to “talkies” as early as 1912, showing movies accompanied by live piano up until World War II. Now the beautifully restored theater is home to an eclectic array of music, theater, comedy and visual art shows.
With citizens providing countless volunteer hours and a dedicated staff, the love exhibited toward Wisconsin’s many elegant opera houses is palpable. Both Brehm and Weiden reflect common sentiment; “The theater is like a friend of ours,” says Brehm. And like a dependable friend, Weiden says “it’s always felt like home to me, a place I can feel really settled in.”