Pickleball Opera in Madison, Wisconsin

“Fish Fry” captures the recipe for a cultural touchstone

by Jay Rath – May 16, 2019

Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” — the opera cycle with the Viking helmet woman — features gods, golden apples, a dwarf and a giant who (spoiler alert) is turned into a dragon. So who’s to say a new opera about Wisconsin fish fries is crazy?

Fish Fry, billed as “comedy, opera and a secret recipe,” premieres May 23-June 2 at TAPIT/new works Ensemble Theater, in association with Madison’s Fresco Opera Theatre.

Playwright and lyricist Danielle Dresden says she came up with the idea about a year ago when she was participating in Arts Day, an annual advocacy event sponsored by Arts Wisconsin.

“A person was giving a presentation about the wide range of artistic resources and artistic enterprise in the state of Wisconsin,” she says, her voice dropping an octave. “And then I thought fish fry.

“And then I thought — I don’t know why — with opera!”

Thus was born the story of Sal’s Supper Club and Fish Fry on Lake Cattywompus. Holder of the famed secret recipe, Sal is departing to join the professional pickleball circuit. C-Roc, “the franchise king,” makes an appearance, as well as Sue Salamander, editor of Snooteur Magazine: “for foodies who are too full of themselves to eat anything less than fabulous.”

Who should then show up but two tourists auditioning for the Busybodies television network. “They hunt fantastical creatures, and they’re looking for the giant muskie of Lake Cattywompus,” says Dresden.

Fresco Opera usually performs classic operas as they were written, setting pieces in pop culture settings. This time, lyrics to arias are provided by Dresden, who mined works such as “The Anvil Chorus” from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1853 opera, Il trovatore.

“To develop the plot I read summaries and took a dive into standard tropes of opera,” she says. “The plot incorporates some of the elements of opera, such as challenges. There are magic potions, disguises — and fish singing a long time before they die.”

A big assist came from Janet Gilmore, UW-Madison professor of landscape architecture and folklore studies. Gilmore will facilitate audience discussions after performances on May 24, 30 and June 1.

“She’s fascinating,” says Dresden. “She has actually written papers on the Wisconsin fish fry, and she’s also studied fishing communities and fishing families. Her insights helped inform the development of the show: the script, the plot and specific lines about perch fisheries and things like that.”

Longtime Madison theater veteran Sarah Whelan directs, and musical direction is by Fresco’s Melanie Cain; her husband, Frank Cain, serves as the stage manager.

“Opera purists may come at me with tar and feathers,” says Dresden. But, she says, the show was created “in a spirit of fun and inclusiveness in a time when there’s not much of that around.”


Content retrieved from: https://isthmus.com/arts/stage/fish-fry-captures-the-recipe-for-a-cultural-touchstone/.

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