Oh, This Is Interesting: A Decade of Opera With Jill Anna Ponasik
By Ryan Albrechtson
Photo Credit: Dani Wener
“I’m not sure how it happened, I never really meant to become an Artistic Director, I was just wandering around trying to be a singer, and then BOOM, this other life found me.”
The 18-19 season marked Jill Anna Ponasik’s 10th season as Artistic Director of Milwaukee Opera Theatre, a small company self described as “Milwaukee’s microbrewery for opera” - founded in 1998.
“MOT was founded with a very specific goal of helping young singers build resumes,” says Ponasik. “It was founded by a soprano who wanted to create opportunities for herself and her colleagues to get experience so that they could then succeed in auditions for heritage repertoire.”
If you’re confused by this, you aren’t alone. Many assume that Ponasik was the original founder of Milwaukee Opera Theatre. “Because it changed so much, people just assumed I started the group now that we were doing such radically different work. There's a big shift from doing one or two shows in the summer in original language in Pewaukee at a church to MOT now - doing a full season of mostly original or lesser known works that could pop up anywhere.”
And that isn’t an exaggeration. Milwaukee Opera Theatre’s productions really do pop up anywhere - universities, banquet halls, book stores, gardens, hotel lobbies, and just about everywhere in between. This new shift to found spaces and original pieces was quite a shift for the opera company. “We did a piece called 26, an original work inspired by the 26 Italian songs and arias,” recalls Ponasik. “It was this paradigm shifting thing. We all immediately thought, ‘Oh this is interesting, and it appears to be pointing towards a future we hadn’t thought about before.’ And the next thing we knew we were heading in that direction with more vigor.”
While MOT is certainly known for its unique productions, it is equally as well known for its desire for collaboration. “Yeah, we’re almost obsessive about it,” jokes Ponasik. “It’s just more fun.”
“Collaboration forces us to learn, which is like my favorite thing. We’re always seeking out ways to look at things from a different perspective, and a collaboration naturally helps you do that,” says Ponasik. “You have to learn about how another organization makes decisions. How does that organization prioritize their resources? What audience are they serving? What do those people use that organization to get? All things that are very interesting to me.”
As the company has continued to grow and develop, almost every production Milwaukee Opera Theatre works on is a collaborative effort. This coming season will feature collaborations with Skylight Music Theatre, Cadance Collective, All In Productions, and Aperi Animam, to name a few.
“Collaborations allow us to remain small in terms of our operating budget and administrative resources but still produce large work that is larger than one small company could do alone,” says Ponasik.
And she’s right - the scale and quality of their work is quite impressive for an organization of their size. MOT is run by a staff of only two employees, one full time and the other part time. How do they get it all done? Their administrative decisions are just a creative and unique as their artistic ones.
“We decided immediately that it would be nomadic, we would explore how many infrastructural things that we assume an org needs we could get rid of in the 21st century,” shares Ponasik. “First thing was no phone line, no office space, no home anywhere. It was an experience. Could you run a small opera company with a laptop in coffee shops? We learned that you can.”
The company has grown exponentially with Ponasik at the helm, and continues to morph and challenge what it means to be a successful performing arts company. And as their fearless leader, Jill Anna Ponasik continues to grow with it.
“If I could give first-year Jill Anna some advice, I’d say: Breathe. It will all work out,” says Ponasik. “That’s still really hard advice to take. I could say that to 10-year-ago Jill Anna, but I still don’t exactly believe it. I’m still full of anxiety about the future, and totally freaked out about responsibly sustaining this organization. But, at the same time, I’m genuinely excited about what we might make.”