Your Regional Guide To The Performing Arts

Skylight Music Theatre Takes a Contemporary Approach to the Classic ‘Carmina Burana’

Skylight Music Theatre Takes a Contemporary Approach to the Classic ‘Carmina Burana’
Photo Credit: (Foreground) Christal Wagner and Nathan Wesselowski with the cast of "Carmina Burana." Photo by Ross Zentner.

In the age of smartphones, social media and streaming services, it’s hard to imagine what we could still have in common with folks who lived over 800 years ago. 

But Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana, based off a manuscript of poems of the same name from the 11th to 13th centuries, showcases many themes still relevant today. The 25 short musical selections from Carmina Burana are divided into three main sections: Springtime, In the Tavern, and Court of Love, with an opening and ending that praises Fortune, the goddess who brings both pleasure and suffering. Orff’s final product premiered in 1936.

Orff envisioned Carmina Burana as “total theater,” where music, dance and words are inseparable. To tackle this piece Skylight Music Theatre combined forces with Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Danceworks Performance Company and Chant Claire Chamber Choir.

“With Carmina you typically have a choir and orchestra where everyone is staring at a conductor, but this is the complete opposite of that,” says music director Janna Ernst. “Everyone is acting, moving and memorized and the artists really stepped up and said, ‘this is ours, musically.’”

Cast of "Carmina Burana." Photo by Ross Zentner. 

The theatrical spectacle includes an intergenerational cast of 16 Skylight and Milwaukee Opera Theatre performers, eight Danceworks movers, four Chant Claire guest artists, six percussionists, two pianists and one conductor on stage, plus 25 Chant Claire Chamber Choir members singing from above in the balcony.

“If anyone were to go away, the tower would crumble,” says Jill Anna Ponasik, stage director plus Milwaukee Opera Theatre artistic director and Skylight artistic associate. “Sometimes when you collaborate you are just sharing resources, but here we are really relying on one another.”

To offset the lack of real estate on the Cabot Stage, scenic designer Lisa Schlenker created cohesive platforms and ramps to give the dancers more space. A circular platform in the center resembles life’s wheel of fortune that the production revolves around.  The large moon that appears in the background reminds us that we are still looking at the same moon our ancestors did thousands of years ago.

Cast of "Carmina Burana." Photo by Ross Zentner. 

“We weren’t looking to do a glossy Carmina Burana,” says Dani Kuepper, choreographer and Danceworks artistic director. “We were looking to do something real, visceral and gritty. There’s something everyone will be able to relate to.”

If you think you are completely unfamiliar with Carmina Burana, think again. “O Fortuna,” the bookend number in Carmina Burana, has been used in countless films, television shows and commercials for dramatic and satirical effect. Excalibur, Cheaper by the Dozen, How I Met Your Mother, Glee, York Peppermint and Old Spice are just a few of the names that have used the thundering choral anthem to their advantage.

"Carmina Burana" promo video featuring "O Fortuna." Courtesy of Skylight Music Theatre. 

“The music coming from a bunch of different spaces in the room requires a kind of musicianship that is really different and much more challenging than what the people involved are used to,” explains Benjamin Bedroske, conductor and artistic director of Chant Claire Chamber Choir. “The singers have been forced to think very instrumentally and independently.”


Skylight’s production of Carmina Burana will remain in its original languages of Latin, Middle High German and Provençal, a now-archaic form of French. Although audience guides with complete translations will be available at the performances, the creative team insists that you don’t need to fully understand what is happening at each moment to grasp the show.

Left to right: Benjamin Bedroske (Conductor), Jill Anna Ponasik (Stage Director), Dani Kuepper (Choreographer) and Janna Ernst (Music Director). Photo by Mark Frohna. 

When you go to an opera and see the supertitles above, it’s probably pretty important you know what’s going on because there are some serious plot or character issues,” Ernst says. “That’s not really what this show is. It’s more about representing different states of human interaction, passions and sorrow.”


“Carmina Burana,” presented by Skylight Music Theatre, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Danceworks Performance Company and Chant Claire Chamber Choir runs March 15 – 31 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets visit or call the box office at (414) 291-7800.






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