When Madison Opera presents “Fidelio” in Overture Hall on Friday and Nov. 23, it will mark many firsts.
“Fidelio” was the only opera written by Ludwig van Beethoven — and this will be the first time in Madison Opera’s 53-year history that the company has presented a fully staged version. “Fidelio” was performed by the company, but in concert, in 1986.
It’s the first time Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain will conduct the work, performed by a seven-member cast, the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra. For stage director Tara Faircloth and three of the featured singers, “Fidelio” will mark their Madison Opera debut.
Those singers include soprano Alisa Jordheim, 28, who will play Marzelline. An Appleton native, Jordheim studied for two years at Lawrence University, where her father is the saxophone professor and her mother is an instructor of flute. She moved to the University of Cincinnati, where she is currently working on her doctorate.
Jordheim, whose research centers on Scandinavian song and diction, spent last year on a Fulbright scholarship in Oslo, Norway.
“I really enjoyed my time in Scandinavia,” she said. “The people were so nice – very Wisconsin-like. Very welcoming. And their quality of life is so wonderful there: They enjoy nature and really work to live instead of live to work.”
But while her academic research was very fulfilling, she said, “I didn’t sing much while there, and I missed it.”
“This business is so interesting, in that there’s really no one path to take,” Jordheim said. “For me, I’ve always had other interests besides singing. I love the multi-dimensional aspect of the craft, meaning the acting, the music, the body awareness that it takes, the costumes, the lighting – it’s just an all-encompassing art form.”
Jordheim’s character helps open “Fidelio,” a dramatic story about freedom and the triumph of love over tyranny. “Fidelio” centers on the noblewoman Leonore’s attempt to rescue her husband, a political prisoner, from the prison where she believes he is being held. To do so, Leonore disguises herself as a man.
Marcelline, a teenager, “is falling for Fidelio, whom she doesn’t know is Leonore in disguise,” Jordheim explained. “She doesn’t realize that she’s in love with this man, and the man is really a woman.”
“(Marcelline) is an interesting character to think about just because she doesn’t realize the object of her affection is actually a female,” she said. “Trying to play it so she doesn’t come off as being totally clueless can be a challenge. I’m very grateful for Alexandra (LoBianco), who’s playing Leonore. I think we’ll be a convincing pair, and it helps me as Marcelline to be a more fleshed-out character.”
A fellow Wisconsin native will be on stage in “Fidelio” in a far darker role.
Baritone Kelly Markgraf, who grew up in Cedarburg, plays Don Pizarro, the opera’s villain.
“It’s a level of evil that not many people are comfortable exploring, put it that way,” he said.
“It’s a very dark existence. This guy is wreaking revenge on another nobleman who tried to unseat him, and he’s brought him into the prison, convinced everybody else that he’s dead, and has been systematically starving him to death in the dungeon over the course of two years.” (The story gets even darker.)
Markgraf praises the selection of soprano LoBianco and tenor Clay Hilley for the opera’s leading roles, Leonore and Florestan.
“This piece in particular is quite difficult to cast,” he said. “These roles have to be sung by extremely skilled singers with great endurance. Not only endurance, but the ability to project over the Beethoven texture of the orchestra, the thickness of the tone that comes out of the orchestra. So they really have a feat in front of them.”
Singing came into Markgraf’s life unexpectedly. Captain of the Cedarburg High School soccer team, which won state championships several times while he was a member, the teenaged Markgraf was deep into sports and academics. But another student insisted he audition for the school musical – and the freshman Markgraf beat out all the school’s upperclassmen to win the lead role of the King in “The King and I.”
“That caused quite a ruckus in a small-town high school, as you can imagine,” he said.
“By the time I was a junior applying to colleges, it was clear to me that I had some potential here, and if I didn’t try it I would never see how far I could go,” he said. “Fortunately my parents were very supportive. Ten years and three college degrees later, I could have been a heart surgeon, but I’m a singer.”
Madison audiences last saw Markgraf in July, when he performed in Opera in the Park. His Madison Opera debut was in “Don Giovanni” in 2013.
When he’s not performing, Markgraf — married to singer Sasha Cooke and the father of a three-year-old — runs a tea import business.
“It’s been for me an excellent complement to my singing schedule,” he said. In opera “you piece together a patchwork of contracts throughout the year. If you’re fortunate, you make a living with that, and I’ve been very fortunate in that way.”
He first got into tea as an alternative to coffee, which can dry out a singer’s throat.
“What’s interesting is that I have customers around the country, because my traveling allows me to expose the tea to new people,” he said. “I’ve acquired customers wherever I travel, which is nice.”
As for being back in Wisconsin, “I really love being in Madison. It’s one my favorite cities in the United States, honestly,” said Markgraf, 36, who is now based in Houston, Texas.
“To be able to come home when you travel so much to sing — it’s a very fulfilling thing to be back in your home state with the kind of people you grew up around.
“To be able to come offstage and see your friends from high school or to see your parents and your extended family – that’s a rare kind of thing, and it’s much more personal because of that.”