Esperanza Spalding played the intimate Opera House in 2010. For more photos, click gallery, above.
One day, the phone rang at the Stoughton Opera House. It was a call from an anxious audience member.
He asked, "How do I get to Stoughton from O'Hare?"
The restored 1901 opera house draws patrons from as far away as Ann Arbor, Chicago, Peoria and the Twin Cities. And it's not just audiences who enjoy the Victorian venue, its lively acoustics and perfect programming.
"There is scarcely a jewel in the many theaters we have played in 34 years to compare with the beautiful Stoughton Opera House," says Douglas B. Green, better known as Ranger Doug of the cowboy band Riders in the Sky. "Add to that a great staff, excellent sound, and most of all an always appreciative audience, and it's no wonder at all why we love to return to Stoughton."
Stephanie Jutt, of the Madison-based Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, agrees. "The acoustics in the opera house are sublime for a musician: crystal clear on stage, resonant and lively in the hall, with a close connection to the audience."
The Opera House's grosses have quadrupled since 2006, to nearly $400,000. Restaurants, hotels and shops indirectly share in that bounty.
"The Opera House has a significant economic impact," says David Phillips, executive director of the Stoughton Chamber of Commerce. More than that, he says, it's "indicative of the importance of cultural heritage."
All this success is achieved on a shoestring. The 60 performances a season, with upcoming guests including Alex DeGrassi (March 24), the Del McCoury Band (March 31) and Leon Redbone (May 5), are all put together by one and a half employees.
Bill Brehm is director of the Stoughton Opera House, a department of the city of Stoughton, in southern Dane County. He's also director of media services for the city, including its community television station, web presence, municipal phone system and employee cell phone service. And he's Stoughton's public information officer.
His only employee is Christina Dollhausen, the venue's event coordinator. Titles aside, they are most definitely a team.
"We both share virtually all the duties, from booking all the acts to sweeping the floors, changing the light bulbs - you name it, we do it," says Brehm.
A native of the Fox Cities, he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee before transferring to Madison, where he received his bachelor's in communication arts in 1996. His first big job after school was as education outreach director at Madison's cable access station, WYOU. After some peripheral involvement with the Opera House, in 2007 he became its director. He lives in Madison.
Dollhausen lives in Evansville. She's from McGregor, Iowa, and received her bachelor's in communication arts at UW-Stevens Point in 2001. She started with the Opera House in 2006.
There is absolutely nothing in either of their backgrounds to suggest why they are such successful and savvy arts programmers.
"That's true," says Dollhausen, laughing. "That's what's kind of funny about it. We should be booking with our heads, thinking about business. And we do. We think about those things. But we do tend to book with our hearts more often, because of our love of music and what we think would sound great on the stage. We're getting it down, I think, pretty well, because the feedback has been enormous and pretty positive."
Volunteers help with the box office and take care of ushering. Besides the performance series, which runs from September through June, the opera house is used for weddings, community groups, meetings, benefits and school presentations.
It is "not really" available to outside promoters. "Because of that, I think we're able to really hone the identity of the Opera House based on what we feel fits inside the room," says Brehm.
What makes a good fit, then?
"Christina had wanted me to answer that question by saying that each year we go to a friend's piece of land out in the country and go into a sweat lodge for three days," says Brehm, laughing. "Whatever comes out of the vapor is what we decide to book.
"The reality is that we basically look at what we enjoy listening to, and we listen to the people who come to the Opera House and take their suggestions about what they would like to see. We lay that out across what we know about how the room works, acoustically as well as architecturally. There's a real art to figuring out what fits well in that space."
"Judging from the upcoming schedule," says Buzz Kemper, co-owner of Audio for the Arts, a Madison-based studio that has recorded at the Opera House, "the Stoughton Opera House management seems very keenly aware of what types of acts would be suitable for the space, and they have booked acts which are very nicely compatible with the strengths of the space."
The Opera House is supposedly haunted by a little girl who sings on the stage. "It's a little disconcerting, but you get used to it," notes Brehm.
She likely just enjoys the acoustics.
"Many of us discovered - and have shared - the amazing acoustic 'secret' of the hall: the landing between the two floors is the most perfect location to hear the music onstage," says Bach Dancing and Dynamite's Jutt. "During many of our performances, you'll find a cadre of listeners sitting on the steps on the landing with huge smiles plastered on their faces."
"There's not a place you can sit in the Opera House and feel far away from the stage," says Brehm. "So when you get somebody like, recently, Martin Sexton, for instance, a guy came down from Minneapolis to hear him play because he'd heard that the Opera House was the best place to see a show. He was blown away. The other nice thing about that intimacy is that the wall between a performer and the audience has a tendency to fall down."
The Opera House occupies the second and third floors of Stoughton's city hall. It seats 475. It opened as the City Auditorium on Feb. 22, 1901, with a production of A Doctor's Warm Reception performed by the Ullie Ackerstrom Comedy Co., a touring repertory troupe whose other featured works that year were A Bachelor's Housekeeper and My Oriental Friend. For a half century the hall hosted operas, musicals, minstrel shows, vaudeville and temperance meetings, besides class plays and high school graduations.
In 1953 its roof leaked, and the interior was painted a dull gray. By 1955 it was closed to the public.
Then, in 1983, Friends of the Opera House was formed to save it. More than $1.75 million in private donations were raised. Volunteers virtually took the Opera House apart and restored it, adding a new heating and air conditioning system, along with modern lighting and sound systems. Among the historical highlights are the tin ceiling and original fire curtains and seats, which still have holders for top hats on their undersides.
"There are so many quirky little things about the Opera House," says Brehm. "Every time something falls apart, or every time something needs to be fixed, I'll be crawling around between the floorboards, literally, trying to find out where the problem is. And once I discover it, I'll be making phone calls, trying to find out which volunteer was it that worked on that aspect of the theater, and seeing if they're still living. And if they are - where did they find that part?"
Every repair, in fact, becomes something of an oral history project. "Not much of it is written down," Brehm says. "As caretakers of the space, Christina and I have to try to collect as much of that information as possible and make sure that it's available for the future."
Fixes of a more organizational nature may also be in the Opera House's future.
During the first few years after it reopened, "There was a little bit of a struggle to figure out what was the Opera House, what would its role be?" says Brehm. He and Dollhausen "decided we were going to push it as far as we could, and try to turn a corner."
They're still pushing. "Right now, I think we're actually at the tipping point for the Opera House," says Brehm. Even greater successes could lie ahead, he notes - "or we're going to find that we have gone as far as we can."
The Opera House's limitations are the result of its unconventional development plan: It has none.
As a city department, the Opera House doesn't have to pay rent. It's earning more, but it's also spending more, and it pretty much breaks even. There is no freestanding nonprofit organization to fundraise on its behalf or apply for grants; the last grant was received in 2005.
"With the limited number of staff available, it's difficult to work on development, but that's where we're looking to go at this point," says Brehm. "Ultimately it's not sustainable to maintain the Opera House as it is without continuing to grow, and that means bringing in other revenue streams. But we believe that over the last five years or so we've built up a foundation that we can grow from."
Meanwhile, the Opera House's 111-year history is always at the forefront of Brehm's mind. Once in a while at the end of the day, or after a show is done, he'll wheel out the piano.
"Sometimes by myself, or sometimes Christina is there, we'll play the grand piano on the stage of the Opera House. We'll look up at the seats and think about all the history in the room, and all the performers we've brought in, but also all the ones who've come before. They say that old theaters are haunted by the characters that were played on their stage. And that's something that seems very present when you sit in the room alone at night, just playing a tune."
He laughs, adding, "But that can quickly segue into a feeling that you're not alone in the Opera House. At which point you purposefully don't look around, close the piano, and walk calmly from the theater without turning around. If you're going to be in the Opera House at night, make sure it's with a friend."
Here are highlights of the Stoughton Opera House's spring schedule.
- 20 Jason Petty: Hank and My Honky Tonk Heroes
- 22 The Seldom Scene
- 24 Alex Degrassi
- 30 Dan Hicks & the Hot Licks
- 31 Del McCoury Band
- 12 Special Consensus Bluegrass Band
- 13 Fred Eaglesmith
- 15 Wingra Woodwind Quintet
- 20 The Pines
- 21 Spectrum Brass: The Music of George Gershwin
- 4 Tony Rice Unit
- 5 Leon Redbone
- 15 Sarah Jarosz
- 24 The Kruger Brothers