Feature: Green Lake Festival of Music and Thrasher Opera House

by erik@localeben.com
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 By: Sylvia Richards

Ripon College Music Professor Douglas Morris and a small group of community leaders founded the Green Lake Festival of Music in 1979 as a summer concert series.   At the time of its founding, no other presenting organization in this area of the state offered summer chamber music, which made the Festival’s mission both important and unique.  In the ensuing years, the Festival evolved into a comprehensive program, which was recognized for its outstanding record of bringing cultural enrichment to Central Wisconsin with a 2004 Governor’s Award in Support of the Arts.  The Festival’s current programs comprise a series of concerts featuring top quality artists from throughout the United States and beyond, a two-week string workshop for high school and college students, an adult choral institute, and the Thomas E. Caestecker series of free family concerts with related programs in area libraries.  Presently, the Festival concerts range from classical chamber and choral concerts to jazz, cabaret and ethnic music.

One of the more notable accomplishments of the Festival’s founder Douglas Morris was luring the world renowned musician Sir David Willcocks, conductor of the London Bach Choir, and later his son Jonathan, Director of the Junior Division of the Royal College of Music, to spend a week each summer directing a choral workshop.  This successful arrangement began in 1982 and lasted for 20 years.  The Festival organization then took a year off from the choral program before selecting Stephen Alltop, conductor of the famed Apollo Chorus of Chicago and a member of the conducting faculty at Northwestern University, to conduct the Festival’s new Choral Institute.   It is a four-day Institute culminating in a Sunday afternoon concert performed with orchestra.  The joy for the amateur singer is that Dr. Alltop brings some of his top graduate and post-graduate voice students from Northwestern University to enrich each vocal section.  These singers perform a Friday evening concert and also sing in the Institute chorus, making it possible for the other participants to perform challenging choral works in limited practice time. 

The Festival choir has included several singers from the Beaver Dam area over the years. Carpooling to rehearsals was always great fun. Local singers pictured with Sir David Willcocks in 1993 are, standing left to right, Marilyn VanHaren, Pam Kaney, Sir David Willcocks, Jim McMillan, Sharon Koenen and Sylvia Richards. Seated are Arleen and Ralph Wiedenhoeft.

During Jeannette Kreston’s tenure as Executive Director of the Festival, the Chamber Music Workshop was introduced.  It provides an intensive, high-quality experience for high school and college string and piano students along with numerous free outreach events for the general public and senior centers, libraries, and service groups.  Kreston also initiated the Caestecker free concert series to make the Festival’s musical events more readily available to families and reach the youngest and oldest members of the audience.  Through concert tours by its Chamber Choir to Poland, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Canada’s Maritime Provinces, the Festival has achieved international recognition.  The Festival also reaches a larger statewide audience with regular broadcasts by Wisconsin Public Radio.    

 Members from a wide variety of communities comprise the Festival’s Board of Directors, Associate Board and Friends Board.  Their home territories are Chicago, IL, Middlebury, VT, and nine Wisconsin communities including Beaver Dam.  Individuals who have served on the Festival’s board from the Beaver Dam area have included Judi Sullivan, Constance Koehne, Peter Seippel, Robert Dott, Ron Thompson, and presently Sylvia Richards and Bridget Hickey Sheridan.  Many others have participated from the Beaver Dam area through the Friends Board, the Choral Workshops, Chamber Workshops, Chamber Choir tours and also attendance at concerts, benefits and other special events, and by making financial donations.  Some of the local singers who have sung regularly through the years have included Marilyn VanHaren, Josie Woodworth-Turner, Arleen Wiedenhoeft, Pam Kaul, Janice Waters, Jim McMillan and Sylvia Richards from Beaver Dam, Nancy Van Brunt from Waupun and Jan Loosley from Mayville. 

In the Festival’s early years, concerts were performed in a variety of communities.  The very first concert in Beaver Dam was the Festival’s Chamber Choir, after its tour to Poland.  Not only was Beaver Dam an original location for concerts, but Beaver Dam performers have included pianist Connie Koehne, pianist Mary Indermuehle Drews, soprano Ronna Rawlins, and bass player Jerry Fuller performing annually in the orchestra with conductor Stephen Alltop and the Festival Chorus.  Ryan Belongie originally joined the Festival as a member of the Children’s Honors Chorus under conductor Jonathan Willcocks and later sang in the adult choir under conductor Sir David Willcocks.  After graduating from the Vocal Honors Program at Northwestern University, Ryan has gone on to a distinguished career as a well-known countertenor in the Chicago area and throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. 

The Green Lake Festival organization also joined with other arts organizations in Beaver Dam to host the “Festival of Arts” at Wayland Academy during the late 80s and early 90s.  The Beaver Dam Area Arts Association would feature a special artist, the Dodge County Historical Society would give a preview of their exhibits, the Beaver Dam Area Orchestra would perform on the green, the Beaver Dam Area Community Theatre would perform a preview of its summer musical, and the day would end with a Green Lake Festival concert in the evening.  Of course, some found the food the highlight of the day with the pie and ice cream social during the day and a reception following the evening concert.  The grounds and buildings of Wayland were beautified with wildflower bouquets picked and arranged by local gardeners.  This event involved a large number of community volunteers working together to promote the various categories of the arts.

The concerts in Beaver Dam were held at Wayland Chapel or the BDHS Auditorium until 1997 when the Festival finally found a home at the restored historic Thrasher Opera House in Green Lake.  The Festival organization found the acoustics and size of the Opera House an ideal setting for their concerts and a logical choice since the location tied into the name of the Festival. 

Fabric artist Arleen Wiedenhoeft with festival banner she created

Currently, the Festival is preparing for the opening of its 36th Season.  Since the 14th Season in 1993, the Festival’s banner has been proudly displayed at our concerts.  Artist Joye Moon of Oshkosh designed the Festival’s logo and Beaver Dam fabric artist Arleen Wiedenhoeft transferred the design into the creation of the Festival’s beautiful banner.  The 2015 opening concert will be the free preview concert featuring The Acropolis Reed Quintet on Friday June 19, where the banner will again be unfurled at the Thrasher Opera House in Green Lake.

This year the Festival will hold a special pre-season event at the Marcus Theater in Ripon on May 29 with a documentary film about Artur Rodzinski, a Polish conductor who served as music director for the Cleveland Orchestra and New York Philharmonic.  His niece Magda Krance, who is an associate board member, will be present to answer questions at the conclusion of the film.  The group will adjourn across the street to The Treasury for a meal and continued discussion.  A new feature this season will be bus transportation available from various communities to three Sunday matinee concerts scheduled for July 5, July 12 and August 2.  Please join us for these summer events.  Details are available on the Festival’s updated website www.greenlakefestival.org or by calling the Festival office 920-748-9398.   

Contributor’s note:  Bridget Sheridan, Marilyn VanHaren, Leila Ziebell, Maria Dietrich and Gladys Veidemanis provided photos and consultation.      


The Thrasher Opera House

 By: Maria Dietrich

The summer of 2015 will mark the 18th anniversary of the first three concerts held in the Thrasher Opera House’s not-quite-fully-renovated hall in the summer of 1997 by the Green Lake Festival of Music. The Jacques Thibaud String Trio, opera singer Gail Dobish, and pianist Orli Shaham gave warm and wonderful performances in the as yet un-air-conditioned concert hall. 

Built in 1910, the original opera house presented vaudeville acts and silent films. It was a hub of community activity, hosting school dances, basketball games and town meetings. By 1929, the Thrasher was showing “talkies” (movies with sound), which were shown until the opera house was forced to close during World War II. It was then used as a factory, a warehouse and eventually for boat storage. Rescued from the wrecking ball in the mid-1990s by Green Lake realtor Ronald Hagstrom, it was restored, and with air-conditioning installed, the Thrasher Opera House celebrated its official reopening on June 27, 1998.  Since then, the Thrasher has hosted local artists as well as musicians, comedians, lecturers, and dramatists from around the world.  Performers from five continents have graced the stage, enjoying an intimacy impossible in larger venues.  World-renowned songwriter Jimmy Webb said of the Thrasher after his 2010 concert, “This may be the sweetest little place I’ve ever played.” He returned for subsequent concerts in 2012 and 2013.  The Thrasher Opera House is listed on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places and is featured in the book Encore! The Renaissance of Wisconsin Opera Houses, published in 2009 by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. The former eyesore is now an attractive landmark in beautiful downtown Green Lake. “People come from near and far to experience the magic of live performance in a cool little historic venue with great acoustics and a friendly vibe,” says Executive Director Roby Irvin.

The Thrasher Opera House sees an estimated 10,000 people walk through its doors every year. It operates with three staff members, a 15-member board of directors and about 60 committed volunteers.  Each year the Thrasher hosts 50-60 nights of diverse programming that includes music and theater performances, comedy, educational workshops for youth and adults, school plays, as well as community forums and occasional films, and of course, the Green Lake Festival of Music concerts.  In addition, the Thrasher annually presents two weeklong residencies by the Missoula Children’s Theatre, each involving 60 area children in January and in June.  The Thrasher hosts revolving art exhibits in its adjacent gallery space, and the opera house is also used for weddings, business meetings, community concerts, fundraisers, movies, parties, memorial services, and other events limited only by the imagination of the public, thus continuing Thrasher Opera House’s important and historic function as a community gathering place where emotions and ideas have been exchanged for over 100 years.  The Thrasher Opera House remains a symbol of the history of Green Lake, and since its extensive remodeling and grand reopening in the summer of 1998, it serves as a ready participant in the history that is yet to come. 

This summer’s offerings include the John Jorgenson Quintet (Gypsy jazz), the Second City comedy troupe, Vocality (a cappella quartet) and EVA (international folk from four countries). Other 2015 performers include Peter Yarrow, Dervish, Livingston Taylor, ArtsPower Children’s Theatre, Tom Chapin, the Doo-Wah Riders, and the Alley Cats. For more information about the Thrasher and a complete calendar of events, visit www.thrasheroperahouse.com or call 920-294-4279.


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