From Studio Artist to Stage Director: Colleen Brooks’ Journey with the Florentine Opera

Ten years ago, mezzo-soprano Colleen Brooks was a part of the Florentine Opera’s first class of Studio Artists. Just like our Baumgartner Studio Artists today, she sang in main stage productions, community events and the touring children’s opera (that year it was Pinocchio).

Since her time as a studio artist in the 2008-2009 season, Colleen completed her doctoral degree, has sung with opera companies across the country and abroad, became a member of UW-Milwaukee’s voice faculty, and she’s returned to the Florentine Opera stage as a principal artist.

This season, she’s adding another Florentine debut to her resume – director of the 2018-2019 children’s opera The Three Little Pigs, which will tour around Southeastern Wisconsin to over 70 schools and other community venues.

“I’m really excited about this opportunity to mentor on a whole new level, working with young emerging artists as they learn how to mentor the children who will be seeing our opera,” Colleen says. “It’s also really helpful at this point in my own career to be reminded of the experiences gained and lessons learned when I was a studio artist myself.”

Colleen took her first steps into directing about three years ago as a member of the UW-Milwaukee voice faculty. The department had a need for a director within the program, and Colleen stepped into it, creating and directing scene programs and fully staged operas for the UWM voice students.

So how will she approach directing an opera geared toward kids in kindergarten through 5th grade?

“My general approach to stage directing is to zero in on the themes that we are looking to communicate and then decide how to deliver them in an honest and relevant way,” she says. “We are sometimes telling stories that are 300 or more years old, but when you get down to the core of the stories, most themes are still true and still relevant.”

One of the themes in The Three Little Pigs is the importance of reading and that libraries are a free and safe place to learn and read. In her research for the production, Colleen found an article entitled “Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming.” In this article, the author describes libraries as “gateways to the future” because they “…are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of education.”

Original costume designs by Mel Benson
Original set designs by Mark Hare

The opera will also explore ideas of being yourself and learning how to communicate if something in life isn’t making you feel healthy or happy.

With a children’s opera, Colleen says the biggest challenge for the stage director is keeping it age appropriate, both in terms of content and how it is delivered and performed.

“In The Three Little Pigs, the music arrangement by John Davies really helps us keep it age-appropriate because he selected all Mozart music,” Colleen says. “Mozart was such a child-like, energetic and spirited composer, and his musical style embodies all of that.”

Colleen also says that with a children’s opera you have to fully embrace the kids’ involvement.

“Performing for children is so unpredictable, but they bring with them an exciting energy that the singers can feed off of and return right back to them,” she says. “And letting the kids ask their questions and answering them honestly is an important part of keeping them engaged and welcomed at the performance.”

While the children’s opera tour is one way that the Florentine provides community education and introduces kids to opera, it is also a learning experience for the Baumgartner Studio Artists.

“The tour teaches the artists how to sing day in and out, whether you feel like it or not,” Colleen says. “And I hope that these young singers will allow themselves to play during this production and take that play into their more serious repertoire.”

Colleen Brooks as Pinocchio in the 2008-2009 Florentine children’s opera.

Colleen remembers the Florentine Opera Studio Artist program as being an incredible confidence builder.

“In addition to the roles, coachings and technique work, you really learn the business side of the industry in the studio artist program, like how your audition music should be organized for a pianist, how to do your taxes, and how to network with other singers, directors and conductors,” Colleen says. “I didn’t learn most of this until I was actually in young artist programs.”

Because of this personal experience, Colleen is working with other voice faculty at UWM to adjust the voice curriculum to include more of the business side of an opera career, better bridging the gap between a college degree and the expectations of being in the profession.

As Colleen gears up to start working with this year’s Baumgartner Studio Artists on The Three Little Pigs, she describes herself as being grateful and humbled by this opportunity.

“It’s been very meaningful for me to return to the Florentine as a singer this past season and now again in this directing role,” Colleen says. “It’s really beautiful that the Florentine is welcoming the growth I’ve experienced in my career, and once again I feel that little boost of confidence.”

Colleen Brooks (middle) as the Sorceress in the Florentine’s January 2018 production of Dido and Aeneas. Photo by Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films.

Check out Colleen Brooks’ upcoming performances:

Friday, November 9 and Saturday, November 10 – 7:30 pm
Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Alto Soloist with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra & Combined Choirs
Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts – 2419 E Kenwood Blvd, Milwaukee, WI 53211

Monday, November 19 – 7:30 pm
Self Portraits, Salon Recital Series: A full recital with pianist Jann Ernst
Skylight Music Theatre Salon – 158 N Broadway, Milwaukee, WI 53202

Friday, December 7 – 7:30 pm
Black Max, Waiting, & Amor (cabaret songs of William Bolcom) with UWM Chamber Ensemble
Jan Seer Studio, Kenilworth Square – 1915 E Kenilworth Pl, Milwaukee, WI 53202

The Three Little Pigs will begin touring in early 2019. Check our calendar of events in the coming months to see the dates for all of the community shows!









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