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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: RBG and a famous summer intern at Peninsula Players in Door County

Critic At Large

Francesca Zambello

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a big fan of opera.

One of her friends in high places is famous in opera.

Their amazing story connects to Northeastern Wisconsin this way:

Francesca Zambello – the friend in high places – is artistic and general director of The Glimmerglass Festival near Cooperstown, New York, and The Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Francesca Zambello and Justice Ginsberg had many prominent photo ops.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Francesca Zambello (The Glimmerglass Festival)

After all, the justice was the great RBG and known for her passion for opera.

The operas RBG saw were often those mounted by Francesca Zambello.

Francesca Zambello has earned accolades in America, France, Japan, Russia, England, Germany and Australia.

Her vast scope includes – to cherry-pick a title well known to the general public – directing for Broadway, with her debut there being “The Little Mermaid” for Disney.

Other highlights:

+ Debut with the Houston Grand Opera in 1984.

+ Co-artistic director of Skylight Music Theater in Milwaukee.

+ European debut at Teatreo La Fenice in Venice.

+ Artistic advisor to the San Francisco Opera.

+ Awarded Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her contribution to French culture and the Russian Federation’s Medal for Service to Culture.

+ Three Olivier Awards (Tony equivalent) from the London Society of Theaters.

Two Grand prix de la musique du syndicat de la critique awards for her work at the Paris Opera and Best Production in Japan, the Palme d’Or in Germany, the Golden Mask in Russia and the Helpmann Award in Australia.

+ Developed and directed the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ “Heart of a Soldier” for the San Francisco Opera.

+ First international production of “Carmen” to be presented at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, People’s Republic of China.

+ Theater projects include “Show Boat” in London at the Royal Albert Hall and for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera; a new musical, “Rebecca,” for Vienna’s Raimund Theater, Stuttgart’s Palladium Theater and in St. Gallen, Switzerland; “Tibet Through the Red Box,” a new play by David Henry Hwang for Seattle Children’s Theatre; “Napoleon” in the West End.

+ A film of Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” for BBC Television and “The Little Prince” for the BBC, Sony and PBS, with works on DVD including “War and Peace,” “Carmen,” “The Little Prince,” “Street Scene,” “Show Boat” and “Porgy and Bess.”

Francesca Zambello at The Glimmerglass Festival. (Ian Austin)

A giant step for Francesca Zambello took place in Wisconsin in 1974 at Peninsula Players Theatre in Door County.

She worked 16-hour days and learned the ropes as an intern for a full, full summer at the professional theater. She calls the experience “phenomenal.”

This column comes at the courtesy of the coronavirus COVID-19. Without the pandemic, Peninsula Players Theatre’s artistic director Greg Vinkler wouldn’t be exploring fascinating stories surrounding the historic theater.

Greg Vinkler interviewed Francesca Zambello as part of the “Peninsula Players Presents” series, which can be found at The golden connections with Francesca Zambello are arguably about as illustrious as they get for a Northeastern Wisconsin theater.

The connections come in layers that Francesca Zambello says go “way, way back, for which I am extremely grateful.”

She knew about the Peninsula Players before she ever went to the theater on the shore of Green Bay three miles south of Fish Creek.

“My mother was Jean Sincere, who was an actress. She passed away six years ago. She began her career as an actress in the mid-1930s at the Peninsula Players, when I feel it was a group of intrepid actors doing a kind of old-fashioned great repertory theater. They would rehearse a show, put it up for a week and simultaneously rehearse another show. And I know for her the Peninsula Players held an extremely fond place in her heart.

“She was from Chicago originally, and she trained at the Goodman Theatre. It was very important for her during those years in the 1930s. And then she basically left Chicago and moved to New York and began to pursue a career as an actress.

“Fast forwarding, then she had a career in New York and on Broadway and regional theater. My father (Charles Zambello) was an actor when they met. And then he decided to get a job, so he worked for TWA (Trans World Airlines) starting as a flight attendant and eventually becoming an executive.

“When I was born, we left New York and moved to Kansas, where my mother was doing summer stock all the time, which is where I actually fell in love with theater when I was about 5 or 6 years old at the Starlight Theatre (of Kansas City), which was a huge outdoor venue there. And she acted my whole life.

“Then, as I grew up, we moved back to New York. And then we moved to Europe when I was in junior high school, and she had a big career in France and in Austria doing a lot of theater in English and touring in those countries. And she had a big career dubbing.

“I was never really interested in performing, but I was always interested the storytelling, which I’m sure every director starts from that, whether it’s from like puppets in the basement or directing all your friends – what to do.

“So it was when I was in high school when she was invited back to the Players in the summer of 1974 to do Nurse Ratched in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.’ I applied to be an intern, and so I went there for the summer. I was just graduating from high school, and I worked all summer.”

Some background: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has a colorful history. Many people know it from the Jack Nicholson film arsenal. It won five Oscars – one for him. But the film came out in 1975. In 1974, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was still known as a play that ran on Broadway. Ken Kesey’s novel was adapted in 1963 by Dale Wasserman, who happens to be a native of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. For the Peninsula Players production, Jean Sincere played a ramrod-tough role.

“That was back when there were like seven or eight shows (seven in 1974 for the Peninsula Players), and there was a company of actors. We all lived in our varied, you know, huts around the campus. It was for me a phenomenal training program. Phenomenal.

“Like many of these programs even now – and now (me) running several of them – I learned really how to build scenery, how to build costumes. I learned about technical theater. I learned about stage management. I learned about box office. I learned about audience connection.

“And all that while working shows every night – you know, stage right, stage left, the electrics board back when it was a manual board. All of that. And my mother was there part of the summer doing the lead in that play. And it was a phenomenal summer.”

The play lineup in 1974: “Finishing Touches,” “The Good Doctor,” “That Championship Season,” “The New Mt. Olive Hotel,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Shay” and “The Sunshine Boys.”

At the time, the audience sat on folding chairs on a sloping crushed-stone surface. The stage house had residents – raccoons and bats. A member of the company was my wife’s late husband, Tom Birmingham, who was impressed by Jean Sincere and Francesca Zambello, and whose mischievous stepsons would climb into the rafters and – for fun – rock the stage house.

The present-day Peninsula Players Theatre offers four productions in summer (one a musical) and one in fall in a well-appointed facility that was rebuilt in 2006.

Camaraderie was and is part of the experience for company members.

“I lived over the box office (a space that Greg Vinkler notes is his office now). It was nice. And then we had all the meals communally. There was a communal kitchen where there was a wonderful cook who definitely overfed everybody with amazing Midwestern-like cuisine.

“And then just the nights on the lake – late at night jumping in the lake.”

Technically, it’s a bay, the Bay of Green Bay, which is part of Lake Michigan. Interestingly, The Glimmerglass Festival also is located on water, Otsego Lake.

“I only spent one summer there, but it was really important because now, 45 years later, one of the companies that I run, The Glimmerglass Festival, has a very large apprentice/intern program of about 50 kids who work in every aspect of production and administration as well as another 50 kids who are young artists, young opera singers. But that summer there was incredibly important to me in my development….

“I went on to college at Colgate University and did theater all through college and moved to New York City after that. So I really look back on the Peninsula Players as an amazing learning experience.

“And then I had a kind of interesting connection with down state years later in Milwaukee where I ran the Skylight Theatre for six years as artistic director during my 20s. So I had some good Midwestern years.

Screenshot from interview. (Peninsula Players Theatre)

“I know that you (Peninsula Players) still have interns (10 each summer, and they are ‘critically important’ Vinkler says) as part of your programming and part of what you do. I always speak about how important it is in the theater. In the theater, you learn by doing and by watching people and by the experience of engaging in the process. I think academic theater is fantastic, but having the pressure of getting the show done, getting it ready for an audience – the professional pressures, understanding what they are – is a wonderful thing.

“The Players have such a great connection to Chicago, and theater and opera are so much a part of that scene. And Milwaukee as well. And Madison. So I think you’re doing an invaluable service.

“I feel this sort of real weight of responsibility to make sure with our interns and apprentices and young artists that we try to help them get a job. I always say we’re job trainers.”

Francesca Zambello is asked about her adventures in the 1974 season.

“I look back at doing strike and setup all night on a Sunday night. And then Monday was dark. Tuesday was dress rehearsal packed in and opening was Wednesday. Now, of course, we do the tech and rehearse longer for everything. I learned the incredible importance of that.

“I just had so much fun that summer. I worked 16 hours a day, which for people when we work in the theater that’s often the case. But I got a taste of it early on. It was an invaluable learning experience and just sort of indelible in my mind. And I think anybody who’s had a great experience, whatever they do – if you’re an associate in a law firm or you’re a resident in a hospital – those experiences shape you so much, and I think it just gave me really the respect for what a career demands. And the discipline that you have to have if you want to work in the theater is more than people could ever understand until they’re actually doing it.

“And, of course, all the fun things. Like that other cottage way down on the other end, which was sort of crawling with wild animals when you’d walk down there at night.

“For me, too, it was a wonderful connection to have with my mother and see her connection and then eventually meeting some of the people who started the company, like Basil Rathbone’s son Rodion (who married Caroline Fisher, co-founder) – all of those people. Bob Thompson.”

Yes, the woman who started the theater with her brother in 1936 was Caroline Fisher Rathbone, daughter-in-law to the actor indelibly known in film as the Sherlock Holmes. Bob Thompson was one of the company’s famous actors who was extremely popular. The current episodes of “Peninsula Players Presents” are covering the history of the theater.

“The legacy of the theater is such a wonderful thing – and all of that connection to the past. There were all these old posters on the wall, and just seeing that history of American theater just made an incredible impression on me.

“I did visit the new theater, and I am very grateful. My brother and I put my mother’s ashes in the lake there and some in the garden because it’s just that to her that was sort of the beginning of her world in the theater and meant so much, and it was just a place that I knew she always had feet.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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