Stoughton Opera House: Independent Theatre Enriching Community Involvement

Stoughton Opera House inside
Photo by Tim Erickson Photography

Over a century ago, the city council of Stoughton looked to make a statement to the importance of the city and have it stand out. Their plan: have a theatre in the upstairs of the Stoughton City Hall with city offices downstairs. It would make everyone happy, establish a community center, and provide profits to afford the building.

The Stoughton Opera House, then known as the City Auditorium, started with the February 22, 1901, opening of The Doctor’s Warm Reception , a light-hearted play with a cast of 11.1

Upon visiting, many understand why the Opera House is dubbed southern Wisconsin’s most charming theatre. The magnificent original gas/electric chandelier, upgraded with modern wiring, lamps, and frosted tulip bowls, hangs alongside its two-thirds-sized replica above the balcony, and the original curtain onstage was restored, adding character and distinction to productions.1 Such features lead Bill Brehm, director of the Opera House, to describe the theatre as exhibiting “the Doctor Who effect because the Opera House seems too big to fit inside the building from the outside.”

Another outstanding feature is the rich oak woodwork. Though the seats can be a little hard on the posterior, Bill says, “The professionals bring their own cushions. You are not going to be the only one walking around with a cushion on Main Street.”

When Bill became director of media services for Stoughton and the director of the Opera House in 2007, working both positions seemed manageable. The Opera House only had a few shows a year. Within this last year, however, Bill has been at the Opera House exclusively.

Photograph provided by Tim Erickson Photography

Booking acts is a yearly challenge. The performance series goes from mid-September through early June, and Bill’s hope was “at some point we would turn a corner, pushed harder and harder, and it turns out there is no corner—just one long curve.”

To find what works, he reviews past performances that did well and finds music that people enjoy to fill the 475 seats—shows that are inexpensive but sell well, like the amazing Acro-Cats featuring their own band, The Rock Cats. These felines demonstrate fantastic feats of musical abilities, and they rock! They’ve been performing two shows a day for five years running, and every season they sell out. “[The Acro-Cats] outsold a lot of really legendary performers.”

When it comes to booking really great acts, Bill says, “Another part of the trick is getting people that are really good before they explode. Every year, when I do booking, I start with Neil Young and back away from there.” Notice the lack of Don Giovani and Carmen ? Amusingly, the Opera House doesn’t perform much opera.

And that’s okay with Bill. Though the Opera House is part of the Madison market, Stoughton is distinct. “This community has its own identity.” As a member of the arts council, Bill worked to “designate an Arts & Entertainment district in Stoughton. Partially so people recognize it’s something that is happening in this particular area, but it also creates opportunities to apply for funding to do some more substantial development work and bring creative aspects of the community to the forefront.”

Bill muses on how special Stoughton is to have the Opera House. “The city has been very supportive, and as the years have gone on it has become apparent to everyone that a strategy for community development has several different aspects. But a major component is the creative economy, and I think a lot of the time it gets overlooked—the importance of arts drawing people to a community to both live and visit.”

Photograph provided by Tim Erickson Photography

Stoughton is conveniently located half an hour outside of Madison, and local businesses benefit from having the Opera House. Many admit to Bill that they opened their businesses where they did because of the close proximity to the theatre. “I think it is important that people understand about who they are supporting when they go to see shows. It’s not always just about supporting the artists. You are supporting people who paid the artist to be there. Community involvement has been one of the most important parts about the development of the Opera House for the last 10 years,” says Bill.

The future of the Opera House is unknown, but Bill is confident he can depend on the work ethic of the people he surrounds himself with at the theatre. Their personal fulfillment is seeing people leave the shows happy, and they take all criticisms to heart. “We have to take personal responsibility, and if [patrons] are unhappy about something, we are the ones to blame for the circumstances that cause them to be unhappy.”

Bill thinks taking personal responsibility is empowering in a lot of ways, but it’s also a burden because they’ve built personal relationships with their patrons unlike other theatres. “It’s hard to maintain, and you have to keep on growing with this idea that it’s bigger than yourself–it’s about a sense that what you are doing means something to both the community as well as for the people who come here from other communities.

“Sustaining that is important for the future and as we go forward. There are new generations of people deciding that maybe they don’t want to stand up for two and a half hours to watch a show, don’t need everybody drinking around them, or they only get out a couple times a month. As this new generation of young families evolves, as those circumstances change, the kinds of acts we would like to see will change as well. The challenge going forward will be staying in touch with those young families and where do they want to go.”

1 Stoughton Opera House. stoughtonoperahouse.com/history

Photograph by Barbara Wilson

Krystle Engh Naab is a freelance writer and copy editor for Madison Essentials.

**2018/2019 Schedule:

Loudon Wainwright – Thur, Nov 1
Kruger Brothers – Fri, Nov 2
Brubeck Brothers Trio – Sat, Nov 3
Music Appreciation – Mon, Nov 5
Lee Ann Womack – Wed, Nov 7
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder – Thur, Nov 8
Scott Mulvahill – Fri, Nov 9
Hal Ketchum – Fri, Nov 16
Words & Music by Dan Wilson – Sat, Nov 17
Mike Farris – Thur, Nov 29
Suzy Bogguss: A Swingin' Little Christmas – Sat, Dec 1
The Lone Bellow (Robert Ellis supports) – Fri, Dec 7
Playtime Productions: The Prince & The Pauper – Sat, Dec 8
Michael Perry & the Long Beds – Sat, Dec 8
Stoughton Festival Choir & City Band Christmas Concert – Sun, Dec 9
Steely Dane – Sat, Feb 9
Davina and the Vagabonds – Fri, Feb 15
Gaines & Wagoner – Sat, Feb 16
Robbie Fulks – Fri, Feb 22
Sierra Hull – Sat, Feb 23
Marcia Ball & Sonny Landreth – Thur, Feb 28
The Milk Carton Kids – Fri, Mar 1
Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – Sat, Mar 2
Tom Sharpe – Fri, Mar 8
The Gibson Brothers – Sat, Mar 9
Eilen Jewell – Sat, Mar 16
Michael Perry – Thur, Mar 21
An Evening with Rodney Crowell Trio – Fri, Mar 22
The Subdudes – Sat, Mar 23
Tim O'Brien Bluegrass Band – Thur, Mar 28
Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings – Fri, Mar 29
Leo Kottke – Sat, Mar 30
Michael Hecht: What I learned from Wendell Berry – Wed, Apr 3
Robyn Hitchcock – Thur, Apr 4
Carlene Carter – Fri, Apr 5
Harp Twins – Sat, Apr 6
Opera for the Young – Sun, Apr 7
Chris Smither – Thur, Apr 11
Rhonda Vincent & The Rage – Fri, Apr 12
Asleep At The Wheel – Sat, Apr 13
Asleep At The Wheel – Sun, Apr 14
Crystal Bowersox – Thur, Apr 18
The Quebe Sisters – Thur, Apr 25
Leftover Salmon Living Room Acoustic Tour – Fri, Apr 26
Playtime Productions: The Red Shoes – Sat, Apr 27
Riders In The Sky – Sat, Apr 27
MadFiddle & Highway 151 – Sun, Apr 28
Del McCoury Band – Fri, May 3
The Steel Wheels – Sat, May 4
Della Mae – Sat, May 11