Florentine Opera navigates the creative challenges of going digital

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Like musicians and bands, opera singers rely on live performances and venues to share their craft. When the pandemic hit, Maggey Oplinger, general director and CEO of Florentine Opera, says that the company found itself in a peculiar situation right as the pandemic was hitting.

“As classical singers we train our bodies to project sound in huge theaters without microphones,” says Maggey.

Classically trained singers, Maggey says, often have more than one advanced degree where they’ve learned how to project their voices in large theaters like Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center, which seats 2000 people. That training means they can push sound across the room and potentially germs if a singer was carrying the coronavirus.

“Classical voice uses space as a component in the acoustics of performance and the exact training that allows our air to go so far and carry sound so far,” says Maggey. “Obviously, air does not go all the way to the back of that giant hall but the sound does so in the process of that singers are super spreaders.”

Maggey says before the opera went all virtual, the company held outdoor performances and had to keep its singers about 20 feet from the audience. They also had to ensure that after performances the audience didn’t go up to greet and thank the singers

There are a lot of logistics to think about in producing operas during the pandemic. Superspreading by powerful voices is one thing to consider. Maggey says the company also has to think about how it’s going to keep productions entertaining when it switched to video.

“We need the theater, we need all of the technical components of the theater and the backstage space to create,” says Maggey. “I don’t know that anyone wants to sit down and watch two to three hours of a show from their home. without the benefit of that beautiful acoustic impact, we get in person, it’s just not the same.”

Florentine Opera sings “Die Fledermaus.”

As a theater major in college, I can attest, the combination of stage, audience and performance creates its own buzz. However, if you’ve seen “Hamilton” on video or even “Bridgerton” on Netflix, you know that powerful voices and beautiful costumes can translate on video. 

Here’s Maggey on some of what they’ve done.

“Some of the environments we’ve been recording in are very different,” says Maggey. “I’ll use the example of our Shakespeare performance. We were recording in the equivalent of an old English tavern but it’s actually built into the lower level of a cool house on the East Side. You truly feel like you’re stepping into something like the Globe Theater.”

Maggey says that in filming the performance there were a lot of guidances they had to adhere to, like timing of set up and physical spacing between personnel. 

Maggey says that the opera community at large has been helping each other. There are organizations in other countries that have helped pave the way for how theaters and opera spaces can, when time allows, reopen safely.

Part of the Voyager Series, Florentine Opera takes audiences across the globe.

Speaking of other countries, Florentine Opera has been putting on performances from literally across the globe. They’re producing a recorded show in Burgundy, France. One of their harp players lives in Burgundy off season so a lot of coordination is going through them. Maggey says the Burgundy performance is part of their Voyager series where they’re getting audiences out of their homes. 

Florentine Opera also puts on performances close to home for children at Milwaukee Public Schools which Maggey says the kids find thrilling. 

“I really love doing rich, full opera for little kids,” says Maggey. “We have a tendency sometimes to be worried that kids won’t engage and dumb it down a little bit. And it’s a perverse pleasure of mine to take sophisticated full on grub opera and take it into a school because the reaction is thrilling.”

Last year they put on “Cinderella” for the kids. This year they’re live streaming a performance of “La Boheme” set in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood during the late 1940s and early ’50s.

There’s a lot to coordinate despite opera gone digital. But the show goes on just digitally and socially distanced.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee

How a former hostel is turning into a Riverwest housing cooperative

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Cream City Hostel was Milwaukee’s first and only hostel. It was co-founded by Carolyn Weber, who had long wanted to run a hostel, and opened in 2019 but due to the coronavirus it had to shut down shortly after. The pandemic limited international and even national travel, cutting off revenue.

Juli Kaufmann is the President of Fix Development and is a managing member of RiverBee, LLC, which owned the building that Cream City Hostel resided in. Juli says that they wanted to make Cream City Hostel work through the pandemic.

During the first three months of the pandemic they wondered if federal relief money could help. However, she says that even if the hostel could get emergency funds to help it stay open, the reality that people would not be traveling for another year meant that the business likely wouldn’t survive.

“We had just opened,” says Juli. “We had travelers from 13 countries. We had started to see a real impact. We were so excited to finally get it up and running and in less than a year into our opening this happened.”

Juli describes how the loss of the hostel affects the surrounding neighborhood.

“That was a project like many projects that is designed to set reasonable affordable rents for the tenants,” Juli says. “The tenant pays rent and that rent flows back to support the building pay, property taxes and generate a very small return for those neighborhood owners so that wealth recirculates and creates goodness in Milwaukee.”

Juli Kaufmann

So they considered ways to save what they could.

“We wanted to look at ways that this unique, diverse ownership group could basically not lose the asset to the bank; have it be foreclosed,” says Juli. “We’re not deep pocketed, there is not anywhere to turn for financial salvation.”

After some brainstorming they decided to pursue making the former hostel space cooperative housing. Juli says that there’s been interest in co-op housing, but Milwaukee doesn’t have any.

Juli says that it’s up to future members to decide the direction that the cooperative takes.

“Maybe it’s a bunch of folks that care about the environment and want to grow their own food; we have a huge backyard and that might be appealing,” says Juli. “Maybe it’s folks who want a more affordable place to live and they’re wanting to do it not in a crappy place that’s owned by an absentee landlord that’s a jerk that never fixes stuff. You’re empowered as a collective in collaboration with the owners in this model to have more control.”

If the cooperative housing’s model is a success, there could be more models for other projects by the city and other developers going forward. 

Until then, it’s about finding and gathering the first members and seeing what they have in mind. 

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A candlelight vigil calls on people not to forget injustice

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On Jan. 7, at the intersection of Holton and North Avenue in Riverwest, a vigil was held. Around 40 people gathered on all four corners holding candles and signs with the names of those who have died in police custody.

Black Lives are Sacred is a faith based organization that hosted the vigil. They host vigils throughout the city every first Thursday of the month and have been doing so since early summer of 2020. Last week’s was the group’s 24th vigil, coinciding with the announcement there would be no charges in Jacob Blake’s shooting and the riot in D.C.


Black Lives are Sacred’s organizer Jodi DelFoss says they intend to remain visible.

“The events in the Capitol we will be talking about for a very long time in both formal and informal dialogues and discussions,” says Judy. “I hope that it will be difficult for people to turn away from the obvious racial implications of what happened there, or what didn’t happen there.”

Photo credit: Olivia Richardson

Snow quietly fell throughout the night and cars honked their horns in sign of support.

 “We do it because we believe that it’s important that our Black brothers and sisters see us and know that we see them and hear them and we also do it so that we prompt our white brothers and sisters to think about racism and the sin that it is and the way that it really is just tearing the fabric of our society apart.”

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The Marcus Center brings holiday cheer to hospital patients and staff

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Life during the pandemic can be hard, especially if you’re a patient at a hospital this holiday season. The Marcus Center is using music to uplift  hospital staff and patients.

Heidi Lofy, vice president of experience and engagement at the Marcus Center, says that as she and her team heard about a potential winter increase in Covid-19 cases they started to worry about what patients and hospital staff could be facing.

“My programming and outreach team said, ‘Wow, we’re starting to feel bad again about people who are in hospitals,’” Heidi says. They wondered, “‘Is there something that the Marcus Center could do to bring some joy through the arts into those facilities during this holiday season?’”

So the team decided to produce a video holiday concert series that staff, patients and their families can watch on demand.

“We all know that arts and music in particular can be healing for people,” says Heidi. “It impacts people and it takes them away from their everyday cares and worries.”

Rana Roman performs a hit from “Frozen” for the Marcus Center | Courtesy of Marcus Center

There are four performers for the series, Paul Helm, Rana Roman, Chris Crane and Cynthia Cobb. On the Marcus Center stage, they sing a variety of songs and holiday favorites. The video series is a way for people to feel as if they were at the Marcus Center watching a performance.

Heidi says the pandemic has been hard for the arts. Like almost every performance venue, the Marcus Center has had to stop holding in-person events. 

As vaccines for the coronavirus have people looking forward to being out and enjoying gatherings again, the events of 2020 leave behind a lot to process.

“I think we all are reacting to all of everything that’s happened with the uprising, Black Lives Matter, and reassessing how we are focused on equity and being anti-racist,” says Heidi. “How do we take those messages and really use art to heal and move people forward? I think this time, while it’s been incredibly difficult for artists and people who want to enjoy art, there’s going to be this explosion of amazing creativity that kind of comes out on the other side.”

For now, Heidi says that the concert series can hopefully heal people alongside hospitals that are doing the same.

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Riverwest Food Pantry finds new purpose amid the pandemic

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“Back when the pandemic started, we had a dramatic switch within our pantry operation,” explains Amanda Farendorf, the Mission Advancement Associate for the Riverwest Food Pantry. “It required a lot of creative thinking and quick thinking of like, how are we still able to serve our community best, especially in the beginning, where there’s a significant amount not really known about Covid-19 and how it could spread.”

Riverwest Food Pantry is located at St. Casmir Church’s basement. Normally, the pantry operates as a place where people could meet each other while eating brunch on Saturday or shopping for food, but due to the pandemic the brunches have been suspended and the shopping has shifted to an outdoor drive thru.

To keep the community connection, Amanda says the pantry started curbside chats where volunteers and staff talk with people as they drive up to get food. She credits some of the conversations she’s had for helping her get through the pandemic. 

“I was having a super down week of Covid,” says Amanda. “I went to the pantry, we were just starting to close, and a woman came racing into our parking lot asking for food.”

Amanda says they grabbed her some food and as she talked to the woman, she burst into tears.

“She’s like, ‘I’m so done with Covid, I’m so done with this,’” says Amanda. “She really poured her heart out to me about a lot of her struggles.”

Photo courtesy Riverwest Food Pantry

Amanda says she listened rather than trying to solve or fix her problems.

“I remember her looking in the mirror and being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a mess. My makeup is everywhere and I’m just a mess,’” says Amanda. “I just started laughing and I was like, ‘You know what? I looked like that yesterday.’” 

Those moments have reminded her the pantry is a place where people can build relationships..

Amanda says the pantry has helped some 4,800 households since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a little more than 12,000 people. The pantry has given out nearly 87,000 pounds of food — an enormous amount for just one pantry primarily serving the neighborhood and surrounding zip codes.

Volunteers at the Riverwest Food Pantry bag fresh fruits and veggies | Photo courtesy Riverwest Food Pantry

When the pandemic first hit the number of people who came to the pantry decreased below what they normally serve pre-pandemic. Amanda says it’s because people wondered if the pantry was still open and operating as normal. The pantry’s numbers also dipped a bit when government assistance with the pandemic became available to people. She says people sought out the pantry a little less in those moments. As circumstances have changed over time, people have returned.

The pantry gets its work done thanks to volunteers who are out in the rain and now snow as the colder, darker months roll in.

Amanda says staff would ask volunteers if they were tired or fatigued as some come in every week. Their response?

“They’re like, ‘This is my life,’” says Amanda. “‘This is the only thing I see outside my house.’”

Running a pantry during the pandemic isn’t easy, but it has its rewards.

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Alverno College’s Girls’ Academy fights Zoom fatigue with science kits

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 “We wanted to make science relatable, something that the girls are excited about,” says Elizabeth Gamillo, Program Coordinator for Alverno College’s Girls’ Academy. “We know that there’s a lot of science that goes into creating products and creating makeup that is safe for consumers to use.”

For about 10 years, high school girls have been attending Alverno College’s Girls’ Academy learning STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and math) through hands-on experiments. In the statistics department girls create solar powered robots and in the chemistry division girls create lipsticks and lotions.

Elizabeth says that since classes went online because of the pandemic, however, attendance has fallen by roughly half.

When Elizabeth saw the girl’s attendance dip, she needed a way to keep the girls engaged, so she came up with math and science kits that fit in with their course work. The first kit is going to be bath bombs. The kits come with everything they need to complete an at home experiment.

Elizabeth Gamillo holds up a science kit that girls will receive.

“We have little containers that will have ingredients that they need to make the bath bombs,” says Elizabeth. “Like powder, citric acid, baking soda.”

And maybe the kits will address Zoom fatigue.

“Since they already are Zooming online, because of their regular school activities, it’s not appealing for them to go online again on Fridays and continue to be on Zoom,” says Elizabeth.

It’s not just attendance that has been a challenge for online learning. Lauralee Guilbart is the chemistry instructor for the Girls’ Academy and she says she’s seen her and her student’s work styles change since the pandemic began.

“I find myself working continuously,” says Lauralee. “In the past, I’ve always had students who have emailed me late at night but I get a lot more now.”

Lauralee says that Zoom can also pose some challenges to live experiments.

“I’ve noticed that if I’m in the lab and I’m watching what somebody’s doing, I can ask a direct question, ‘Did you really think that that’s where you, you’re supposed to end that first to that and that much?’” says Lauralee. “Whereas if they’re doing it on their own somewhere else I’m not there to catch errors.”

Another issue with Zoom is that conversations can get stuck in the chat bar. Elizabeth says that is the hardest part about Zoom. Teacher’s assistants will try to keep the dialogue synced but it’s not quite the same as being in person.

Lauralee and Elizabeth think that with the kits, there can be more classroom discussion and things can flow a little more naturally, making Friday Zoom calls a little more fun.

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LGBTQ youth of Courage MKE share the holiday spirit

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By the time you’re reading this, toys have been dropped off to some 130 kids in Milwaukee who may not have gotten presents this year otherwise. They have a few of their most wanted items sitting under a tree or tucked away until it’s time to receive them. Those toys were donated by the kids who live at Courage House, where LGBTQ+ youth who have been homeless or in some cases have been in juvenile detention centers live.

“We know that with the pandemic it’s taken a toll on all of us,” says Brad Schlaikowski, executive director of Courage MKE. “They wanted to do something to make sure that at least the children have something to smile about.”

Brad says that the foster children and teens who live at Courage House came up with the idea to donate gifts to children in need.

The holidays, he says, can be hard for some of the kids living at Courage House. They’re away from their family or perhaps they have bad memories associated with the holidays, so giving to other children can be uplifting for them.

Car full of wishes that have been delivered to kids who might not have gotten a present otherwise. | Photo courtesy of: Brad Schlaikowski

“This project has brought them together on what the idea of a chosen family looks like,” says Brad. “Because it’s removing that distraction of what was or what happened in the past and says look at what we can do or what we’re going to do in the future.”

As the director, Brad says that he’s pretty proud of the kids for what they have come up with and are doing to help those in need.

“In theory, a 17-year-old can process a lot more than a 12-year-old but I still can’t imagine being 17 and having to process the things that these kids are processing,” says Brad. “So, I am beyond proud of them for this.”

Courage MKE is decked in Santa masks ready to give out toys to kids. | Photo courtesy of Brad Schlaikowski

The kids and teens of Courage House put up flyers asking for those who need help to sign up and have asked the community to help them in granting some of these gifts. 

“Like anything with this house, the community has shown up and shown out when we’re opening it and for this project the community once again has opened their hearts,” says Brad.

Their basement is full of presents wrapped and organized by family, the kids have wondered about it almost every day.

“Are we going to wrap presents now or does this family have everything that they need?” Brad says they asked.

He says that the kids really want to do this from the heart. “Some days it’s a struggle to get these kids out of bed,” says Brad. “They’re teenagers, but to see them excited makes it all worthwhile because that means that they too are enjoying what the meaning of the holiday is.”

While toys have been delivered, Brad says that if you know a family or are one that may be in need of a little help this winter, check out their Facebook page. There may still be time to sign up.

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Milwaukee’s Kayla Lewis-Allen talks Black relationships with TV shows

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Kayla Lewis-Allen is a Milwaukee native who produces videos for her television channel Full Circle Television. Kayla now lives in Madison with her husband Marcus Lewis-Allen, who is also a co-founder. They launched in January 2020. 

I talked with Kayla as Full Circle Television is her brainchild.

Kayla says Full Circle Television has a focus on romantic, platonic and familial relationships and next season they’re adding in co-parenting as it’s something that appeals to her.

She got the idea to discuss relationships when she was engaged to her husband.

“I used to watch an old show,” says Kayla. “It’s super old but it was with a husband. He came home every night and he’s like, to his homemaker wife, ‘beer!’”

She snaps her fingers as she’s telling me this.

“It was super snappy,” Kayla says. “Where’s my dinner? Where’s my beer?”

Kayla and Marcus Lewis-Allen, co-founders of Full Circle Television | Photo courtesy: Kayla Lewis-Allen

Kayla said that she didn’t want that to be a part of her marriage at all.

“Even the relationships that I saw growing up, I never wanted to be anyone’s wife, because of the things that I saw being put out there either on TV or in my own personal life,” says Kayla. “So I just had to start searching.”

Kayla used to work at a Black therapy clinic in Madison, so being in that environment prompted her to reflect on her own life. If she was up at 3 a.m. she’d ask herself questions like she was in therapy.

“How did you see love shown in your house growing up? How did you see anger displayed?” Kayla says she asked herself.

Then she started engaging with her husband in these questions, to break out of the fluffy conversations people can get into when they’re freshly enamored in their relationships.

“I mean, yes, it’s cool to know their favorite color because maybe you’ll be able to purchase them blue socks or something like that,” says Kayla. “But that doesn’t help when you are in a very tough place or in a dark place. You don’t know how to work with this person.”

That’s where the idea of Full Circle Television comes around, having discussions and conversations on the things people are going through. Though Kayla says she makes sure Full Circle isn’t like the reality TV shows that focus on the drama. 

“You don’t want to put yourself in a vulnerable place and someone is asking you these questions and badgering you about your intimate relationship with your partner,” says Kayla.

She says their mission is to be more.

“We’re not trying to exploit Black relationships,” says Kayla. “Everything that we want to put out is positive. The name of our network is full circle television, we want people to leave greater than they came. We want people to leave with an ‘a ha’ moment. We want people to feel more full once they finish completing our content.”

Kayla has enjoyed creating content that speaks to the realities people face in friendships and relationships, to get at the things that we might not fully talk about with our friends and loved ones.

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Funky Fresh Spring Rolls is giving away air fryers to people in need

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Air fryers have been pretty popular as holiday gifts over the past few years, with plenty of Black Friday sales offering specials on them. Well, Funky Fresh Spring Rolls likes the trend and is giving them out to those in need.

TrueMan McGee, the owner and Head Roll chef of Funky Fresh Spring Rolls, first started giving away air fryers in the summer. He thought that the air fryer giveaways were a good way to raise business sales.

Initially it started as a straightforward promotion: People would buy rolls in order to enter to win an air fryer.

But TrueMan thought this time around, with the pandemic, it’s a little bit different.

“I thought with how many people are struggling this year, people got busy lives, why don’t we give them away with no strings attached?” says TrueMan.

Funky Fresh Spring Rolls Funky Fresh Spring Rolls / Via Instagram

TrueMan has already given out three this year and he has five more to go.

“At first I tried to figure out who needs them the most,” says TrueMan. “Trying to figure that out is just a headache. Everybody needs one need. I just wish I could give an air fryer to everybody.”

So TrueMan has an app that chooses people at random.

On his Facebook and Instagram pages people can nominate those who they think deserve an air fryer. 

“We’ve had some compelling stories from people who have lost jobs, people who have lost family members, people who were sick or people who were struggling to find healthier options,” says TrueMan.

You may know that Funky Fresh started when TrueMan helped people achieve their fitness goals with his business Getting Tired Fitness. As he trained people, he realized his clients needed help eating healthier along with the exercise, so he conceived Funky Fresh.

And the air fryers that TrueMan is giving away now fits the goal of introducing fresh food as the air fryers are possibly a healthier alternative to deep frying or even grilling.

“I believe in air fryers,” says TrueMan. “I think they’re the new thing, for sure. I think everyone is going to have one in their house, almost like a microwave.”

The air fryers will be given out every Thursday for the rest of the year, which isn’t that long. 

“People are like, ‘win or lose I appreciate what you’re doing,’” says TrueMan. “That means a lot.”

But if you want some spring rolls with or without the air fryer, TrueMan says that for the coronavirus pandemic they’ve adapted to shipping and delivering spring rolls.

It’s worked out pretty well for them, which is why TrueMan says he wants to make sure that they serve the community in addition.

“I feel like every small business that receives support should continue to support the community that supports them,” says TrueMan.

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88Nine’s community panel on gun violence explores how it disrupts lives

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We explore the reality of gun violence and death in these community stories.

The statistics around gun violence in Milwaukee are alarming. And the ripple effects of this violence can last for generations. But there are people in our city who are working to make a positive impact in the lives of those impacted by gun violence.

On Nov. 18, 2020, 88Nine Radio Milwaukee and Mothers Against Gun Violence highlighted stories of the transformation of grief into community action and healing.

Melody Villanueva and Shantell Riley were two speakers who shared their experiences of how gun violence does more than just break a part of someone’s life.

Melody says after her son passed her and her children went from being the three musketeers to losing a member. She’s found comfort in activism and imagining a better place for her son. Take a listen.

Melody Villanueva speaks on the gun violence panel

After her son passed, Shantell Riley has started talking to people about death and how to prepare before it’s a reality. She says she has had to consider how she was going to bury him, something that people aren’t prone to think about beforehand. Shantell has even started hosting death cafes where people could talk with each other about what they’re going through.

The full panel can be found below.

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