The death last Wednesday of Ann Stanke deprived Madison of one of its most remarkable musical personalities.
Her versatile musicianship was legendary. As a string player, she was a violist with the Madison Symphony for years, and probably could have handled any stringed instrument. Also an accomplished pianist, she served for decades as rehearsal accompanist and coach. Of late, when the MSO played a work including a part for piano, or piano duet, or even celesta, she was there to help.
Ann was also an organizer. She joined Roland and Arlene Johnson in creating the Madison Opera almost 50 years ago, serving tirelessly in many functions. It was fitting that in 1984 she became general director of the company herself. She crowned her tenure with an opera commission (Daron Hagen's Shining Brow, 1993) and a regional premiere (Jake Heggie's The End of the Affair, 2005), while joining John DeMain to found Opera in the Park (2002).
I followed her in all these years of public operation, but it is through personal contacts that I have particularly cherished Ann. She was married to violinist and teacher Ernie Stanke, who was my two children's instructor in the Suzuki program. The lessons were regularly at the Stanke home, where Ann was a contributing presence. Contacts expanded when I became involved in the Madison Opera as a chorister and even bit player. In my first role, my costume hat had a feather, so Ann made it a point that I would have a costume feather thereafter, even creating an entitlement scroll for me.
Perhaps my most vivid memory dates from the Madison Opera's inaugural production of Aida in the then-new Oscar Mayer Theater. Besides indefatigable rehearsal duties, she served, as so often, as prompter for the performances. In the great Triumphal Scene of Act II, the chorus sings a climactic Big Tune. But the tune is first presented by the orchestra alone before the choral entry. This confused many singers, who were tempted to leap prematurely into the familiar music. So Ann prepared a pair of big signs. From her prompter's spot, when the orchestral tune started, she held up a placard reading "NOT YET!", and then, when it was our turn, she flashed the other sign, "NOW!"
These and so many other memories will keep Ann's image alive in me to the end of my days. Often quoted is Jake Stockinger's apt description of her as "a veritable one-woman band". I quite agree with that, but for me Ann was also, in the best sense, a musical Big Mamma. She loved music, she loved musicians, she loved all aspects of music-making. She served it with robust maternal devotion, nurturing it, scolding or chastening it when necessary, but taking pride in her darlings' successes. She had a sharp mind and a quick tongue, but a great sense of humor, and she had a really big heart. It is for that totality of humane musicality that I remember her most warmly.
Ann Stanke's funeral will be at Cress, 3610 Speedway Road, at 1 p.m. Tuesday, May 24.