June 4–23, 2024

Wilma Theater creatives talk new opera and Tony Award

June 5, 2024
Metro Philadelphia

by AD Amorosi


Johanna Austin

It’s a great month to be a part of the Wilma Theater.

Along with the world premiere of its first-ever opera and the contemporary sound of ‘HILMA‘ — based on the life of LGBTQIA art heroine Hilma af Klint, running now through June 23 — the Wilma is busy celebrating a cherished Tony Award. On June 16, the Wilma’s cohort of artistic directors will head to New York City to pick up its 2024 Regional Theatre Tony, the first theater in Pennsylvania to ever receive this prestigious totem.

Wilma Co-Artistic Director Lindsay Smiling may not put much weight on awards, big or small, but admits that getting a Tony feels different than the rest.

“This Tony is in recognition of what we do as an institution, and comes at the end of a road of having done things just a little bit apart from the norm of the American theater company model,” says Smiling, discussing the move from a single Artistic Director (co-founder Blanka Zizka) to a cohort that includes Morgan Green, Yury Urnov and Leigh Goldenberg.

Johanna Austin

Another aspect of the Wilma surely being celebrated with a Tony was Zizka’s creation of its HotHouse Company and its resident ensemble of actors.

“Over the last 10 years, the Wilma’s work has deepened, become more poignant and more daring,” says Smiling. “Adventure is a part of our mission statement. Ours is a fuller, more dynamic way of creating art.”

Adventure is the very definition of ‘HILMA’, an opera from playwright Kate Scelsa and composer Robert M. Johanson that touches on the work and life of 20th-century Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, one of the modern era’s first vividly, pure abstract artists. The Wilma’s Morgan Green and composer Robert M. Johanson had been toying with this musical story for some time, and believed that “her queerness and not being acknowledged for so long – that the world wasn’t ready for her in her time,” spoke to where the world is now, in Smiling’s opinion.

Johanna Austin

“There is so much art being made in the present that isn’t being appreciated. We’re striving for equality with the LGBTQ community. And, Hilma is having her moment; including her recent Guggenheim show and at the Franklin Institute where she is being celebrated in its Art of the Brick Lego exhibition,” he says. “Plus, we’re doing an opera, which isn’t exactly in our wheelhouse.”

HotHouse Company member Brett Ashley Robinson laughs when Smiling mentions the newness of opera to the Wilma, and no, she is not an opera singer by trade.

“You know what? You never have heard me sing opera,” she says. “Bobby and Kate have made beautiful music, and it is a risk for us. But this team is daring, game and generous… and in the spirit of the HotHouse, we work together to solve problems, and the composers are really flexible. And having sung opera for a month and a half two and a half hours a day, I have never been smarter. There is nothing that I can’t do after this.”

Robinson plays Mathilde in ‘HILMA’, and says that one of the questions that haunt this opera’s libretto is the idea of female genius, and who was allowed during the earliest parts of the 20th century — by the art cognoscenti and its patriarchal leadership — to be considered for their brilliance.

Johanna Austin

“Hilma was involved in channeling and freeing herself from convention, making herself available to outside sources,” says Robinson, focused on the abstract artist’s mystical vision. “Look at who we are now, informed as we are by zodiacal charts and tarot cards. We’re finding base of spiritualism again. Trusting yourself, knowing that your art – her art – may not be right for this time, or of this time, as she did? I think there is something really beautiful for anyone who lives a marginalized identity and questions what it means to take up space in the present… there is deep humanity there.”

As for what the audience should expect, Robinson says that the ‘HILMA’ experience will be life-changing.

“I think this opera is an invocation, and a coming-together; a giant offer to the audience to just say ‘yes,’ to give yourself over to the beautiful music and gorgeous images onstage.”

For information and tickets, visit wilmatheater.org