Meet Thomas Aláan, impresario/performer

Within the performance world, it’s well known a successful concert or theater production is the product of many unsung heroes, and that performers frequently find that acquiring “office” skills are just as critical as performance ones.

Additional people – and sometimes the same ones – must envision the production, research the material, select (and perhaps arrange) the music, find the performers, direct the show and set the lights, create and manage websites, shoot photographs, raise money, pay bills, and at least a hundred other tasks not mentioned here.

In other words, what the audience views is only a fraction of the work that went into it.

Thomas Aláan has direct experience with both.

Aláan is a countertenor (a high male voice) at the Mead Witter School of Music, studying voice with Professor James Doing, supported by a fellowship from Paul J. Collins.

In Madison, he gained notoriety last fall as Nerone in University Opera’s 2018 L’incoronazione di Poppea. But in addition, he’s also the executive director of AND performer with Chicago’s Bach and Beethoven Experience ensemble, which performs classical/folk chamber works with an eye toward historical recreation on period instruments. (Despite the name, much of what they do derives from folk roots in Ireland, Scotland and America’s Appalachia, where Aláan grew up.)

“I spent most of my life running away from folk music and my Appalachian heritage, and now I’m in my mid-late ’30s I’m discovering how much I like it,” he says.

The ensemble was co-founded in 2009 by violist/fiddler Brandi Berry; Aláan became executive director in 2013.  It was a perfect partnership; Berry knew the repertoire and performers, and Alaan was fast becoming a smart entrepreneur and administrator. He helped incorporate BBE as a non-profit, developed advisory boards, and raised over $60,000 in individual and foundation support. More recently, they’ve brought on a third director, Leighann Daihl Ragusa.

Since then, BBE has produced an opera and two albums: “A Gaelic Summer” and “An Appalachian Summer” and is working on a third, “Chicago Stories.” They play a lot in bars and community spaces as well as in theaters, and do their own research to find and adapt their works.

“We call the albums ‘folk but Baroque’ because while many of the tunes and songs can still be heard in pubs and folk festivals, they also have historical roots,” Aláan writes. “Some extend to European manuscripts from the 18th century, like The Hibernian Muse (ca. 1770), Calliope, or English Harmony (1739), and James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion (ca. 1750) to name a few. Some are based on historical recordings from the Lomax Collection found in the Library of Congress. But what’s really cool is all of them are our own arrangements using historical instruments.”

In 2016, BBE brought a long-lost opera, “The Gentle Shepherd,” to the stage of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music. Berry discovered “Shepherd” in a folder of Scottish folk music; the opera, written in 1725 by Scottish poet Allan Ramsay, describes the love adventures of two shepherd couples. Berry undertook prodigious research on staging, costuming and diction, as much of the Scottish was obsolete, while Aláan worked on funding, marketing, and learning the role of Patie (the “gentle shepherd”). Read the preview by WFMT radio in Chicago.

Their current recording, “Chicago Stories,” employs period instruments and music commissioned from Chicago-area composers.  “We give them a lot of freedom. The only constraints are they must pick a Chicago community or neighborhood, they must write for period instruments, and they take part in what we call ‘incubators,’ where they meet with and learn how to write for period instruments and singers. To date, we’ve commissioned six works and we plan to record those in September after our fall Chicago Stories performances.”

BBE’s innovations have caught the notice of a national music critic.

“…[This] kind of folksy, irreverent approach typifies Chicago’s Bach and Beethoven Ensemble and helps set it apart not just from its peers in Chicago but from just about all other such groups in the country,” wrote Kyle MacMillan in “Put simply, the budding group is doing everything it can to attract audiences who know little about classical music and maybe even less about early music.”

The BBE will perform as part of Chicago’s Night Out in the Parks series, which funds performances in public park spaces for residents. As part of their fundraising plug, they’re giving away the whole album for every $100 donation they receive. If you’re in Chicago, you can catch them on September 6 at Chopin Park Fieldhouse at 6:00 PM and on September 7 at Armour Square Park Fieldhouse at 2:00 PM.

We asked Aláan to talk about his path to Madison and his experience at UW-Madison.

Aláan received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Alderson-Broaddus University in Philippi, West Virginia, near Parkersburg, where he grew up. Then he earned a master’s degree in vocal pedagogy at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, Texas, studying with renowned author and pedagogue, Joan Wall. In high school, he picked up saxophone and singing, but preferred the classical repertoire of the classroom to the folk and bluegrass all around him. Now, he finds folk music to be equally superb. “I spent most of my life running away from folk music and my Appalachian heritage, and now I’m in my mid-late ’30s I’m discovering how much I like it,” he says.

After Texas, he lived (and still does) in Chicago. He got a job as a choral conductor, studied applied linguistics and developed a sustainable energy curriculum at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Some opportunities just presented themselves and I just said yes. Getting into these other fields was not romantic; it was all just chance. I had a voice teacher who told me to always say yes. I’ve had to temper that more lately, but in general if an opportunity pops up, I’m all in.”

About UW-Madison:

“I’ve always loved Madison. After meeting the faculty, learning about the amazing funding opportunities, and realizing I could be done in three years and still live part time in Chicago, I knew I wanted to apply. I remember when I got the call from that I had received the Collins Fellowship and instantly thinking, ‘That’s it. This is where I’m meant to be.’  And I love it. I know no university is perfect, but I am unhesitant in my praise for UW. It is a wonderful school and the music department is exactly what I wanted and needed. :)”

About University Opera:

I’ve loved working with [University Opera director] David Ronis. He’s very open to experimenting and input into the character and staging. Not having had much operatic experience before coming to Madison, I’ve learned a lot. And memorizing a role – holy crap. It’s been years since I’ve had to memorize anything, let alone an entire role! I played Nerone in last year’s production of L’incoronazione di Poppea, and it was a blast. Getting to play someone that horrible is a lot of fun. That probably sounds terrible, but exploring this truly evil creature was so fun. I was the ‘old man’ of the group last year, which helped keep me young.” (In an Isthmus review, John Barker wrote, “Countertenor Thomas Aláan has a powerful voice and is extraordinary as the petulant and cruel Nerone.”)

“I can’t wait for the fall production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I will play Oberon, a similarly maniacal and complicated character.”

About arts administration:

“Running an arts organization is often very tough work with many disappointments and failures. It also can provide a lot of opportunities for creativity. There’s a big push now for arts entrepreneurship, which I think is both really awesome and also potentially bad — good because it opens musicians up to new performing possibilities and bad because then everyone is trying to do their own thing and that can saturate the market. There’s also the additional work load. Most performers get into performing to be on the stage, not to sit behind a desk and a computer. Performers should really consider whether they are fine with the intensive administrative aspect. I spend more of my time writing emails, writing grant proposals, meeting with donors, working logistics, planning two to five years down the road, talking about mission and values, recruiting board members, etc. than I do making music. But the rewards were worth it — we’ve recorded albums, toured, commissioned new works, produced an opera, appeared on festivals, broadened our network, and picked up valuable business skills. So, if I could offer one piece of advice, artists should figure out what it means to run an arts organization before committing to doing it and make sure they’re okay with that extra work.”