All in a Wisconsin Summer Day

July 10, 2011

My best summer days are unplanned, unhurried, and usually contain some sort of unexpected gift–like riding bikes along Lake Monona on a perfect evening, sharing a local brew in the backyard with neighbors, or maybe discovering a new favorite eating spot. But often Madison, where I live, offers up such a bounty of cultural delights that we need to strategize a little.

In Madison, Art Fair on the Square and Art Fair off the Square take place annually in July.

Yesterday was such a day, with three of our favorite summer events occurring in one weekend: the Saturday Dane County Farmers’ Market, the Art Fairs On and Off the Square, and La Fete de Marquette. (Actually, that’s four events, with the two art fairs running side by side.)

Whenever we can, we get up early Saturday mornings and bike the three miles to Capitol Square, where the Dane County Farmers’ Market  is held. Now approaching its 40th anniversary, the DCFM is the largest producer-only market in the nation, which means every vendor, behind every table piled with flowers or vegetables, breads or cheeses, grew or baked or prepared their wares themselves. This week, we came home with green beans, tomatoes, raspberries and zucchini for our dinner table.

For us, a visit to the market has to include a stop at the Graze pastry cart for a cup of coffee and a bite of delicious, just-baked flakiness. Graze always presents a variety, but as usual I enjoyed the mushroom and spinach bun, while my husband got his Pain au Chocolat fix.  (We tell ourselves the bike ride offsets the buttery indulgence.)

On Art Fair weekend, the farmers’ market gets displaced a block so that participating artists can set up their booths on the four blocks surrounding the Square. We had timed our farmers’ market visit perfectly, which allowed us to take in the booths before afternoon crowds swelled. At Art Fair On the Square, more than 450 artists from around the country display works in all media. This year, jewelry and handbags made of recycled inner tubing caught my eye, as did affordable art-themed t-shirts by Madison’s Wildwood Productions. The fair benefits the Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts (MMoCA), always free and open to the public.

The Madison Area High School Ceramists sell pots, pitchers, cups and bowls at Art Fair Off the Square.

At Art Fair Off the Square, I scored a lovely ceramic plate at the Madison Area High School Ceramists booth. An annual favorite, the booth displays and sells works by, you guessed it, Madison area high school ceramists.  I like knowing that 80 percent of my purchase went to Jenna, the young artist who made my plate, and the remaining 20 percent supports Madison public school art programs. In fact, at Art Fair off the Square, along Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and on the Monona Terrace Convention Center Esplanade, every booth features the works of Wisconsin artists.

We actually had time to finish a home painting project and run some weekend errands before heading to La Fete de Marquette, also a short bike ride away. A celebration of French music and culture, this annual festival never fails to do Madison’s Marquette neighborhood proud. Top-notch performers from throughout the French-speaking world, along with some of the city’s best eateries, provide four days of French-themed fun. Relatively new to the festival is La Tente de Dance, a dance floor dedicated to Quebecois and Cajun dance. The fest also showcases the vibrant personality of Madison’s East Side, for some of the best people-watching all year. We felt lucky to see Maraca, a Cuban jazz band that had the whole crowd moving. (Sometimes the connection to France isn’t immediately apparent, but who minded? Not me.)

Both art fairs and the Marquette festival continue through today, July 10.


I may be based in Madison, but I also manage’s online events calendar, so I know communities in all 72 Wisconsin counties hold their own summer markets, fairs and festivals. This weekend alone, you’ll find a polka festival in Ellsworth, a pow-wow in Lac du Flambeau, or for those who like it large, Milwaukee’s grand Summerfest and Rhinelander’s star-studded Hodag Country Music Festival.  Art fests abound everywhere as well. To find them, consult the calendar–or for a print copy of this year’s Wisconsin Arts Board Art and Craft Fair Directory, call  1-800-432-8747 between 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And please, let us know what makes your local fair or festival special. We love hearing from you.

–Tammy Kempfert

Opera for everyone

July 8, 2010

By Brian Hinrichs, Portal guest blogger

The Onion recently published a headline that, predictably, made me chuckle: “Nation’s Boyfriends Dreading ‘Free Event in the Park’ Season.” Yes, it is indeed “Free Event in the Park season,” but personally, that’s what makes it my favorite season.

You see, I work for Madison Opera, and every year our staff and production team works hard to put on Opera in the Park (Saturday, July 17, 2010 in Garner Park), our free event in the park that has become a Madison summer tradition.

Maestro John DeMain conducts a previous Opera in the Park event.

Throughout Madison Opera’s mainstage season in Overture Hall, we encounter the tragic lives of historical heroines and the buffoonery of classic clowns. We laugh, we cry and we hop on the wonderful roller-coaster ride that is opera (both producing it, and experiencing it) because there is nothing else in the performing arts quite like it. The lavish sets, the costumes, the music, the drama, the beauty of the unamplified voice: it all combines for a uniquely powerful experience.

At Opera in the Park, we get to highlight the best parts of this magical art form for an audience of thousands, and yes, they get to experience it for free! It’s a thrilling night, one the nation’s boyfriends need not dread at all.

Opera in the Park started nine years ago, and each year since it has grown exponentially. It’s a concert of opera and Broadway hits, featuring some of today’s brightest American opera singers alongside the Madison Opera Chorus and the Madison Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro John DeMain. The program offers something for everyone, with excerpts from our upcoming productions of The Marriage of Figaro, The Threepenny Opera, and La Traviata, in addition to a Stephen Sondheim birthday tribute, selections from The Sound of Music, celebrating its 50th anniversary and much more.

This year’s guest soloists are sopranos Anya Matanovic and Barbara Shirvis, tenor Rodrick Dixon, and baritone Stephen Powell. Ms. Matanovic is a rising star in the opera world, with recent engagements at Seattle Opera and the New Israeli Opera, while Ms. Shirvis is in demand around the country both on the operatic and concert stages (she performs the title role in Tosca with the Minnesota Orchestra following Opera in the Park). Mr. Dixon is well known in many genres, from his role in the original Broadway cast of Ragtime to appearances with the Los Angeles Opera to his PBS specials with the opera/gospel crossover group, “The Tenors Cook, Dixon, and Young.” Mr. Powell leads a continent-spanning career, with The Wall Street Journal hailing his “rich, lyric baritone, commanding presence and thoughtful musicianship.”

Opera in the Park has grown exponentially in the past nine years.

All of this talent will be on display on Saturday, July 17th in Garner Park at 8 p.m. Come early, bring a picnic, and get a taste of Madison Opera: you don’t want to miss the highlight of “Free Event in the Park season!”

For more information on Opera in the Park, visit