Opera is an art form just over four hundred years old. It was originally created in an attempt to recreate the elaborate stage dramas of Greek antiquity, but very quickly evolved into a diverse and multi-faceted art form of its own. The first opera performances took place in the private salons and elaborate gardens of Italian nobles, but this was only the beginning. By the mid-17th century, opera was one of northern Italy’s most popular forms of entertainment in Italy, with elaborate public performances offered for the Venetian and Roman Carnival seasons. A century later, enterprising entrepreneurs had erected opera houses across Western Europe. Many distinct national styles emerged, with ardent fans engaging in wars of words and even fistfights over the superiority of their respective genres.
This article is Part 2 of the Daily Planet’s Opera Week coverage, a series of articles about opera in Minnesota leading up to the opening night of The Elixir of Love. Over the course of seven days, our coverage will examine some of the individuals and organizations that write opera, produce it, and perform in it in the North Star State. You can read Part 1 online.
By the dawn of the 19th century, opera had become so ubiquitous that attending it was often just as much a social activity as a musical one. Operagoers’ fashion choices drew the same sort of interest and scrutiny as celebrities’ red carpet wardrobes do today; even those with no musical interests congregated in front of opera houses to see and be seen. Different opera houses branded themselves according to the types of opera that they presented, sometimes wielding legal monopolies to quash rivals’ performances; a city with two opera houses could in this sense be as divided as Mets and Yankees fans on game day. Today’s opera fans in Minnesota have perhaps too much Minnesota Nice for that, and are not generally known to riot after performances, but they do have a lot of choices for a night at the opera.
Just how many opera-producing organizations operate in Minnesota today? Like trying to track down just how many theatre groups exist in the state, the answer can be surprisingly elusive; many local societies do not formally incorporated or affiliate themselves with national organizations. A check of Opera America’s membership rolls, for example, finds just four non-educational producing companies listed for the state: Duluth’s Lyric Opera of the North, and the Twin Cities’ Minnesota Opera, Nautilus Music-Theater, and Really Spicy Opera. [Disclosure: The author is the Artistic Director of Really Spicy Opera.] Before tackling the state as a whole, a simpler starting point is determining how many opera-producing organizations exist in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The largest grouping of opera organizations in Minnesota is in the Twin Cities – little surprise, given that the metro region encompasses almost two-thirds of the state’s population. Besides the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and a number of other college programs that tackle opera, Minneapolis and St. Paul together count seven professional opera-producing organizations:
- Mill City Summer Opera
- Minnesota Concert Opera
- Minnesota Opera
- Nautilus Music-Theater
- Really Spicy Opera
- Skylark Opera
- The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company
This listing does not include organizations that occasionally present operas in concert (e.g., the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which presented concert versions of A Rake’s Progress in 2010 and The Turn of the Screw in 2014), or which primarily present short excerpts (e.g., the Minnesota Orchestra or Opera on Tap). Even excluding these, however, a strong diversity is evident. Each producing company encompasses a very different organizational structure, producing model, and funding scheme; the particular venues that they call their mainstage home also have a strong impact on repertoire, use of staging and effects, intimacy, and the acoustic experience. While many audience members patronize several companies, each attracts its own set of ardent followers.
The largest of these organizations by any accounting scheme is Minnesota Opera – also the oldest, having been founded in 1963. Today, MN Opera is based in Minneapolis’s North Loop neighborhood, performs primarily across the river in St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, and exports its production designs, sets, and costumes across the country. The company began its life as Center Opera, an innovative performing arts program at the Walker Art Museum that shared space at the Guthrie Theater’s former home. MN Opera cut its teeth first with newer opera fare (composer Dominick Argento was a founding member), and demonstrated its success in part by absorbing its cross-river counterpart, St. Paul Opera, in 1976.
This progressive programming direction took a more traditional turn in 1984, when the Metropolitan Opera ended 39 years of sending spring tours to play at Northrop Auditorium. (The Met discontinued all of its national tours two years later.) This left a void that Minnesota Opera decided to fill by tackling more works out of the traditional operatic canon. Today, it offers five mainstage productions per season, four drawn from the canon and one new commission; its singers and students also make numerous smaller performances. Mainstage productions run September through May, with 4-8 week gaps in-between, usually with 4-5 performances each. This spring’s Carmen, a perennial favorite, gets nine.
The second-most bewhiskered entry is The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, which emerged amidst the 1979 energy crisis with an appropriately economical style of production. As the name suggests, GSVLOC’s primary focus is on performing the Savoy operas written by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, although the company occasionally makes forays into other comedic opera fare. GSVLOC currently presents an annual, late-winter mainstage production at the intimate Howard Conn Fine Arts Center in Minneapolis and collaborates annually with the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra for a summer concert production of another work. As the primary presenter of light opera in the region, its once-a-year mainstages enjoy unusually long runs: 15 performances of H.M.S. Pinafore are scheduled for 2015.
The next oldest of the group is Skylark Opera (previously North Star Opera and Opera St. Paul), which dates back to 1980. Excluding outreach performances and an off-season concert or two, Skylark is primarily a summer production company, offering one mainstage production and a revue in 2015. Its programming is drawn eclectically from the respective canons of opera, operetta, and musical theater; the works of Leonard Bernstein, which often straddle these lines, are favorites. Skylark has primarily been resident at the E.M. Pearson Theatre at Concordia College in St. Paul since 1995, and this year offers four performances of a Sondheim revue and four performances of Puccini’s La Rondine in the space.
Nautilus Music-Theater (previously The New Music-Theater Ensemble) dates back to 1986, when it was formed as a program at Minnesota Opera, and has operated independently since 1992. Much of its programming is devoted to developing new works and providing professional training, but the company periodically sprouts new productions that travel the state and land in the Twin Cities for short runs. In addition to monthly performances of its Rough Cuts series, Nautilus makes occasional appearances at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Its programing often straddles the line between opera and musical theater.
The newest entrant in the Twin Cities opera scene is Really Spicy Opera, a jewelbox opera company that arrived in Minnesota last year. Although its local debut came with the 2014 Minnesota Fringe Festival, the company is actually eight years’ old, and operated in the Boston area from 2006-2013. Really Spicy Opera exclusively performs new operas and musicals, and specializes in giving world premiere performances.
The two youngest opera companies in the Twin Cities, Mill City Summer Opera and Minnesota Concert Opera, practice different variations on reducing opera to its musical essence. Mill City Summer Opera opened its doors in 2010 and produced its first mainstage work in 2012; its site-specific performances take place in the Mill City Museum’s very own set of backyard ruins and draw on the operatic canon (although sometimes with a twist). Last year, Mill City presented six sold-out performances of Tosca as its mainstage and two of its iconoclastic Guns & Rosenkavalier fusion concert, all within a week-and-a-half period.
If MCSO strips the sets down to whatever fits and can be projected within the ruins, Minnesota Concert Opera’s tact is to do away with staging altogether. MCO opened in 2011 and gave its first concert performance of a complete opera in 2012; its current season offers one concert each of two classic operas: one in the winter and one in the fall. MCO currently performs at area churches and the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis.