WORDS BY Isabelle Wattenberg
If there’s one art form that consistently and comprehensively communicates the range of emotions humans experience, it is opera. In the centuries past, these trials and triumphs were generally represented at royal courts or woven into well-worn fables. Today, opera expresses the same grand feelings, but the stories being told are more fearless and unexpected, like those Minnesota opera companies are staging this fall.
Skylark Opera Theatre
Go for: intimate performances staged in unorthodox spaces
The impact of place is a core focus of Skylark Opera Theatre, which was originally formed as the Opera in Saint Paul company in 1980 (it still houses its offices in the Landmark Center). Their staging approach keenly reflects this value: Most productions are performed in highly relevant locations that extend the story’s themes–for example, presenting Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Museum of Russian Art, or Don Giovanni–an infamously misogynistic story–subversively staged at the Women’s Club of Minneapolis.
“Chamber opera is a genre filled with challenging and rewarding works… which deserve to be experienced in unique acoustic spaces, without amplification, where the singer-actors’ voices and subtle expressivity can be truly appreciated in an intimate performer-audience member encounter,” says Angie Carlson, the company’s president of the board of directors. “The right space can set the mood for the production.”
This season, Skylark’s eye for creative spaces expands to their Oktoberfest benefit event, which will debut pieces from a contemporary opera about a fourteenth-century woman brewer, held at Fat Pants Brewing in Eden Prairie on October 11.
Skylark also presents Amahl and the Night Visitors, a story of the Three Kings’ journey to Bethlehem told from the perspective of a young boy who meets them along the way. Debuting December 4, it’s an uplifting, multi-layered holiday tale.
“Amahl is a moving story of love and generosity, themes that take on special meaning during the holiday season,” says Carlson. “It showcases fascinating characters–especially the kind, courageous little boy at the heart of the tale–its charming dance, and especially its message of peace and goodwill to all, [and] appeals to ‘first opera’ goers and experienced audiences alike.”
An Opera Theatre
Go for: opera that redefines the art form, Minnesota-made talent
Formed in 2018, An Opera Theatre (AOT) represents the newest company in the lineup, but has already earned respect for producing boundary-pushing, high-quality art that is also accessible —operating under a ‘pay what you can’ model. In addition to producing entirely new operas that challenge traditional processes and themes, AOT provides performance opportunities to emerging talent through their Voice Lab series, which invites artists of all levels to sing before the public in a casual and supportive atmosphere
This fall AOT presents Mináǧi kiŋ dowáŋ: a Zitkála-Šá opera, which translates from Dakota to “My Spirit Sings” and explores the life and works of the Nakota writer, educator, and political activist Zitkála-Šá. To produce the show, AOT Executive Director Kelly Turpin collaborated with an all-Indigenous cast and crew, including producer Sequoia Hauck of the Anishinaabe & Hupa nations and librettist Hannah Johnson of the Anishinaabe-Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe. According to Turpin, every aspect of the production was reviewed and discussed with an eye toward decolonizing the process and pushing the limits of how opera can tell stories.
“You have this art form, but you also have this very kind of westernized and often very capitalist structure for how you’re creating the art. And we wanted to turn that on its head,” Turpin says. She says she hopes that telling Zitkála-Šá’s story through the medium would be “very meaningful for an Indigenous person living now and feeling like you’re part of two different worlds, with your ancestry and… your modern and still very Eurocentric society.”
The result is a 30-minute opera in film that highlights Zitkála-Šá’s impact on the the reception of Indigenous art and culture and offers what Turpin calls “layers of storytelling” that include sketches from Moira Villiard, a Fond du Lac direct descendent, Lakota flute and hand drum performances, and scenes filmed on the Prairie Island Indian Community. It should be both a visual feast and a stirring homage to the woman who wrote the first native opera herself.
WHEN YOU GO
Go for: exposing little ones to opera, the full red velvet theater experience
The Minnesota Opera may be the captain of opera companies in the Twin Cities, but they’ve built a reputation for producing experimental and local works alongside traditional productions that satisfy longtime operagoers. They’ve also taken the lead–nationally and locally–in applying a DEI lens and mission to their work. In addition to advancing diversity among staff and performers, the Minnesota Opera regularly selects composers and productions that reflect too-often-unheard voices, and last year they introduced The Score, a podcast that addresses issues of equity and diversity in the opera world and is hosted by three queer, Black staff members.
“At Minnesota Opera our vision is to sing every story, and a huge part of that is our drive to disrupt the canon by championing new works by new, emerging composers,” host and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Director Rocky Jones says. “In our 60-year history, we’ve produced 48 new works, but in that time, we’ve never premiered a new work composed by a woman. This is, of course, a grave oversight.”
This will change with the season opener and world premiere of Edward Tulane, which is an adaptation of a childrens’ book by local author Kate DeCamillo from Brooklyn–based composer Paola Prestini. The family friendly story chronicles the international adventures of a stuffed toy rabbit, whose world comes to life in the talented hands of a diverse cast guided by illustrious conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya. A second new woman-led work, Keo Kalia Yang’s The Song Poet, will debut in March.
“This is important to us, because although we’ve been a national leader in producing new work, we have to recognize that we haven’t always done all we can to diversify the kinds of stories we’re presenting and the people we are inviting into our spaces to present them,” Jones says.