Opera in the ruins

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May 7, 2012 // UPDATED 9:47 am - May 7, 2012
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

Opera is stuffy, elitist and expensive. At least, that is the view many people have about the art form. A new nonprofit organization wants to change that perception, and they plan to do it by combining the best elements of opera with the best elements of summer: an outdoor setting, good food and drinks and affordable entertainment. 

Welcome to the Mill City Summer Opera, a new event that runs for five evenings starting July 12. Held in the courtyard of the Mill City Museum, the Mill City Summer Opera will stage a production of “Pagliacci” in a space that’s both outside and enclosed, open and intimate. You won’t see any tuxedo-clad audience members in this crowd — you’re much more likely to see folks in shorts with a glass of wine and a sandwich from caterers D’Amico. And with all tickets priced at $25, it’s an affordable introduction to the world of opera. 

The Mill City Summer Opera was founded by Karen Brooks, a freelance bassoonist who has played with the Minnesota Opera, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Orchestra, and several other musical organizations. She performed for several summers at an opera festival in Charlottesville, Va., a small community that’s home to the estates of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. While performing in a garden on Monroe’s estate, Brooks realized that her home community didn’t offer any sort of similar experience.

“I live in a community of two million people and I’m driving every summer to spend six weeks away from my family to play in an opera festival in a community of 200,000,” said Brooks. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Enlisting the help of her friend Judy Blaseg, Brooks developed a plan for her new opera program. She originally considered holding the event in Stillwater, but decided it would be a far better fit for the Minneapolis riverfront. The Mill City Museum courtyard was discussed, and Brooks and Blaseg presented their idea to the museum. 

“At first they were completely silent,” said Blaseg. “But then they were like ‘Of course. We’ve been looking to do something, and we think this is it.’”

Even before the first performance has been held, the Mill City Opera and the Mill City Museum have forged an agreement to hold the event in the courtyard through 2014. That is testament to the strength of what Brooks, Blaseg and the rest of the Mill City Opera organization have created. While it may be a more casual presentation of opera, the talent behind the show is impressive. 

The leadership and crew of the show includes veterans of the Guthrie, the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, The American Music Theater, The Washington National Opera, Deutsche Oper Berlin- and many other world-class organizations. The lead cast members have performed in on opera stages all over the world. The orchestra is primarily performers from the Minnesota Orchestra. 

“The performance quality is going to be really high,” said Brooks. “You’re going to feel like you’re getting a first-rate experience.”

“I’m just really looking forward to it. It’s a fantastic cast,” said Andrew Wilkowske, who will perform the role of “Tonio” in the show. One of the few locally based performers in the cast, Wilkowske has performed all over the country but makes Minnesota his home. “Doing a piece like this is perfect, because it introduces people to a classic Italian opera. To do it in a way that takes away some of the pomp and circumstance that’s associated with grand opera, to do it in an outdoor venue and to have sort of a casual setting is a great way to reach people who may not come otherwise.”

Reaching those new audiences is the goal, of course, and the Mill City Summer Opera is packing its performances with reasons for new audiences to attend. The casual “come as you are” attitude is just the beginning. Every ticket includes admission to the museum, and the link between the show and the venue is reinforced by setting the production in 1878, the year a mill explosion created the courtyard ruins. Pre-show lectures will help explain the story of “Pagliacci” to those who are unfamiliar. The artists behind the performance will work with students at the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts, which works to promote the arts to the North Minneapolis community. Some students from the Lundstrum Center will likely have small roles as townspeople in the performance, and students from the University of Minnesota’s music school will also get a chance to sing in the show’s choir. 

In short, the Mill City Summer Opera will reach a wide range of people. Some of those people, the organizers hope, will come to love the art of opera as much as they do.

Reach Jeremy Zoss at jzoss@mnpubs.com