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Minnesota Opera at 50: Thriving, with an engaging, auspicious ‘Nabucco’

Though there have been bumps in the road over the years, Minnesota Opera seems to have proved that a company can thrive without always playing it safe.

The Minnesota Opera opened its 50th season with Verdi's seldom-heard "Nabucco."
Photo by Michal Daniel

Searchlights probed the sky over the Ordway Saturday night, signaling an an event of some considerable weight in local — and perhaps even national — cultural history: the start of Minnesota Opera’s 50th season.

Several opera companies around the country have folded in recent years; others, in an effort to play it safe, have pulled back from programming anything unusual. Though there have been bumps in the road over the years — periods of insolvency, questions of artistic identity — Minnesota Opera seems to have proved that a company can thrive without always playing it safe.

It still commissions new works. Indeed, its premiere production last season of “Silent Night” with a score by Kevin Puts, one of only three opera premieres in the U.S. that season, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. There will be another new work in January, “Doubt,” an opera based on the hit play and movie by John Patrick Shanley with music by Douglas J. Cuomo.

Even Saturday night’s season-opener, Verdi’s seldom-heard “Nabucco,” given a boldly colorful, ritzy staging, part Cecil B. DeMille kitsch and part historical rumination, could hardly be called a safe bet. Yet the capacity audience — black tie and evening gowns rubbing shoulders with blue jeans and plaid shirts — gave singers and the artistic team, as they gathered onstage at the end, a boisterous standing ovation.

Initial idea: to present chamber operas

Looking at the company’s beginnings, its start as Center Opera, an avant-garde spin-off of Walker Art Center, a betting man back in 1963 probably wouldn’t have wagered much, if anything, on the company’s survival —  to say nothing of a 50-year run. The initial idea was to mount chamber operas — new and unusual works sung in English by small casts of mostly local singers. Dominick Argento, then a member of the faculty at the University of Minnesota, composed the company’s debut work, “A Masque of Angels,” which was presented at the Guthrie Theater’s original location adjacent to the Walker. As a model, Argento envisioned the Aldeburgh Festival in England, where many of Benjamin Britten’s operas were premiered.

Nabucco curtain call
Photo by Corinne Standish
The cast of “Nabucco” gathers for the opening-night curtain call.

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Instead, with H. Wesley Balk eventually coming aboard as stage director and Philip Brunelle holding the title of music director, the company pursued a more iconoclastic, countercultural path, using slogans like “Down With Opera” and “Non-Opera” in its publicity and boasting of the visual allure of its productions.

“We were free spirits, incredibly free,” said soprano Catherine Malfitano, reminiscing about those early years in an article in Opera News. As a gesture of unfettered —  and to some, nauseating — freedom, the company’s staging of “The Good Soldier Schweik” utilized an enormous enema bag onstage for a group enema. The company’s performances in New York City of a new work, “Faust Counter Faust” paired with Virgil Thomson’s “The Mother of Us All,” earned rave reviews (“… among the most theatrically dazzling experiences I’ve ever witnessed,” wrote Alan Rich in New York magazine.)

Audiences at home remained small, however, as did budgets. Expenses for the first season were $43,094 against income of $36,840. Season tickets ran from $3 all the way to $7. The Walker made up the difference. (By contrast, the current budget is $10.1 million. Season tickets range from $50 to $800.)

Consider a few ‘what ifs’

What causes an opera company, or any kind of theatrical enterprise, to prosper? We hear the usual suspects: smart artistic and administrative leadership, aggressive fund-raising, commitment to new works and innovative productions, nurturing of artists. Every company boasts of such virtues when they’re successful. But surely luck and chance play a part, too. Consider a few “what ifs”:

  • What if St. Paul Opera, Minnesota Opera’s competitor, hadn’t gone belly-up in 1975? Of the two companies, St. Paul Opera should have been the survivor. It produced more traditional repertoire (though it did give the premiere of Lee Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke” and managed to cajole Tennessee Williams to attend the premiere at O’Shaughnessy Auditorium). In addition, it had a larger audience and more access to big-money funders. But it had run up a deficit of $350,000 — pocket change these days — and so it threw in the towel. (Contrary to reports that persist up to the present time, St. Paul Opera did not soon thereafter merge with Minnesota Opera; instead, certain board members of the by-then-defunct St. Paul company were invited onto the Minnesota Opera board.)
  • What if the Metropolitan Opera had continued its national tour instead of bringing it to an end in 1986? From 1948 to 1986, opera in Minnesota chiefly meant seeing star singers and tattered, wrinkled sets in seven productions at Northrop Auditorium during “Opera Week” in May of every year. Drawing audiences of nearly 30,000 from a dozen states of the union — 10 times the size of Minnesota Opera’s audience back then — the Met decided, nonetheless, that the tours were too costly and no longer feasible. And the stars, who could make more money singing at festivals in Europe, were no longer willing to play less glamorous cities in the South and Midwest. It took a while, but the regional companies, Minnesota Opera among them, began to grow, drawing some of the Met’s old audience and eventually building new audiences of their own. Kevin Smith, who joined the company in 1981 as production stage manager, eventually rising to president, teamed with artistic director Dale Johnson to guide the company to its current stature, a workable mix of progressive and conservative impulses. (“The Times considers Minnesota Opera to be a major company,” said New York Times chief music critic Anthony Tommasini to this writer at a critics conference in Toronto a few years ago.)
  • What if the labor dispute of 1993 hadn’t been resolved? This was no minor quibble. Managements of the Ordway, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Opera launched early that year the unwieldy idea of an “Alliance,” wherein the three organizations would collaborate. The SPCO would become the opera company’s pit orchestra, and the company’s own orchestra would be dissolved. The musicians balked, the opera orchestra went on strike and the company found itself on the international unfair list of the American Federation of Musicians — not a good position to be in if you want to hire musicians. Just before the SPCO also planned to go on strike, new contracts were signed, and the “Alliance” idea was withdrawn. it could have gone otherwise.

Back to the company’s beginnings

To return to “Nabucco,” one of the intriguing aspects of Thaddeus Strassberger’s production is that, in a sense, it takes the audience back to the company’s beginnings when the visual element was paramount, when important artists were hired to design sets and costumes. (However, the look of  this new production is far more opulent — and obviously more expensive — than the company could have afforded back in the ’60s.) Strassberger, in fact, takes us back in time even further than that, to Verdi’s own day and specifically to the opening night of “Nabucco” at La Scala in 1842 — when, so the history books tell us, this biblical epic of Hebrews in Babylonian captivity fired the imagination of patriotic Italians who themselves were trying to throw out an occupying army, the Austrians. One stirring chorus from the work, “Va, pensiero” — beautifully sung by a splendid chorus Saturday night — inflamed the audience with passion and lived on to become a theme song of the rebellion. (“With this opera, my career can be said to have begun,” Verdi said many years later.)

Michael Christie
Photo by Michal Daniel
Conductor Michael Christie is the new musical director at the Minnesota Opera.

Fortunately, Strassberger doesn’t take this idea as far as he might have. He doesn’t ask his mostly fine cast of principals to evoke the acting practices of the early 19th century, which surely would get laughs today. (Acting styles do change.) Nor does the excellent conductor — Michael Christie, the company’s new music director — put period instruments in the pit. But he does place fashionable young women in box seats adjacent to the stage, as would have been the case at La Scala, and they consult their librettos from time to time, as was the practice back then. Another nice touch: Nervous-looking police officers observe from the top box to see that nothing subversive happens.

Towering sets, and bolder steps

Brenda Harris
Courtesy of the Minnesota Opera
Brenda Harris

And the sets — towering flats and painted drops, huge columns and bas-relief sculptures, candles in the footlights — effectively give a sense of the period. There are bolder steps, too: having a cluster of 19th-century working-class Italians listening to “Va, pensiero” behind an upstage scrim, representing, presumably, the spirit of the Italian people. And he has soprano Brenda Harris, so impressive in the main female role of Abigaille, lead the cast and audience in a reprise of “Va, pensiero” at the end of the curtain-call. (The police, of course, would have shut down the theater in a minute had that happened in 1842.)

Though “Nabucco” is by no means one of Verdi’s greatest scores, it deserves more performances than it gets, and it is to Minnesota Opera’s credit that it is being staged here. It’s a difficult work to cast, especially the role of Abigaille, which calls for a singer capable of delicacy, fervor, upper-range agility and the dark tones of a Lady Macbeth, whom Verdi went on to create in later years. Harris, so familiar to audiences here, had it all: force, conviction and touching poignancy in her final scene.

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Jason Howard in the title role was no match for her in charisma or grand style, but he sang earnestly, often with rich tone, and sincere acting, especially in the final act. Bass John Relyea was a powerful Zaccaria, bringing resonant sound and believability to a potentially tedious role. With his long hair and desert-Hebrew costume, tenor John Robert Lindsey, singing the part of Ismaele, looked amazingly like Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and though he had good moments vocally, Lindsey showed some strain in his upper register. Victoria Vargas as Fenena sang her fourth-act aria sweetly. Praise should also go to Mattie Ullrich, the costume designer, and to both JAX Messenger and Mark McCollough for their atmospheric lighting design.

All in all, this was a auspicious and engaging way to celebrate a major birthday. It’s been a bumpy ride, these 50 years, and no one expects Minnesota Opera’s next half-century to be entirely smooth-going. But if Rip Van Winkle were an opera fan who had just awakened from a 49-year nap, he would have been pleasantly surprised at what he saw — and heard — on the Ordway stage Saturday night.

Verdi’s “Nabucco.” Minnesota Opera. Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St.Paul. 7:30 p.m. tonight, Thursday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $20-$200. 612-333-6669.