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Upcoming ‘Manchurian Candidate’: action, revelation and paranoia

MinnPost photo by John Whiting
Michael Christie conducts the Minnesota Opera orchestra; Campbell and Puts follow along in the score.

At the final workshop for “The Manchurian Candidate,” the new opera by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, an audience of about 50 got a sneak peek of what to expect in March, when the Minnesota Opera presents the world premiere of its latest New Works Initiative production. Although we didn’t see any sets, costumes or acting – it was more a sneak listen than a sneak peek – it was thrilling.

Puts and Campbell, whose collaboration “Silent Night” won the Pulitzer Prize, have created a tense and suspenseful work with “a body count as bad as MacBeth,” in the words of artistic director Dale Johnson. Based on the novel by Richard Condon, not on either film version, it’s the tale of Raymond Shaw, an American soldier brainwashed into becoming the perfect assassin. His job: to clear a path for right-wing presidential candidate Johnny Iselin, his stepfather, who will “fight those who would deprive us of our freedom.” Shaw’s handler is his mother, Eleanor Iselin, a character Johnson described as “the greatest monster in opera right now.” He could be right. She’s sung by soprano Brenda Harris, who appeared on the Ordway’s stage last January as Lady MacBeth. Sorry, Lady M., but Eleanor is badder than you.

Saturday’s workshop at the Opera Center in Minneapolis featured the whole orchestra, chorus, and soloists – Harris, Matthew Worth as Raymond Shaw, Daniel Sumegi as Johnny Iselin, Leonardo Capalbo as Ben Marco, Angela Mortellaro as Jocelyn Jordan – led by conductor Michael Christie. Puts and Campbell were there, listening intently and occasionally scribbling on their scores. We heard everything but the ending, which Puts is still orchestrating.

Campbell’s libretto distills Condon’s 1959 Cold War thriller into just over 90 minutes of action, revelation, and paranoia, with occasional breaks for romance. Puts’ score is complex and colorful. Much contemporary opera lacks the hummable bits of, say, “Carmen” or “Lakmé,” and “Manchurian Candidate” is no exception, but Eleanor’s aria near the end of Act I will lift the hairs on the back of your neck, and there’s at least one quartet that will tie your brain into knots. During the Q&A that followed the workshop, Harris had two words for Puts’ music: “ridiculously awesome.”

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Classical composer Stephen Paulus, who died in October from complications of a major stroke he suffered last year, has been nominated for a Grammy for his Concerto for Two Trumpets and Band, which appears on the MSR Classics album “Fantastique: Premieres for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble.” The Okee Dokee Brothers, who won a 2012 Grammy for “Can You Canoe?” are up again for the latest on their own label, “Through the Woods.” The St. Paul label Red House was nominated for “Nocturne Diaries” by Austin, TX folk/Americana singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson. Because we can’t help ourselves, here’s the list of all nominees in the jazz categories, which you won’t find at Buzzfeed. Congrats to Dianne Reeves, who performs at the Dakota Jan. 27 and 28, and to Jason Moran, who comes to the Walker (with Robert Glasper) May 2.

Just in time for the launch of its 50th-anniversary “Loyce Houlton’s Nutcracker Fantasy,” the Minnesota Dance Theatre has a new managing director. Albert Lea native Anne (Trebil) Bachem trained as a dancer, majored in arts management and minored in dance at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, worked in the marketing department at MDT in the late 2000s, and later served as director of marketing and PR at the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Tennessee. Minnesota’s longest-running holiday arts event, MDT’s “Nutcracker Fantasy” opens at the State Theatre on Dec. 19. Philip Brunelle leads the 44-piece orchestra. FMI and tickets ($45-$95). Through Dec. 23.

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has announced extended viewing hours for the final two weekends of “Italian Style: Fashion Since 1945.” The exhibition will stay open late (until 9 p.m.) on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 26 and 27, and again on Friday and Saturday, Jan. 2 and 3. It closes Monday, Jan. 4, and if you have the slightest interest in fashion, couture, and Italy, you don’t want to miss this. It’s arranged fairly simply, keeping the focus on the clothing, shoes and bags, and you can get close enough to see details including pattern matches, perfect seams, and the textures of the fabrics. Starting with suits designed under fascism, ending with a short and somewhat gloomy film about the future of the Italian fashion industry, it’s full of fabulous things including an empire-waisted confection worn by Audrey Hepburn in the film “War and Peace,” a gown worn (and how) by Ava Gardner, the dress and coat Lee Radziwill donned for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, and a Bulgari diamond brooch given to Elizabeth Taylor by Eddie Fisher during her affair with Richard Burton. When she split from Fisher, she wanted the brooch, and he sent her a bill, which she paid. FMI and tickets ($20; free to members).

From the Dept. of Horrible Manners: We love that Northrop hosts regular previews of its dance performances – casual, informative conversations in the Best Buy Theater with company members and area dance experts, held an hour or so before the show begins. Last Thursday’s brought an SRO crowd to see a living legend: Suzanne Farrell, former muse to George Balanchine, now head of her own company. Joined by her ballet mistress, Kristen Gallagher, and 2014 McKnight Artist Dance Fellow Sally Rousse, Farrell shared stories about “Mr. B” and her life. Near the end, questions were invited from the audience. A man sitting on the steps raised his hand and was given the microphone. “Will your biographer reveal whether your relationship with Balanchine was ever consummated?” he asked. The crowd gasped. Farrell, lady and pro, responded, “There’s no story there.”

The Picks

Today (Tuesday, Dec. 9) at Union Depot: If you’re in downton, um, downtown St. Paul, stop by for a cuppa to celebrate the new “Downton Abbey” season, coming to your telly Jan. 4. Have tea, snap selfies in front of a Highclere Castle backdrop and/or with character cutouts, and sign up to win a pair of invites to TPT’s Downton Abbey Holiday Festival at Northrop on Dec. 13, which includes a pre-screening of the Season 5 premiere. They’re calling it the “Big Sip” Tea Party and it’s on from noon until 3 p.m. Free.

Tonight at Common Good Books: Shawn Lawrence Otto reads from his new novel, “The Sins of Our Fathers.” The writer and co-producer of the film “House of Sand and Fog,” Minnesota-based Otto is also the author of “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” (a book Bill Nye the Science Guy likes a lot) and has written for Rolling Stone, Science and Salon. 7 p.m. Free.

Tonight at the University of St. Thomas: “Mind Body Dialogues II.” Authors and storytellers Matthew Sanford and Kevin Kling join MPR’s Cathy Wurzer for a discussion about the nature of storytelling in our lives. How does storytelling make us human? How does it affect our health, our healing and our happiness? What’s your story? Injured in an auto accident at age 13, Sanford has lived with paraplegia for 36 years. Kling was born with a disabled left arm; in 2001, he survived a severe motorcycle accident that left his right arm paralyzed. 7 p.m. at Woulfe Alumni Hall in the Anderson Student Center on the St. Paul campus. Free and open to the public.

Tomorrow at Arlington Hills Community Center: Two-time National Poetry Slam champion Guante performs some of his most popular and powerful pieces, mixing social justice with science fiction, emotion, comedy and beautiful writing. 6:30 p.m. Free.

Holiday Fare

Thursday and Sunday, Dec. 11 and 14: Merry & Bright: A Big, Brassy Christmas with Charles Lazarus. There’s a reason angels play the trumpet; it has a singular power to lift the spirits. A member of the Minnesota Orchestra and leader of his own jazz quartet, Lazarus released a fine holiday CD last year, “Merry & Bright.” He’s back with his superb rhythm section (Tommy Barbarella on keyboards, Jeff Bailey on bass, David Schmalenberger on drums), singers Tonia Hughes and Bruce Henry, and the Lazarus Brass big band for two joyous, high-energy nights of music. Thursday’s concert is at Wayzata Community Church, Sunday’s at St. Joan of Arc. Both at 7 p.m. Tickets here and here ($15-$20).

Saturday, Dec. 13 at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral: A Downton Abbey Christmas. In March, the Oratorio Society of Minnesota gave a concert called “The Music of Downton Abbey.” It proved so popular that a themed holiday concert seemed like a splendid idea. The program of post-Edwardian English choral and orchestral music includes works by Handel, Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mendelssohn, Holst, Frank Bridge and others, plus John Lunn’s “Downton Abbey Suite.” A costumed Lady Alice shares the history of the music and links each piece to memorable events from the show’s story line. Matthew Mehaffey conducts. FMI and tickets ($30/$20).

Monday, Dec. 15, at the Ted Mann Concert Hall: Christmas with Cantus. This season’s theme is singing together, and you’ll have several chances to sing along as the premier men’s vocal ensemble in the United States performs carols old and new spanning more than five centuries. There are five performances starting Dec. 11 (which is sold out); this date offers the best availability, but you can try for others. FMI and tickets ($10-$35). 

Please join MinnPost for the second event in our MinnPost Social series. MinnPost Social: The Arts – What’s Hot (and Not) will feature MinnPost Artscape writer Pamela Espeland and managing editor Susan Albright. The free event will take place Wednesday, Dec. 10, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the American Swedish Institute. For details and to register, go here.

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