VocalEssence to perform ‘Radio Hour’; ‘Sexual Politics’ in ceramics at Northern Clay

Photo by Joel Swearingen

The photo at the top of this column couldn’t possibly be the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers in rehearsal. They’re gesturing. They’re emoting. They’re not holding any music.

It’s because they’re rehearsing something so novel there wasn’t even a name for it until composer Jake Heggie invented one: “choral opera.” Opera fans know Heggie as the composer of “Moby-Dick” and “Dead Man Walking.” He was challenged by the idea of creating a theatrical work for chorus, with staging, sets, movement, costumes and lights.

“Radio Hour,” written by Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer (Heggie’s collaborator on “Moby-Dick”), makes its Midwest premiere at the Fitzgerald Theater this weekend. A co-commission among four organizations – California’s Pacific Chorale; the Austin, Texas-based choral ensemble Conspirare; the Philadelphia Singers; and VocalEssence – it had its world premiere in California last spring and was called “enchanting.” A reviewer wrote, “It felt as if we had heard something truly new.”

VocalEssence artistic director and founder Philip Brunelle is pumped. “When people think of a chorus, they think, ‘This block of singers is now going to move four steps to the left, and they’re going to stand there and sing for a while.’ That’s not what this is,” he explained. “Every individual singer has been choreographed. I call it a big choral puzzle. You have to move all the pieces and put them in a new shape and location.” The singers in the photo aren’t holding any music – and won’t be during the performances – because they had to memorize it.

Brunelle is pleased to be performing a new work by Heggie. “Jake’s a terrific composer and one of the shining lights in the younger music generation. He’s a big deal, and I’m sure we will find another project down the road to do with him.”

The story, in brief: Nora is a lonely, middle-aged woman who’s having another bad day. She turns on the old-time radio she keeps in her apartment and discovers that she has a choice: She can stay where she is or walk through a magic door into a different life. It’s part nod to “Alice in Wonderland,” part testament to the power of music. The 30-voice Ensemble Singers functions as the radio, as Nora’s inner voice, and as objects in her apartment: a chair, a mirror, a clock, a lamp.

In another twist, Nora is a role for a silent actress. She neither speaks nor sings. In the VocalEssence production, she’s played by actor and singer Christina Baldwin.

“Radio Hour,” directed and choreographed by Nikki Swoboda, with scenes and props designed by Scotty Gunderson, is the second half of the program. The first half is also radio-related: a performance by the 130-voice VocalEssence Chorus of songs made famous by Fred Waring and a nostalgic medley of TV show themes and jingles, the latter a new commission from area composer Paul Gerike. Saturday’s concert is at 8 p.m., Sunday’s at 4 p.m. FMI and tickets ($10-$40). Come an hour early to either for a pre-concert conversation with Heggie and Scheer, led by Classical MPR’s John Birge.

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In more opera-related news, Mill City Summer Opera has announced the opera and cast for its fourth season. David Lefkowich will direct Donizetti’s lighthearted comedy “The Daughter of the Regiment,” with soprano Leah Partridge as Marie (a role she has sung at the Met) and tenor Chad Johnson as Tonio, the character tasked with one of opera’s most famous and terrifying arias, “Ah, mes amis,” with nine consecutive high Cs. (Here’s Pavarotti giving it a go.) Bradley Greenwald will play the role of Hortensius, the butler.

As before, Mill City Summer Opera will perform in the open-air Ruin Courtyard of the Mill City Museum. Performance dates are July 13, 15, 17, 19 and 21. The first three seasons sold out within hours after tickets became available, so if you’re keen on this, take note: Regular tickets ($35-$100) go on sale Monday, May 18, at 10 a.m. here. Opening night tickets ($195) are available now; go here or call 612-875-5544.

The picks

Tonight (Wednesday, March 11) at Highland Park Community Center: Club Book presents Nadia Hashimi. The Afghan-American author reads from her fiction debut, “The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.” 7 p.m. Free.

Tonight at the Trylon Microcinema: “Bayou Maharajah.” The Minnesota premiere of Lily Keber’s award-winning documentary on the blues and jazz musician James Booker. Dr. John, a headliner at this summer’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival, described Booker as “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” Includes interviews with Harry Connick Jr., Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint. Here’s the trailer. FMI and tickets ($10). Presented by Sound Unseen, which continues to bring us films on music, and we thank them for that.

Thursday at the Walker: Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago. This tribute to the 50th anniversary of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is a jaw-dropping gathering of legendary free jazz musicians: drummer JackDeJohnette, pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams, reedists/composers Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, and Chicago bassist Larry Gray. The remaining tickets pretty much sold out after the Walker’s illuminating “Art School: What is great jazz?” members-only event on March 1, but standing room tickets are still available for the upper balcony, with limited sightlines (which won’t block your ears at all). And you can hang out at the ticket office in the lobby hoping for turnbacks. 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($35/$30).

The weekend

Friday at Northern Clay Center: Opening reception for “Sexual Politics: Gender, Sexuality, and Queerness in Contemporary Ceramics.” And you thought pots were for tea. In functional vessels, wall tiles and sculptural forms, using humor, irony and tension, six artists tackle themes seldom seen in clay. The featured artists are Jeremy Brooks, Mark Burns, Ron Geibel, Kathy King, Christina West and Dustin Yager; Kelly Connole is the curator. 6-8 p.m. Through April 26. Also opening Friday night: “Eat Drink and …,” a show of special-occasion tableware by members of the Minnesota Women Ceramic Artists.

Friday at Bedlam Lowertown and Saturday at the Cedar: Charanga Tropical benefit concerts. Turns out the Minnesota Orchestra isn’t the only Minnesota band that will travel to Cuba this year. Charanga Tropical is the first North American ensemble ever invited to perform at the International Festival of Danzón, which takes place in Havana in late June. Founded and led by Doug Little, who has traveled to Cuba many times, Charanga Tropical is a classical grouping of three violins, flute and rhythm section. Because of the still-active economic embargo, they can’t be paid by the festival, so they’re crowd-funding their trip through a Kickstarter campaign and two benefit shows. Both at 8 p.m. FMI and tickets ($15 advance, $20 door).

Saturday at Groveland Gallery: Charles Lyon: “Rome: Traversing the Sacred.” A recent trip to Rome inspired this series of oil and watercolor paintings prompted by the Ponte Sant’Angelo (Bridge of Angels) spanning the Tiber, where ten marble angels by Bernini symbolize the story of Christ’s suffering and crucifixion. Lyon’s use of Styrofoam to apply paint suggests surfaces of travertine and marble. 12-5 p.m. Also open from 12-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Free.

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