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Knight Foundation invests $2.2 million in St. Paul arts; Minnesota Opera announces spring season

ALSO: Sounds of Blackness: “The Night Before Christmas: In Concert”; the Guthrie’s “Dickens’ Holiday Classic”; and more.

The new home of the Playwrights’ Center in the Creative Enterprise Zone.
The new home of the Playwrights’ Center in the Creative Enterprise Zone.
Photo by Dan Rech

Christmas came early for seven Twin Cities arts organizations. On Thursday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $2.2 million investment in St. Paul’s arts community. The money will be shared among the Playwrights’ Center, Penumbra Theatre Company, FilmNorth, Victoria Theater Arts Center, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, Public Art St. Paul and Mixed Blood Theatre Company.

The Playwright’s Center will receive $1.5 million to relocate to St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone. Penumbra will receive $200,000 to support the development and production of new work. FilmNorth will also receive $200,000, which it will use to expand new programming to train storytellers from underrepresented communities in filmmaking.

Victoria Theater Arts Center will receive $100,000 in operating support. The Ordway will receive $97,000 for the pilot year of a musical theater training program for emerging artists of color. Public Art St. Paul will receive $75,000 for the inaugural Saint Paul-Minneapolis Triennial Art Festival planned for 2023. (Wait. What? Triennial Art Festival? We’ll look into that.)

And Minneapolis’ Mixed Blood will receive $50,000 to develop and produce two new works of experimental theater in Green Line neighborhoods designed to foster civic engagement.

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For the Playwrights’ Center, the Knight grant will be transformative. Since 1979, the center has been based in an old church on East Franklin in Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood, which it shared for a time in the ’80s with the Loft. The new funding will allow it to redevelop an office/warehouse building at 710 Raymond Ave., south of University Ave. and the Green Line, where it will serve a greater breadth and diversity of artists and engage the community further in the play development process.

The new space, which the center anticipates opening in 2021-22, its 50th anniversary season, will feature a 150-seat theater, indoor and outdoor public gathering areas, tech-enabled classrooms, rehearsal studios, and temporary apartment housing for artists in crisis or transition. The design firm HGA has been selected for the project. Its work is seen all over the Twin Cities – in the Northrop renovation, the Ordway Concert Hall, the Minnesota Capitol restoration, the Walker’s entry pavilion and the American Swedish Institute’s Nelson Cultural Center, to name a few.

Priya Sircar, director of Knight’s arts program, said in a statement, “By relocating to St. Paul, the Playwrights’ Center will significantly contribute to expanding the creative corridor along the city’s Green Line as a vibrant hub for community, creativity, and opportunity.”

Jeremy B. Cohen, the center’s producing artistic director, said, “We are grateful to receive this very significant gift from Knight Foundation as we endeavor to make a more equitable field for playwrights to realize their full artistic potential. … The Playwrights’ Center has focused our work in the past decade on centering voices that have often been marginalized in the theater field and the events of this past year have shone a light on how important and necessary this work continues to be.”

In October, the Playwrights’ Center received $850,000 in support from the 2020 Minnesota bonding bill.

The Playwrights’ Center has actually ramped up its work since the pandemic began, increasing staff, expanding its Playlabs Festival, adding more workshop time to its Ruth Easton New Play Series and starting a new online development and performance project series for “wildly experimental new works.” Called In the Lab, it launches tonight (Friday, Dec. 18) with Ken Urban’s “Vapor Trail,” about a chance meeting at a farmers’ market that leads to a strong connection. 7 p.m. Free, with reservations required. Here’s an interview with the playwright.

Minnesota Opera announces 2021 spring season

Last month, Minnesota Opera President Ryan Taylor told MinnPost, “We have everything on the table.” Prevented by COVID from going about its usual work – producing five operas from September through May for live audiences at the Ordway Music Theater – the opera has been doing all sorts of things it wouldn’t normally do.

Like holding an event at CHS Field in St. Paul, offering a 3D streamed version of “Das Rheingold” (and mailing out 3D glasses to ticket buyers) and making several previous productions available as free audio streams and Classical MPR broadcasts.

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You can still catch “Silent Night,” the Pulitzer Prize winner with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell, on Classical MPR’s website. The opera’s first-ever holiday special, livestreamed from the Ordway Concert Hall last Sunday, remains available on demand through Dec. 27. Tickets are pay-what-you-want starting at $15.

Next up: what the opera is calling its 2021 Spring Season. No surprise, everything will be digital. Surprise, everything digital will be free. (“Free” means you don’t have to pay for the experience, but donations are always welcome.) Much will be new.

An image from the Minnesota Opera's 2019 production of “The Barber of Seville,” one of the audios that will stream on Classical MPR.
Photo by Dan Norman
An image from the Minnesota Opera's 2019 production of “The Barber of Seville,” one of the audios that will stream on Classical MPR.
Streaming from Feb. 5-19, 2021: MNiatures: Short World Premiere Operas from Minnesota Artists. Earlier this year, the opera issued an open call for submissions from composers, lyricists, librettists and songwriters for short, fully original operatic pieces that test new definitions of the word “opera.” Applications were received, four pairs of artists were selected and four new 8-10 minute operas have been commissioned, to be created in collaboration with the Minnesota Opera new works team. The artists are Kashimana Ahua and Khary Jackson, Ritika Ganguly and Roshan Ganu, Asoko Hirabayashi and Rebecca Nichloson, and Charlie McCarron and Oanh Vu. Read more about them here.

Streaming Feb. 27: 2021 MN Opera Virtual Benefit featuring the world premiere of “Art is a Verb.” A newly commissioned operatic work – music by B.E. Boykin, libretto by playwright Harrison David Rivers (“To Let Go and Fall,” “Five Points,” “This Bitter Earth,” etc.) – will be the centerpiece of a program that also features performances by Minnesota Opera Resident Artists. “Art is a Verb” will be directed by Theater Mu’s Lily Tung Crystal, with Joseph Li as pianist and arranger.

Streaming April 3-17: Apart Together: A MN Opera Artist Showcase. A collection of original presentations by members of the Minnesota Opera family, with a focus on creativity and artistic freedom.

Premiering May 2021: Albert Herring: May Day Mayhem. The opera last presented Benjamin Britten’s comic masterpiece in 1964, when it was called Center Opera Company and performed at the Guthrie. The opera is also exploring options for live outdoor performances.

The spring season will also include three Classical MPR broadcasts of previous Minnesota Opera productions, all at 7 p.m. Feb. 16: “Lakmé” (2007), music by Léo Delibes, libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille. March 23: “The Barber of Seville” (2019), music by Rossini, libretto by Cesare Sterbini. May 4: “Flight” (2020), music by Jonathan Dove, libretto by April De Angelis.

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The picks

V is for virtual, L is for live and in person.

V Starts Saturday, Dec. 19: Ordway: Sounds of Blackness: “The Night Before Christmas: In Concert.” Soulful Santa, Santa’s Fine Reindeer and the Dancing Chitlins return in the first virtual presentation of the Sounds’ holiday hit. Performed by 17 vocalists including Ordway resident artist Jamecia Bennett and a top-notch 10-piece band, recorded in the Ordway Concert Hall, the show is a mix of R&B, hip hop, jazz, blues and gospel. Although we can’t be there in person, this COVID-era version will give everyone a front-row seat. FMI and tickets ($15). Available through Dec. 31.

Meghan Kriedler
Meghan Kriedler
V Starts Saturday, Dec. 19: Guthrie Theater: “Dickens’ Holiday Classic.” A cherished Twin Cities holiday tradition for 45 years, “A Christmas Carol” at the Guthrie will be sorely missed. But the Guthrie has not abandoned us. Adapted by the Guthrie’s artistic director, Joseph Haj, from a script Charles Dickens used for his own public readings, directed for the stage by Haj, with film direction by E.G. Bailey, this screen-friendly version features actors we’ve seen on stage: Nathaniel Fuller and Charity Jones (both have played Scrooge) and “Christmas Carol” regulars Ryan Colbert and Meghan Kriedler. Each will perform one of four “chapters.” FMI and tickets ($10). Free to all K-12 schools. On demand through Dec. 31.

V Starts Saturday, Dec. 19, 7 p.m.: Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus: “Holiday Hotdish.” A concert mixed with a baking show. A blend of choral chestnuts and new works. That’s the lighter side of the TCGMC’s first-ever virtual holiday event. But a performance by this fine choir, now in its 40th year, is never all fun and games. You’ll also hear “Heavy,” a TCGMC-led, nationally commissioned work by Cincinnati-based composer Steve Milloy to honor the life of George Floyd, sung in collaboration with choruses across the country. Free on the YouTube channel.

“Christmas at Crooners: A Virtual Holiday Special” performers include Moore by Four.
Courtesy of the artists
“Christmas at Crooners: A Virtual Holiday Special” performers include Moore by Four.
V Tuesday, Dec. 22: Crooners: “Christmas at Crooners: A Virtual Holiday Special.” Hosted by singer, pianist and Crooners booker Andrew Walesch, whose own “Sinatra!” shows invariably sell out, livestreamed from the club’s Dunsmore Room and produced in partnership with the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, this looks amazing. Performers include Moore by Four, Michael Monroe, Joyann Parker, Erin Schwab, Walesch, and William E. Duncan III, performing in honor of his sister, Debbie Duncan, who recently suffered a series of strokes. Watch on Crowdcast (save your spot) or Crooners’ Facebook page. Free. Note: We learned the sad news earlier today that Debbie died this morning. We’ll remember her here next week.