The Guthrie’s 2021-22 season will be shorter than usual, with fewer productions. The Wurtele Thrust Stage won’t open until November. The Dowling Studio on Level 9 will remain closed until fall 2022. There won’t be a summer musical.
Otherwise, it will be a true Guthrie season. Artistic Director Joseph Haj wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I wanted to come back robustly,” Haj said. “This has been an unfathomably difficult time, with so much loss, and so hard on artists in every way. The thing I didn’t want to do was start even earlier and do a bunch of two- or three-person plays all year long to rebuild.
“I thought – let’s have plays that look like Guthrie plays. Big, robust plays that are big in their vision, big in their ambitions, big in their themes, that get a lot of artists back to work. Building back in a way that is not creeping was really important to me.”
Of all the plays in all the world, which should the Guthrie choose? “The team wrestled with the questions, ‘Should we put a season together that is telling stories that are squaring to this moment entirely and the complexities of our time entirely? Or should we program a season that allows people relief from the extraordinary challenges we all have faced over the past year and a half by the time we get back to performance?’
“The answer ended up being ‘We need to do both.’”
We’ll see seven plays, one a touring production and one not yet announced.
Starts Sept. 30 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage: “What the Constitution Means to Me.” One of the hottest plays on Broadway in 2019, a two-time Tony nominee and Pulitzer finalist, Heidi Schreck’s play explores how the Constitution has failed women, putting it in the squares-to-this-moment category. It will spend a month in Minneapolis as part of its national tour.
Starts in previews Nov. 6 on the Wurtele Thrust Stage: “A Christmas Carol.” This was announced previously, so you might already have heard that it will be an all-new Guthrie production, a big investment in any year. It will use a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella by Chicago-based Lavina Jadhwani, who directed the Guthrie’s “As You Like It” in 2019, and everything else will be new, from the sets to the costumes, props, lighting and sound designs.
Haj will direct. For Christmas 2020, he and filmmaker E.G. Bailey worked together to create “Dickens’ Holiday Classic,” a filmed version of the dramatic readings Dickens once gave for live audiences. “I fell more deeply in love with the material, and became so conversant in it,” Haj said. “Not only did I want us to make a new production for the first time in 10 years, but I wanted to go myself. I wanted to do it. I think I came to understand some things about it that I want to try to make onstage.”
“A Christmas Carol” will reopen the thrust stage – more specifically, the “revivified” thrust stage. “In the interest of not wasting a good crisis, we’re reupholstering all the seats. We’re recarpeting. We’re adding safety railing. We’re doing a lot of things.”
Starts Jan. 8, 2022, on the McGuire Proscenium: “A Raisin in the Sun.” The 2020-21 season, which was entirely canceled, would have brought Lorraine Hansberry’s “Les Blancs,” her final play. Instead, 2021-22 will bring “A Raisin in the Sun,” her most famous play.
“The Guthrie had never produced ‘A Raisin in the Sun.’ And it’s a hugely important American play. The title comes from Langston Hughes’ ‘What happens to a dream deferred?’ and I thought, what has this last year been but the deferral of dreams? It just seemed right, and the right time.”
Starts Feb. 26 on the Wurtele Thrust: “The Tempest.” In 2020-21, the Guthrie’s former artistic director, Joe Dowling, was going to conduct Noël Coward’s “Private Lives.” Instead, he’ll make his first return to the Guthrie since 2015’s “Juno and the Paycock” with Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” The main character will be Prospera, the Duchess of Milan.
“I’m excited about Joe Dowling’s return for our Shakespeare play next year. I love ‘The Tempest,’ with its themes of reconciliation and forgiveness, which seem important to us.”
Starts June 18 on the Wurtele Thrust: “Emma.” Originally part of the 2019-20 season, Kate Hamill’s world premiere adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” is a Guthrie commission. This will definitely fall into the “relief from extraordinary challenges” category.
“We were deep in rehearsal with that, and the set was a third of the way built, when we had to cancel. We have serious investment there, and I thought – surely we want to return to this title, with this team we’re crazy about.”
Starts July 6 on the McGuire Proscenium: “Sweat.” Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play was also in the 2019-20 season. Set in the blue-collar town of Reading, Pennsylvania, in 2008 and 2000, it confronts race, immigration, deindustrialization and the ever-slipping grip on middle-class life.
“I saw no reason not to bring that forward,” Haj said. “It remains utterly current and, I think, important for us to make.”
A seventh play to be announced is scheduled for April on the McGuire Proscenium. All Haj would say about that – it’s still in negotiations – is “it’s a comedy, it’s lighthearted, and it has a ton of music in it.”
New season subscriptions go on sale Aug. 3, 2021, online and by phone at 612-225-6238. Single tickets go on sale later this year.
Talking with Haj, we thought back on the early days of the pandemic and a statement he made in May 2020 that made the national news. He announced that the Guthrie would not reopen until March 2021 at the earliest. At the time, that seemed impossibly far in the future. No one wanted to believe it. The New York Times reported that Haj’s words “jolted the industry.”
Haj demurs when asked if he thinks that announcement influenced other performing arts organizations. “We all ended up doing the same thing,” he said. “I’ve had colleagues who have said the Guthrie was really prescient about this. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
“One mentor said, ‘You know, we shouldn’t cut off our arm two inches at a time. It’ll be more brutal and harder on everyone. Let’s make the difficult decision now.’
“Of course, March ended up being impossible, and so did June, and so did August. We were early, and we were right. I’m grateful we made the decision that everybody else needed to make, and I do think that the Guthrie going out early and saying it out loud gave others permission to think, ‘Let’s stop fooling ourselves and get to work.’”
MN Opera’s Ryan Taylor: An opportunity to hit the reset button
Earlier this year, Minnesota Opera President Ryan Taylor was on the phone with superstar mezzo soprano Denyce Graves. They were talking about Bizet’s best-known opera, “Carmen.” Graves first sang the title role in 1991 for a Minnesota Opera production; it launched her career. The fiery femme fatale became one of her signature roles, hers alone at the Met for a decade.
Taylor recalls, “I was saying, ‘I don’t know anyone who knows this role better than you do. And who probably has done more versions of this opera. Has anyone ever asked how you would do it?’ And she said, ‘Oh my gosh, are you going to ask me to direct?’”
He did, and she said yes. A new production of “Carmen” helmed by one of its greatest interpreters may be the biggest, most sparkly surprise of MN Opera’s 2021-22 season, but it’s not the only surprise. For the opera, the pandemic was an opportunity to hit the reset button. The relentless rhythm of producing an opera season had been rudely interrupted.
“We asked ourselves, ‘OK, what is now possible, because everything has been upended?’”
The opera did not go quietly into the plague year. After canceling the rest of its 2019-20 season and then its entire 2020-21 season (seven operas in all), it embarked on a busy schedule of virtual events. Several previous MN Opera productions were rebroadcast on MPR. Videos were streamed; among them, Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” in 3D and virtual reality (ticket buyers got 3D glasses and VR headsets in the mail) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night,” with music by Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell.
New livestreams included the first “Opera in the Outfield” event at CHS Field, the first series of “MNiatures” (short world-premiere operas by Minnesota composers and artists) and a splendid full-length production of Benjamin Britten’s hilarious “Albert Herring,” filmed in long, flowing camera takes on the Ordway’s big stage, a brilliant combination of close-up and behind-the-scenes moments, gloriously sung, with the often visible orchestra led by British conductor and Britten expert Dame Jane Glover.
Around 15,000-20,000 listeners tuned in for each opera broadcast. The video content drew more than 75,000 viewers. Just over 5,000 watched “Albert Herring,” some from the grassy rooftop at Brit’s Pub in downtown Minneapolis.
The opera’s new season – Taylor calls it a transitional season – will be a hybrid, a combination of live and digital events. This may or may not be the opera’s future, but it’s a way to present a full season of an art form with a long lead time.
“We are not fully back in person as quickly as we would like to be, because it takes us more time to plan events,” Taylor explained. “Typically, before opening night of a season, we’ve had everyone contracted for almost two years. There are limitations to how quickly we can mobilize and do something at the quality we like to do it.”
For 2021-22, four live and in-person events are planned, and three digital. The former will be ticketed, the latter free.
Live and in person at CHS Field on Sept 24: “Opera in the Outfield.” The first “Opera in the Outfield” was a hit despite some last-minute changes (no live performances, video only). It drew many people who had never attended an opera. Taylor promises that the return will be “markedly different from last year.” It will include live performances of Latinx vocal music and opera hits led by Peruvian conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
Streaming starts Oct. 9: The broadcast debut of the operatic film “Interstate.” A fictional account of the friendship between serial killer Aileen Wuornos and her childhood best friend. Music by Kamala Sankaram, libretto by Jennifer Cresswell and Kathleen Kelly, who will play the roles of Liv and Di.
For Taylor, the opera is “a conversation about what if I ended up where you are, and what if you ended up where I am, and how all of us are one strange event from a different path in life.”
Streaming starts Oct. 30: “MNiatures,” round two. More short world-premiere operas by Minnesota composers and artists, commissioned by Minnesota Opera. The first round was successful and a second makes sense. “Our gig is building relationships between artists and those who enjoy their work,” Taylor said. “That’s our real job.”
Streaming starts Dec. 13: “Edward Tulane” Choral Suite. Minnesota Opera was literally a week away from its March 22 world premiere of the opera based on Kate DiCamillo’s award-winning novel “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” – music by Paolo Prestini, libretto by Mark Campbell – when everything shut down.
“It was like a death in the family,” Taylor recalls. “It was awful. I had to tell everyone at rehearsal before the final room run. Everyone was so excited to go through the whole show for the first time. In that moment, I told everyone we were not going to recast, we were not going to eliminate opportunities for people that existed in that production unless they weren’t available or chose to withdraw.”
Things moved too quickly this year to bring everyone back together, so the plan for now is to start the 2022-23 season – Minnesota Opera’s 60th anniversary – with “Edward Tulane.” Meanwhile, this free streaming event will feature choral highlights from the opera, just in time for Christmas viewing with the kids at home.
Live and in person at the Ordway starting Feb. 5: “The Anonymous Lover.” Music by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, libretto by Madame de Genlis, conducted by Christopher Franklin. Bologne was a Black composer and a contemporary of Mozart who composed six operas during his lifetime. Only this comic romance survived.
This will be a newly created Minnesota Opera production. “For us, January is bearing down,” Taylor said. “We would normally already know what the design looks like, what the costumes are going to look like, and have a cast of singers they were being built for. Now we’re trying to do that in a really condensed space.”
Live and in person at the Ordway on March 27: “Voices United: Minnesota Opera Chorus in Concert.” A rare opportunity to see the opera’s chorus and orchestra in the spotlight, performing a program of opera hits and modern songs. Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya, who was going to lead “Edward Tulane” and presumably will return in 2022-23.
Live and in person at the Ordway starting May 7: “Carmen.” Denyce Graves’ version is a co-commission with the Glimmerglass Festival, but it will have its world premiere at the Ordway.
Season ticket packages and options are available now, online and by phone at 612-333-6669. Individual tickets will go on sale later this year.