A gray cloud lurked overhead. In the background, the barely audible gurgle of the mighty Mississippi River gave way to a crescendo of miniature, rapid ripples. The wind stirred, whipping the stray flyers and tree limbs in its path.
The people in the courtyard, encircled by hollowed-out ruins, were largely protected from the impending tempest, but still, tensions flared.
And then, the clouds parted—just in time for Act 1. Call it luck or serendipity, but it was the kind of drama only nature could conjure up. And you could say it’s part of the je ne sais quoi that makes the Mill City Summer Opera the new must-see arts event in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The Mill City Summer Opera (MCSO) is the brainchild of two IC professors—Brian DeMaris ’02, director of opera and musical theatre at IC and music director of the MCSO, and David Lefkowich, stage director and lecturer at IC and artistic director of the MCSO—and Karen Brooks, a native Minnesotan and freelance bassoonist who met DeMaris while working on an opera in Virginia. It was during one of her trips to Virginia that Brooks saw an outdoor opera and got the idea that maybe, just maybe, she could replicate it in Minneapolis.
“I was driving 1,200 miles to Charlottesville, Virginia, to play opera,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Why am I driving to a community of 200,000 when we had a community here of two million that had nothing?’”
But Brooks’s vision wasn’t just about bringing outdoor opera to her hometown: it was also about introducing the art form to an audience that might never attend an opera otherwise. “I’ve been in the business awhile,” Brooks says. “I thought that an audience needed to be brought in to see how awesome opera can be.”
But before younger audiences could see how “awesome” opera could be, they needed first to feel that it was accessible and fun—not a froufrou night on the town reserved for art snobs and the wealthy. Brooks’s solution was an outdoor venue and relaxed, “come-as-you-are” atmosphere, one that removes the elitist stigma from opera and makes it accessible to everyone. A place where patrons are invited to wear shorts and flip-flops, and purchase sandwiches, beer, or wine from the bar and caterer onsite—and all for less than the cost of dinner and a movie. “I was looking for a place to reinvigorate opera,” Brooks says.
She found that place after a friend suggested she consider the Mill City Museum, in the heart of the city. The museum is actually a partially renovated, former flour mill—once known to locals as Washburn ‘A’ Mill. The original mill, built in 1874, was destroyed when a flour dust explosion killed 18 people. The mill was rebuilt by 1880, and at that time it was the largest, most technically advanced mill in the world. It closed in 1965 when it became obsolete. In 1991, fire ripped through the shuttered facility, gutting everything except three jagged walls that encircle a gravel-filled courtyard. If Brooks was looking for a creative space to hold opera, she had found it. But she still had to convince others to buy into her vision.
She called DeMaris, who was in Minneapolis conducting an opera for a friend. When Brooks took him to view the site, it was covered in snow. “Karen said, ‘This is where I want to do opera.’ I said, ‘Okay, great,’” DeMaris remembers. But he wasn’t convinced, at least, not until the snow cleared and he and a couple of other IC people could really see the venue in all its splendor. “It feels like something I’ve seen in my travels in Italy,” DeMaris says. “All of us were excited about it.”
The MCSO opened in July 2012 and staged just five performances—one a night. Its inaugural performance was Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (PAH’lee-AH-chee, for non-opera aficionados), a play-within-a-play about a troupe of traveling actors. IC's own Eric Morris '10, played one of the lead characters, Beppe.
Steve TenEyck, associate professor of theatre arts at IC and lighting director for the production, says, “I remember thinking, ‘It’s an amazing space, so epic and full of history. The architectural details are amazing, and it is a building that has a story to tell.’” Indeed it does. A balcony overlooks the courtyard. The Mississippi River flows in the background. “It felt so right,” DeMaris remembers.
But right enough for an opera? After all, operas are traditionally held in stately venues, with first-rate acoustics and roofs. But the mill ruins have no roof—it was destroyed in the fire. That made for beautiful views but also a number of logistical challenges.
Lefkowich says, “We were blown away by the location, but we had a lot of questions like, ‘Would the orchestra overwhelm the scene?’”
And then there’s the issue of lighting. The production started during the early evening, when it was still daylight. But by the time the drama in Pagliacci culminates, it’s night. That meant crews had to utilize another set of lights to create a nighttime look.
“I thought, ‘How are we going to do an opera in there?’” says TenEyck. “As the lighting designer, I wondered how we would transform this raw space into a performance venue with lighting, video, a full orchestra, scenery and costumes, performers, and an audience.”
And then, of course, without a roof, you could have a far bigger problem: rain. The weather was the biggest concern for most of the crew, especially on opening night. Jennifer Caprio ’99, costume designer for Pagliacci, remembers that night vividly.
“We were all incredibly nervous,” she says. “There was a gray cloud over Minneapolis. We’d sunk gobs of money into this project, and we had investors and a gala crowd, and all I kept thinking was, ‘Please don’t rain.’ The clouds parted, and it didn’t rain. I was sobbing, I was so relieved.”
Pagliacci was a smashing success. The show sold out three weeks before opening night. Organizers had achieved Brooks’s goal of attracting a new audience to opera.
Michael Lewis ’13, rehearsal pianist and vocal coach for Pagliacci, says, “People came who you wouldn’t expect. Some people said it was the first opera they’d ever seen.”
And not only did spectators enjoy the show; they didn’t want to leave. “At the end of the show, people started screaming and hollering because they loved it so much. Then they hung around in the courtyard. They were just standing around and talking,” Brooks says.
On the heels of that success came very positive press: the MCSO was voted the best new opera company in the Twin Cities and was featured on Minnesota Public Radio. Best of all, Brooks reached the younger audience she’d hoped to reach: one-half of the attendees at last summer’s shows were people under 15. In keeping with the organization’s mission to reach that younger, alternative audience, MCSO has partnered with the Minneapolis-based Lundstrum Center for Performing Arts to teach students the basics of opera. It’s also created a studio artists program for emerging talent.
This summer, the show sold out again, a month before the show. They performed Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for five days in July. But, while the performances lasted just a week, the organizers say they’re in it for the long haul. “I hope that this will become long-lasting. It’s wonderful to see the people so excited. If possible, we’d like to expand. The possibilities are endless,” says Lefkowich.