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Minnesota Opera launches major initiative

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The success of the "Grapes of Wrath" opera convinced the Minnesota Opera there was a demand and a need for more contemporary opera
Photo by Michal Daniel

The idea, as Minnesota Opera President and CEO Kevin Smith describes it, is quite simple.

"Minnesota OperaWorks is a multi-year, seven year, program to highlight contemporary opera as part of American opera repertoire," Smith said. 

Dale Johnson
Dale Johnson, director of the Minnesota Opera.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

But the implications for the Minnesota Opera and beyond are huge. Just ask Marc Scorca, the president and CEO of OPERA America, a New York-based organization aimed at promoting and developing Opera in the U.S.

"A multi-year commitment to new work, a multi-year commitment of this magnitude to new work is really historic," Scorca said. 

And in a way, Ma and Pa Joad deserve the credit.

In February 2007 the Minnesota Opera premiered its adaptation of John Steinbeck's dustbowl novel "The Grapes of Wrath." Its success got Minnesota Opera artistic director Dale Johnson thinking.

"We were really trying to push with the success of "The Grapes of Wrath" that these pieces can have real power and real energy for a contemporary audience," Johnson said. 

Gordon and Korie
Composer Ricky Ian Gordon (seated) and librettist Michael Korie created "The Grapes of Wrath" opera and will now write a chamber opera based on "In the garden of the Finzi-Continis."
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

He said it's important to remember that the great operas of centuries past were once contemporary music.

"And we strongly believe that we have a whole new generation of composers that really know how to write for the voice, and really know how to write operas that can speak to todays generations and today's audiences," Johnson said. 

  Minnesota OperaWorks includes three world premiers, beginning with an adaptation of the Italian novel, "In the Garden of the Finzi-Continis."  It's the story of a Jewish family which hides from the rise of Mussolini. It was also made into a film in the 1970s. The opera will be created by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie, the team behind "The Grapes of Wrath' and will premier in the 2010-2011 season. 

The following year, there will be an adaptation of the French film "Joyeux Noel," about the World War I Christmas truce. 

The third world premier will be in the 2012-2013 season. It's not yet been finalized, but it will be composed by Jack Perla, who Dale Johnson said is classically trained.

"But his career has taken him into the wonderful world of jazz," Johnson said. "He is also very eclectic. He writes music for computer games. I was looking for a sound that wasn't standard and I think he is going to give it to us. I think he is going to swing."

Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento's piece "Casanova's Homecoming" which was featured in the Ordway's inaugural season will be remounted as part of Minnesota OperaWorks.
Photo courtesy of VocalEssence

There is another important piece to OperaWorks - revivals. Johnson said many opera companies like to premier new work, because there's lots of glamour, and good opportunities to raise money. Second productions? Not so much. Even, Johnson said, the really great ones.

"You see literally the landscape littered with thousands of wonderful works," he said.

Johnson said OperaWorks will stage John Adams' "El Nino," and a production of "Wuthering Heights" by Bernard Hermann, who is best known for doing film music, in particular "Pyscho."  He said they'll start in their own back yard with a piece by Dominick Argento.

"Twenty-five years ago he wrote an extraordinary piece call 'Casanova's Homecoming' and it was part of the first year of the Ordway," Johnson said. "It's a great comedy and for some reason it hasn't been revived again. But we think we are going to make a great case for it, and we already have a co-production partner."

The co-producers are important because they not only share the cost, they also get the piece performed elsewhere. Another element of the Minnesota OperaWorks program is it includes money for high quality audio and video recording of five of the seven shows. Depending on how the shows work out that could mean the productions live on as a DVD or a TV broadcast.

The Minnesota Opera's Kevin Smith says $3.5 million of $5.5 million have already been raised. They hope to have almost all of it in place by the first Minnesota OperaWorks production in February. That is the U.S. premiere of a new British opera "The Adventures of Pinocchio." It's a production which hews much closer to the original Italian story than the Disney animated version.