Minnesota Opera has a devil of a good time with 'Faust'

Paul Groves as Faust in the Minnesota Opera production of Charles Gounod's "Faust."
Image courtesy Minnesota Opera, Photo 2009 © Michal Daniel

Everyone knows the story of Faust, the man who sold his soul to the devil. Or do they?

"Everyone recognizes that iconic sound bite of what Faust is, but within that sentence the opera is filled with such beauty for the human spirit," said Doug Varone, the director and choreographer for the Minnesota Opera's production of "Faust."

Doug Varone
Doug Varone comes to directing opera after a career as a dance-maker.
Image courtesy Minnesota Opera

Varone said it's a complex work delving into basic human issues.

"What love is, what it isn't. How we treat people. How we have consciences that rule every decision that we make. How the dark side of the world informs so much of what's going on today," he said.

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The opera opens with a despondent and aging Faust in his study, mourning for his lost youth. He considers suicide, and curses a passing crowd in the name of the devil. Mephistopheles appears, and offers him both youth and chance to capture the heart of the beautiful Marguerite. Faust accepts and the unlikely couple set off on their adventures. Of course, it doesn't work out well for anyone except Mephistopheles.

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

Minnesota Opera's artistic director, Dale Johnson, said, while Charles Gounod's music for Faust is beautiful, it fell from favor because it was compared badly to the lively staging of operas which followed. Bluntly, he said the singers were too static.

"And you know basically the stereotype is that they are fat and they kind of walk to the front of the stage and 'park and bark,'" he said.

It was to escape that stereotype which led Johnson's choice of Doug Varone as director. He's been directing opera for more than a decade, but he comes from the dance world. He even brings his own dance company to Faust. Varone said the dance woven through his production is not just for show.

"It is very much about finding a reason within the story to have movement move the story forward," Varone said.

Kyle Ketelsen as Mephistopheles in "Faust"
Image courtesy of Minnesota Opera, Photo 2009 © Michal Daniel

Varone has invented a dance vocabulary for "Faust." It draws on classical ballet, but blends very modern movement into the dance.

The dancers mingle and perform with the singers throughout the production at the Ordway in St. Paul. The men, appearing as Mephistopheles' henchmen, dressed as dandies, but with suspicious looking hair sprouting from their shirt sleeves. The women are the villagers, and then the wild characters from who appear at a riotous party where Faust begins to recognize the horror his deal with the devil has inflicted in Marguerite.

Varone has gone so far as to invent a new character, a white angel, representing the forces of good. She is the first performer the audience sees, and then Varone brings her back through the opera.

"In ways that complement the action, comment on the action every so often, and she ends up being the archangel which flies in at the end to save Marguerite's soul," Varone said.

Dancers mingle with singers in "Faust."
Image courtesy Minnesota Opera, Photo 2009 © Michal Daniel

Dance was an important part of productions of Faust 150 years ago, but it has never been done in a Minnesota Opera production. Dale Johnson welcomes its return.

"It feels complete now. It's a very different take on the opera," he said. "It feels young and very fresh and very fast paced."

Johnson said it's coincidence that Faust is opening during inauguration week. Opera schedules often revolve around who is available and when. However, as the nation and the world celebrates a new president and looks to the challenges ahead, Johnson said this is a good time to consider Faust and his lessons.

"Some would argue we have been selling our soul to the devil for the last eight years, so now we may be in the redemption moment," he laughs.

However Johnson also wonders if deep down everyone is intrigued with the idea of a Mephistophelean pact. Deep down, just what would it take to make a deal.