Mill City Opera launches into the open air

Clown Stage
Mill City Opera created a special clown face stage for the production of Pagliacci. The raised nose becomes a stage for the play-within-a-play in the opera.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

A new opera company launches in Minneapolis this evening, and is, by some accounts, already a huge success without having sung a single note.

The Mill City Opera's inaugural run of "Pagliacci" is already sold out. The company will perform in the courtyard of the Mill City Museum, which organizers say is a perfect backdrop for operatic storytelling.

Opera people tend to see the world slightly differently. It's a fact that even Mill City Opera Artistic Director David Lefkowich can't avoid as he says his company tries to escape the artform's reputation for being, well, stuffy.

Lefkowich says this "Pagliacci" is for people who want to come down to the show in T-shirts and sit under the stars.

"They are going to feel some breeze," he said. "They are going to realize it's hopefully a nice evening and not too hot, and be able to experience opera in a whole new way."

The Mill City Opera is the brainchild of Minnesota bassoonist Karen Brooks. For four summers she played with the Ash Lawn Opera Company which performs outside in Charlottesville, Va. A few years ago, Brooks began raising funds to bring an outdoor company to the Twin Cities.

On a recent day, in the open air courtyard of the Mill City Museum the cast begins rehearsal. The huge weathered walls of the old flour mill, with twisted iron beams and empty windows, tower above them and reflect the sound as they sing.

The Mill City Opera crew hang one of the huge letters spelling Pagliacci on ther walls of the courtyard
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

This is a big production. There's room for an audience of 350, and Lefkowich said they have had to build an addition to the courtyard for the performers.

"There's this orchestra platform that goes along the Mississippi wall side and our 37-piece orchestra will be up there playing. And we have also added this clown platform, that we are calling it," Lefkowich said. "It's kind of the face of "Pagliacci" on here and there's a little nose that becomes a little stage for the commedia dell'arte scene in act two."

There are also huge letters, some of them 20-feet tall which hang around the courtyard.

"We have actually spelled out the name "Pagliacci" in these giant letters that will actually surround the audience, kind of so that it's not a typical proscenium experience; that the theater is truly all around," Lefkowich said.

Andrew Wilkowske as Tonio in the Mill City Opera production of Pagliacci
image courtesy Mill City Opera (photo:Michal Daniel)

He said says the Mill City adaptation focuses on the storytelling, although there have been some minor changes to fit the opera into the surroundings.

"It was important to us to set it when the mill was actually operational. When it was in its heyday," Lefkowich said, "so the chorus are actually characters that worked in the mill or worked in the town outside the mill."

Ruggero Leoncavello wrote Pagliacci in the 1890s, setting the story of a lovesick clown with an unfaithful wife in Italy. Back then, as now, even big-throated opera singers enjoyed the advantage of a roof to help project their voices. There is a lot more headroom in the open-air courtyard, but soprano Jill Carpenter who plays Nedda the unfaithful wife gets a real charge from it.

"You look around and you see the wall," she said. "Or you turn another vantage point... a bird will fly into the set, or you turn another vantage point and you see the sky."

While the space is large, baritone Andrew Wilkowske, said it is set up to be remarkably intimate.

"The audience is three feet away from us," he said. "I mean the person in the back row is probably about the equivalent of where the person in the front row would be if we were at a big opera house."

Wilkowske plays Tonio, the fool in the opera, and is a Twin Cities native. He says he is very proud of how the local arts community has helped put the company on its feet. The Minnesota Opera gave it rehearsal space and the Guthrie Theater nearby up the street supplied last-minute advice and water.

All of the shows are already sold out, although there will be rush tickets available. It's an incredible start, for a new company, Lefkowich said.

"We are actually sold out. We are ready for next year and we are already talking about 2014," he said. "We have a great relationship here and I think there is a buzz in the air that this is something really cool."

Now all that's left to do are the performances.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.