By the southern lakeshore in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, a pair of passing elementary school students stopped to stare at a small orchestra that played as a young man sang in German.
Welcome to Mixed Precipitation's 2017 season. The Twin Cities performing company is once again combining interest in gardens, food and classical music to create what it calls the Picnic Operetta.
For the next six weeks, the group will tour parks and community gardens around the state with a production that's hard to describe — but a lot of fun.
"We go all over Minnesota, and we get to perform Queen songs," explained actor Colin Woolson. "And Haydn."
Woolson plays the classical poet Ovid, explaining during the performance that Ovid is "a poet from ancient times. And I am very old. You have probably heard a lot of creation stories. Mine is a mix of science, myth and rock 'n' roll divas!"
There were no rock 'n' roll divas in Haydn's original work. He wrote this opera for marionettes in 1773, based on the poems of Ovid. But there's nary a puppet in sight in this production. That's just one of the many lighthearted liberties taken in what is now called "Philemon and Baucis — Planet in Peril."
So what exactly is going on here? Mixed Precipitation cofounder Scotty Reynolds wrote and directed the show. This is his elevator speech:
"We do an outdoor opera that we are billing as a harvest celebration, because every year we perform in August and September in food-producing sites, and we use food and the farm setting to connect the music and the story to the land where we perform."
But the other cofounder, Nick Schneider, who is also the chef, describes it this way:
"I like to tell people, most importantly, that it's a five-course tasting menu that we serve during the production, as a part of the production, integrated into the plot, into the story in such a way that you feel the food is a character."
And there's one other thing. Each year they add some more contemporary music. This year, it's Queen.
Reynolds said that's what moved the production from puppets to "Star Wars."
"Integration of the music of Queen moved us further into the space-age adventure feel of the story," he said.
Thus, Ovid's poems about creation form the basis for a space opera. Characters fly around the galaxy on a two-seater space rocket. Schneider was inspired to create space food — and drink.
"Instead of actually having Tang, which is not very oriented to community gardens, we are going to serve a kombucha that is flavored with carrot," he said.
Also on the menu, cubes of watermelon dipped in tamarind and a tiny bit of pepper, topped with paneer, the mild Indian cheese. With five courses per show, and about two shows a week for a month and a half, Schneider is already very busy making canapes.
"It's somewhere in the ballpark of, like, 8,000 to 10,000," he said.
But he thinks it's worth it. Reynolds said the food makes a direct connection between the actors and the audience as it is passed out from the stage.
"It becomes a way that the story unfolds in the audience's mouth," he said.
After a couple previews last weekend, the Mixed Precipitation Picnic Operetta season opens Thursday at the Dodge Nature Center. Over the years, the company has learned how to deal with distractions. At one site, performers pause and do a hula hoop contest when a noisy freight train passes. They bring bones, which can be useful to quiet barking dogs, and six-packs to persuade nearby mowers to take the evening off.
Reynolds said audiences seem to appreciate the mixture of music, food and silliness in the great outdoors.
"It's delightfully far-fetched, I hope, and a wild ride for the audience to kind of embark on with us and laugh along, and have a lot of fun with," he said.
Even if they do have to work around the dogs.
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