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INTERVIEW: Maggie Burr and Jim Ahrens on Theatre Elision’s Of Art and Artists

A word cloud built from the names of composers in Theatre Elision’s upcoming Of Art and Artists program.

Next Thursday, Theatre Elision opens a short-run performance entitled Of Art and Artists. The ambitious, label-defying program will mix readings of poetry, showings of visual art, choral singing, and dance in three performances starting April 5 at the Performing Institute of Minnesota Arts High School in Eden Prairie, MN.

Directed and designed by Lindsay Fitzgerald, Of Art and Artists features musical works written by 14 composers – 10 of them women – and brought to life by 11 performers. Basil Considine asked Maggie Burr and Jim Ahrens from the cast to chat about this unusual production, new horizons, and some milestones in their careers.

Singer-actor Maggie Burr.

This program has a very wide spread of poets and composers who fall outside of the mainstream. Who are some artists that you’ve encountered for the first time through this show?

Maggie Burr: I had never heard of any of these artists before! I’ve been doing some light research, and I’m most interested in Caroline Shaw, the composer of the Partita for 8 Voices.

Jim Ahrens: Almost all of them are new to me: The only one I’ve encountered before is Libby Larsen, and the work we’re doing of hers is much different from her other works that I have sung. The other composers’ choral pieces are unlike anything I’ve ever heard, let alone sung….and I’m enjoying them.

What are some of the things you like about their specific work?

MB: I love how Caroline Shaw integrated different vocal styles from all over the world and combined them into one cohesive piece.

JA: Caroline Shaw’s Partita uses parts of the voice that are rarely called on (think Tuvan throat singing), and puts them together in sometimes strident, sometimes luscious, and always effective ways – very satisfying.

Missy Mazzoli’s Vesper Sparrow is another – and quite different – work that uses uncommon rhythms and chords to go places where no music has gone before…and they are good places to have discovered.

One other piece, Summer, was written specifically for this show by Harrison Wade, our music director…quite scrumptious.

Singer-actor Jim Ahrens.

Tell me about the format of this performance. Plays and musicals aside, have you done performances like this before that mixed music and poetry?

MB: This show is definitely in a different format from anything I’ve ever done. It’s like a choir concert meets poetry slam, and all of the dialogue is poetry by Amy Lowell, so the plot is more broad.

JA: Don’t forget dance and visual art! I’ve never done anything remotely like this. We’re still making choices and putting the structure together now — it’s a very organic and satisfying process. As a performer, I’m having more input into the structure surrounding the works than usual, which is quite nice.

What was a key experience in your theatrical career that helped set you on the careers that you are currently pursuing?

MB: Honestly, I’ve always known I wanted to perform. When I was in college, I wasn’t totally sold on opera until I saw a video of Renée Fleming singing “Ain’t it a pretty night“. That’s when I realized that opera was not some static old art form, but something that you could breathe life into.

JA: It’s almost impossible to pick out one key moment — If forced, I can narrow it down to two:

First off, I had started as an actor in the Twin Cities a long time ago and after about six years of middling success I gave up and got my Master’s degree in another discipline. Then, ten years later I got a call from Bain Boehlke asking me to reprise a role at the Jungle Theater that I had done with him in Sherriff’s Journey’s End. That ended my theatrical retirement.

Soon after, I auditioned for an operetta called The Sorcerer with the Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company (even though I rarely sung at the time). Through that, I discovered I could sing rather well, found a marvelous teacher in the late Don Hoiness, and began seriously performing music theatre, opera, and oratorio works.

Actors sometimes do a dizzying array of things – what were your respective musical and theatrical engagements of the past year (365 days, give or take)?

MB: Last summer I played Young Vixen & Chocholka (The Cunning Little Vixen) with Opera Steamboat’s Opera Institute, and in the fall I got to sing Despina with the new Opera Reading Project.

Before getting seduced by opera (which, to be fair, has happened to a lot of people hearing Renée Fleming), where were your performance interests pointed?

MB: I wanted to be a pop singer until I was about 14, then I wanted to be on Broadway. I went to college for vocal performance because I was very new to opera, but I knew I’d be singing no matter what the genre. Then I realized that I had a nice little niche in opera and I was hooked.

What about you, Jim?

JA: A year ago right now, I was performing in Theatre Elision’s musical version of Melancholy Play, which I loved doing. Then, I played Escalaus in Classical Actor’s Ensemble outdoor production of Romeo and Juliet. At the same time, I was taking the Wesley Balk Institute – an intensive three week program on music theatre run by Nautilus Music-Theater – in which I took the directing track (I’m trying to diversify). My next acting job was as Gonzalo, in Theatre Coup d’Etat’s production of The Tempest. After that, I coached the dialects for Nimbus Gheatre’s original work River Becomes Sea. Then a couple of months off, then work on this show began. Throughout, I continued as tenor soloist at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, which includes weekly services, and occasional large works (we’ve got the Faure Requiem coming up).

This year looks a bit busier: after this, I’ll be doing another production of The Tempest with Cromulent Shakespeare, this time as Prospero, and then singing the title role in the Picnic Operetta version of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Both of those are outside, so I should have a good tan by this September. After that…who knows?

There are a lot of songs on the program – how many do you sing in? Do you get much downtime during a run?

MB: Everyone sings in every song in the program, which is great but also mentally tiring! The hardest piece is probably Vesper Sparrow by Missy Mazzoli, in which I have a bit or a solo, but thankfully in the staging I get to lie down for a little bit after it. We’re all onstage for the whole show.

The composers in this show excepted, who are some of your favorite musical theatre composers?

MB: Sondheim absolutely rules the musical theatre world. The way that he has music and words play on each other is brilliant. I also think that his use of musical motives is very operatic.

What about opera composers?

MB: Mozart is my main opera guy, but I also love all the weird stuff (Richard Strauss, Alban Berg, etc). I think that Mozart is sometimes too pretty to capture the weirdness of humans.

And you, Jim? Do you have a favorite composer?

JA: That’s hard. But if it has to be only one, that one would be J.S. Bach: pure music, unconstrained by any particular instrumentation or format. He’s the foundation of pretty much all that followed him.

Basil Considine