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FEATURE: A Host of New Operas, Minnesota-Born


It was a Sunday afternoon in May where it all started to come together. Four months before COVID-19 shutdowns rolled across the United States, Ben Krywosz (the artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater) had convened a meeting of opera organizations in Minnesota, to talk about the state of affairs and build connections within the industry. A month and half after seasons were suddenly halted, then outright cancelled. Then Anne Wieben, the founder of Opera on the Lake, went back to Ben’s email thread and hit a reply-all.

“I thought I would reach out to you via this old thread,” she wrote. “To touch base and get a conversation going regarding, well, everything related to
how COVID19 has and will continue to affect us. What are you doing to stay afloat? Are you planning future events?  What are your main concerns for right now? For the future? How do you think this is going to develop?”

A week and a half, a dozen or so representatives of the state’s opera organizations met on Zoom, to talk about the present and the future – about efforts to try and keep music-making alive, to try and keep abreast of the changing understanding of COVID and its spread, and above all, to find a connection.

At the end of the meeting, Really Spicy Opera’s artistic director decided to reach out to Anne and ask for a follow-up chat. “I had first learned about Anne during the run-up to Opera on the Lake’s inaugural season,” Basil Considine said. “I was teaching out-of-state, and thus missed it entirely, but I really wanted to meet the person who put a festival like that together from scratch.”

And so chat they did – by Zoom, of course – and at the end of the hour, Basil had a loaded question for his colleague: “Do you want to change the future of opera?”

A promotional photo of Anne Wieben, one of the three co-directors of Really Spicy Opera’s Aria Institute for Composers and Librettists.. Photo by Gregor Hafbauer; dress by Tailors Unlimited.

For years, Really Spicy Opera had been developing new plays, musicals, and operas as standalone projects. According to its strategic plan, they would first build a theatre, then create an opera-writing training program. With the world turned upside down – and it being very unclear when anyone would again be allowed in a theatre to perform with a live audience – the time seemed ripe to revisit those plans. Why not start now, when the ongoing at-home isolation presented a unique opportunity to engage people who traditionally were unable to participate in the small number of opera-writing training programs in the world?

The vision was to create a system completely unlike the “tortured genius toils for years in obscurity on their masterwork” vision that had swept over opera after Wagner. One more akin to how opera was written in the 19th century, with composers bringing newly written pages to the opera house to hear performers bring their sketches to life, thus begetting the next set of refinements and inspiration.

“I somehow convinced Anne to join me with this crazy idea,” Basil said. “And then we needed a third person – someone who also had considerable experience performing new and classic operas, who was interested in working with us to create a uniquely performer-driven process of writing opera. And so I asked Tess.”

“Tess” in this case was soprano Tess Altiveros, more recently seen on the stage in Skylark Opera’s Così fan tutte – and also a leading interpreter of contemporary opera, particularly The Falling and the Rising, for which she traveled around the country to reprise a leading role. Normally, the fact that Tess was located two time zones away in Seattle might have been a problem – but thanks to COVID-19, work-from-home was collapsing some traditional barriers of time and geography.

Tess Altiveros as Carmen in Skylark Opera’s 2017 production of The Tragedy of Carmen. Photo by Vera Mariner.
The program that the three started – formally known as the Aria Institute for Composers and Librettists – struck a nerve with playwrights and composers. “We received four times as many applications as we could accommodate,” said Angela Sorenson, then the Managing Associate for Really Spicy Opera. “And for the second installment, there were enough applications to run the program for a year.”

In a typical Aria Institute curriculum, participants sign on for a month-long intensive program. After a first main session over Zoom, playwrights and librettists are paired together and given their prompts, plus a charge to create an entirely new opera aria from scratch in less than 48 hours. The librettist has about 20 hours to write, the composer slightly more, and then the team gets feedback from the Aria Institute leadership. A few revisions more, and in the next session – just a week after they started – the final aria gets a musical reading, followed by moderated feedback and discussion with the instructors and fellow participants. Then the process repeats, with a new set of teams, and so on and so forth until the month is over.

But what is music without an audience? “Ultimately, there are three tests,” said Basil Considine. “What do the performers think, what does the audience think, and what will the creators do differently – or the same – after taking all of that in?” And so the final stage of each Aria Institute installment is a public showcase – currently over Zoom, and back in-person as soon as public health guidance allows.

“The current cohort of Aria Institute participants is so impressive,” said Basil. “I think the isolation of COVID is real, as you’ll see in Thursday’s showcase, which has many operas exploring love. But you also see some inspired by the summer protests in Minneapolis and around the country, exploring the concept of justice; growth; and – my favorite – gardening disasters.”

That last one’s growing close to home – separate from my writing for this publication, I tried the COVID-19 gardening bug and promptly killed a lot of plants. But St. Paul playwright Tiffa Foster – one of the current Aria Institute participants – doubled down to become a certified master gardener, and proceeded to sketch out an opera called Green Thumbed, about a would-be gardener who…just gets it wrong a lot. The aria that Foster wrote with composer Jamey Guzman, entitled “Gardens of Blight”, will be performed by mezzo-soprano Ann Cravero in the upcoming showcase.

A passel of new operas, grown in Minnesota, surviving the blight – a pandemic tale of unexpected thriving.

Hanne Appelbaum