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PREVIEW: Opera on the Lake Strikes Back

It’s summer in Minnesota, which means it’s officially Lake Time. By the lake, in the lake, on the lake – we’re not the Land of 10,000 Lakes for nothing. This makes the return of the Opera on the Lake festival to Lake Como this week as natural as sweet corn at the State Fair.

Vienna-based, Minnesota-raised soprano Anne Wieben will host and perform in Opera on the Lake’s Operetta under the Stars extravaganza at Lake Como.

Opera on the Lake is the brainchild of Anne Wieben – a Minnesota-raised, operatic soprano who went to Vienna on a college exchange plan and upgraded that short stay to a full-on operatic career. Twelve years later, during a visit home to St. Paul, people kept on asking when she would be performing in the Twin Cities. One of them even decided to start audience research, asking strangers, “Would you go to something called ‘Opera on the Lake?'” (That man is now Wieben’s husband.) And so the Opera on the Lake festival was conceived.

The festival’s first incarnation, a 2019 performance of Die Fledermaus at the Lake Como Pavilion, was a huge hit. Round 2 was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Wieben racked up Austria’s Nestroy Theatre Prize for innovation for her work with the ensemble Nesterval. Sequels don’t always come as fast as expected, but the 2021 return of Opera on the Lake looks to be an Empire Strikes Back sequel to the 2019 original.

Mezzo-soprano KrisAnne Weiss is one of the six singers taking the stage for Operetta Under the Stars.

Opera and operetta have a rich history in Austria and the United States. In the opening decades of the 20th century, many hit Broadway shows were adaptations of contemporary Viennese hits. In Austria, however, many of these shows never dropped out of the repertoire, being reworked and reinvigorated through constant transformations and transplantation into new settings, eras, conceits, and venues. The largest floating stage in the world is in Lake Constance on the borders of Austria, Italy, and Switzerland – itself host to a famous festival combining operas and lakes.

For the second incarnation of the Opera on the Lake festival, audiences will be treated to an operetta extravaganza – a showcase of works from the standard Viennese canon, filled with flowing melodies and dazzling harmony. These excerpts from five classic operettas come delivered in small, bite-sized chunks, the better to accommodate refreshment and personal breaks. Anne Wieben moderates the evening, introducing each piece and taking the stage herself.

Anne Wieben and tenor Laurent Kuehnl in a 2019 Opera on the Lake performance.

Wieben’s fellow performers include a mix of familiar and new performers: sopranos Alicia O’Neil (also an American expat singing in Vienna) and Ariana Strahl (long associated with the Komische Oper Berlin, where she sang more than 20 roles), plus locals mezzo-soprano KrisAnne Weiss (a classmate of Wieben’s at the University of Minnesota, many years past), tenor David Walton, and Justin Spenner.

“Operetta is not just frilly, silly entertainment,” said Wieben. “But it is fun – and we allow it to be fun. You should go home saying, ”That was great!'”

For this second time around the block, Opera on the Lake is leaning into that fun quality, leaning into the waltz rhythms, and leaning into the refreshing return. “This is a chance for people to come out and just enjoy something beautiful,” said Wieben. “It’s been such a year.”

The Opera on the Lake festival opens Wednesday, July 28 at Como Lakeside Pavilion.Operetta under the Stars runs July 28-30, with performances starting at 7:30 PM. Tickets: $25.

Amy Donahue