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REVIEW: Cantus/Really Spicy Opera Double-Header (Minneapolis Music in the Parks)

A quintet of singers from Minneapolis-based Really Spicy Opera singing at the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis on Sunday, June 18.

The Lake Harriet Bandshell is back! The Minneapolis summer music scene’s long-time anchor has been under renovation since warmer weather returned. When work is completed, the bandshell will have new roofing, structural reinforcement, upgraded electrics, and a new paint scheme evoking its pre-2005 colors. (The whole renovation will cost $2.4 million.)

Undeterred by delays, the City of Minneapolis’ Music in the Parks series launched on May 29 with a temporary stage set up in front of the bandshell. With the much of the structural work completed, the stage was dismantled last week, just in time for a double-header of Cantus and Really Spicy Opera on Sunday.

Cantus is one of Minnesota’s premiere a cappella ensembles, a local treasure whose main rival (so to speak) is the San Francisco-based Chanticleer. (Both are all-male, lower voiced vocal ensembles, and have collaborated on occasion.) Their 2 PM program delivered everything that we have come to expect from Cantus: impeccable harmonies, entwining counterpoint, and surprising musical breadth. It was lovely, if not edgy.

The all-male vocal ensemble Cantus performed at the Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis on Sunday at 2 PM.

Really Spicy Opera’s program, on the other hand, was very, very conspicuously gay. (I use this in the older, broader sense, how “queer” is more often used today.) Arias! Duets! A quartet and a quintet, about subjects from art to romance to baking to facing natural disasters! And a whole chamber opera about women loving women, complete with singing cats. If you’ve ever thought that opera was predictable and starched, this concert would prove you wrong. The musical variety showcased on Sunday, while fitting within the field of new opera (every piece on the program was composed in the last 3 years) boggled the imagination.

Minneapolis-based composer Emily Boyajian accompanying her composition “Delta Airlines, We’re Through”. Photo by Loco/FX Photography.

Ambitious in scope, RSO’s 5 PM concert presented ten opera excerpts in its first half, and the world premiere of the chamber opera Meow and Forever by composer Jodi Goble and librettist (and RSO artistic director) Basil Considine. The performance kicked off with soprano Jenny LeDoux singing a beautiful and intricately orchestrated aria about facing death by volcanic eruption. This was arguably the most traditional piece on the program, followed by a musical rant delivered by soprano Victoria Erickson about Delta Airlines – a portent that, a few traditional nods aside, this was not going to be business as usual. Soon, there was duetting about polyamory, a swearing circus performer, and a quartet about – of all things, baking a cake. The latter – a laugh-out-loud comedy piece entitled “Too Many Cooks”, with music by Lisa Neher and lyrics by Basil Considine, took that basic setup and shook it in the basket with a send-up of small town stereotypes. LeDoux was the principal singer, with Erickson, Yvonne Freese, and Rodolfo Nieto joining as assorted family members whose efforts (and, in one case, intoxication) make things progressively worse in the kitchen.

Next came an aria introduced by St. Paul playwright Tiffa Foster, who was the librettist and is apparently also a master gardener. Called “Gardens of Blight”, this hilarious piece was a virtual catalog aria of all the things that can go wrong when growing things, set to a darling and fun score by Jamey Guzman.

Love wins. Soprano Bridget Ann Johnston (left) and mezzo-soprano Courtney Kayser singing the duet “In the Medical Closet”. Photo by Loco/FX Photography.

One of the great parts of the program was a clearly planned tie-in with Twin Cities Pride, which formally kicks off on Friday. One of these was a duet from a just-premiered opera called In the Medical Closet, depicting two female physicians/rivals who fall in love. Sung gorgeously by soprano Bridget Ann Johnston and mezzo-soprano Courtney Kayser, the piece by lyricist Caroline Cao and composer Jamey Guzman was heart-warming, dynamic, and intricate.

Another highlight was a showcase coloratura performance by soprano Siena Forest, in “I Can Do Better”. Immensely hummable, this aria was written by Marcus Yi and Dina Pruzhansky, and features jaw-dropping revelations and demands. The first half finished with a hauntingly beautiful quintet called “A Poet is a Painter”, with lyrics by St. Paul playwright Jessica Grams and music by Nathan Scalise.

A trio of audience members enjoying ice cream during the concert. Photo by Loco/FX Photography.

Part 2 of the concert kicked off with Meow and Forever: A Romance in 2 Cats, an opera for five female singers and instrumental quintet. In short, Meow and Forever is an exploration of women loving women – the characters are a pair of best friends, a new girlfriend, and a pair of scene-stealing cats. Siena Forest expertly sang the role of Bailey, an absent-minded but well-meaning sort, with a particularly gorgeous aria near the beginning. Victoria Erickson returned as Alex, Bailey’s best friend, who has evidently put up with quite a lot. Their make-up duet was heart-warming and sweet – a blissful celebration of friendship, with none of the tentativeness and overhanging menace in Minnesota Opera’s 2018 production of Fellow Travelers. (Another Pride tie-in that should heartily return.) Their trio – not quite a love triangle, but something akin – was completed by Yvonne Freese as Asha, a woman struggling with self-doubt and the nervous anxiety of a new relationship going too perfect and fast.

Composer Jodi Goble’s score for Meow and Forever is tremendously varied and beautiful, with a knockout trio with the cats and a particularly spirited finale. Orchestrated with piano, violin, cello, flute, and clarinet, it plumbed deeply into emotions without resorting to the jarring, grating sound of so many modern operas. And it has many pulsing tangoes, which is always a plus.

The City of Minneapolis Music in the Parks series continues through September 28.

John Anderson