Summer sunsets, barking dogs, car alarms: The joys and pitfalls of outdoor opera


Ah, to sing outside in summer, lifting your voice as geese honk, butterflies flit and gentle breezes blow, or belting out an operatic aria loud enough to be heard over car alarms, barking dogs and gale-force winds.

Cast members of four operatic presentations being staged around the Twin Cities area shared what they love about performing opera al fresco and some of the drawbacks they’ve encountered in an artistic pursuit that subjects them to the whims of nature.

‘The Pirates of Penzance’

The Twin Cities’ prime purveyors of comic operetta, the Gilbert & Sullivan Very Light Opera Company, will be presenting a concert version of that 19th-century English duo’s silly swashbuckler.

Waldyn Benbenek, who sings the role of the Pirate King: “We love the informality. It’s great to be able to reach such a large audience in a few performances. … And we love singing with [the] Minneapolis Pops [Orchestra]. … It is wonderful to feel the backup of that full sound.

“…And the informal setting means that people wander in front of you for ice cream, dogs bark and babies cry, and little kids wander up to see if your props are real.”

(7:30 pm Sat., 5:30 pm Sun.; Lake Harriet Band Shell, 4135 W. Lake Harriet Pkwy., Mpls.; free; mplspops.org.)

‘The Merry Widow’

University of Minnesota grad Anne Wieben is a Vienna-based soprano who reunites with former colleagues each summer for an Opera on the Lake production. This year, it’s Franz Lehar’s comic operetta about a government’s attempts to keep a wealthy widow in country by finding her the right second husband.

Wieben: “I absolutely love the atmosphere a warm summer evening delivers. The temperature, the breeze, the sunset — all of it just invites us to relax and enjoy. …

“But the best part is also the worst part: the weather. Be it flash floods, intense heat or terrible air quality due to wildfires, we’ve experienced it all. … During one of the final arias in [Johann Strauss Jr.’s] ‘Die Fledermaus,’ the wind really picked up and started whipping the curtain around. Our soprano, Alicia O’Neill, handled it perfectly, though, somehow timing her high notes with the biggest gusts.

“In that same production, a car alarm went off and continued for quite some time. But we managed to make it a running gag throughout the night.”

(7 p.m. July 26, 27 and 29; Como Lakeside Pavilion, 1360 N. Lexington Pkwy., St. Paul; $30; operaonthelake.com.)

Opera on the River

Near the Lift Bridge in Stillwater, St. Croix Valley Opera presents a showcase of operatic excerpts performed by some singers with Minnesota ties who have found success with major opera companies in Europe and the US, including two rising stars from Edina, soprano Liv Redpath and baritone Thomas Glass.

Glass: “Performing outdoors is a blast. I find that I more easily connect with the audience since I can see them all, unlike in a dark theater. And something about being outdoors removes a lot of the formality and seriousness of opera… .

“I’ve performed” [Giacomo Puccini’s] ‘La Boheme’ outdoors. The first scene of the opera is a conversation between friends about how dang cold they are in the middle of a Parisian winter. That was some serious suspension of disbelief in 95-degree Houston heat.”

(7 p.m. July 30; Lowell Park, 201 N. Water St., Stillwater; $50-free; scvopera.org.)

‘The Magic Flute’

Mixed Precipitation’s annual “picnic operettas” — combining a classic opera with contemporary tunes — are now called “pickup truck opera,” because sets, props and some of the scenes all fit in the back of a Ford Ranger. This summer, Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” meets the songs of a ’90s nightclub.

Company founder and artistic director Scotty Reynolds: “Being outside extends the welcome to your performance to everyone and everything around you. Suddenly, the neighborhood, the trees, the clouds and the traffic are all inside of the story with you, adding to the music and performances. My favorite spontaneous additions are flocks of geese flying overhead as the chorus rejoices in the finale, butterflies darting around during arias and children climbing trees to get a view above the crowd.

“But there are obstacles like convincing neighbors to wait until after the performance to mow their lawn. Sometimes, it takes a six-pack of beer, but an invitation to the performance is usually enough.

“We had an instance where a neighbor was resentful of the community garden on her block. … During our performance, she lit a tire on fire in her backyard. Luckily, it was near the end of the show.”

(July 31-Sept. 11 at 19 venues in Minnesota and Wisconsin; $25-free; mixedprecipitation.org.)

Rob Hubbard is a Twin Cities classical music writer. Reach him at wordhub@yahoo.com.

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