Minnesota Opera takes to the outfield for socially distanced season opener
Naturally, a program called Opera in the Outfield being staged at a ballpark will have an ingrained baseball theme.
But the Minnesota Opera's season-opening presentation will be so much more than a jaunt around the base paths. It will serve as a reflection of resilience, a deliberation of current affairs and above all an application of imaginative ingenuity.
With COVID-19 still preventing live performances, Opera in the Outfield is a video — to be screened twice on the giant scoreboard at CHS Field in St. Paul and then available on demand — melding performances by Minnesota Opera's orchestra and artists with excerpts from past productions and more than a few creative detours.
Among them: "Take Me Out to the Opera," a revamped rendition of a beloved baseball song, and a comic-book treatment of "Cheti Cheti Immantinente" from Gaetano Donizetti's Don Pasquale, with different panels and even speech bubbles.
"Some people will say 'we've already seen Don Pasquale, but now we can say, 'You haven't seen it like this,'" video designer David Murakami said. "To use a baseball metaphor, doing something really out of left field was really inspiring."
While the repertoire will include selections from La Traviata, Carmen, Romeo and Juliet and The Marriage of Figaro, much of the focus will be around more recent — and topical — works. On the docket are excerpts from Blue, a contemporary opera highlighting racial injustice that Minnesota Opera postponed from its 2020-21 season; several pieces from The Fix, a saga of a baseball scandal that Minnesota Opera premiered in 2019, and Scott Joplin's 1911 opera Treemonisha, which celebrates Black music and culture.
Working in compositions that limn the current racial unrest was relatively easy compared with dealing with another thoroughly 2020 issue: a pandemic preventing any proximity of performers.
"I have never been in the same room as my duet partner, Adam Michael Jones," said baritone Aaron Keeney, whose selections included "Toreador" from Carmen, an aria from The Fix and a duet from Don Pasquale.
So the process worked like this: "We put down a couple of tracks to sort of get an idea of how fast we want to do it," Keeney said, "and the orchestra came in and did a recording track, and then we came in and laid down [the final] vocal tracks."
And then Murakami and stage director David Radamés Toro went to work, along the way finding inspiration in a Walt Disney production.
"We came up with the idea of almost a Fantasia-esque approach to it," Toro said. "We would go outside the box to present the feeling of an aria or a duet since [the performers] were not able to actually present it.
"We were taking our director brains and wrapping around a virtual arena, using our imaginations in a different way," he added with a laugh, "kind of like a film director."
In some ways, the physical limitations were more of an opportunity than an obstacle for Murakami.
"I work primarily as a projection designer, bringing new media to traditional formats, and there's nothing more traditional than an opera stage," he said.
"Finding ways to re-explore previous ground the Minnesota Opera had tread but making it novel was really the concept for the piece as a whole.
"To some degree, the lack of ability to do staging allowed us to look into archives, so for Minnesota Opera it was, 'Here's what we have. Let's not worry about what we can't do. What is something new and interesting and inspiring with the material that we've got?'"
For pieces that did not have archival clips, Toro said he and Murakami delved into some impromptu mining.
"We talked about, 'What is the feeling of this piece? What can we look for in the history of Armida?'"
All along, Murakami said, "Framing the narrative of the whole thing is baseball. The Fix was very successful and really celebrated, and that opera sort of provides our framing narrative. At a time when we need community, we felt that 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame' is a metaphor that spits in the face of COVID."
That fits with the setting for the two "live" performances: the St. Paul Saints' home ballpark, where audiences will sit, socially distanced — Toro has worked with CHS Field staffers on safety measures — and actually be part of the proceedings.
Not only will there be preshow music and video, Toro said, but also "a couple of singalongs," with a tutorial of sorts for "Toreador."
The onscreen show — which also will feature special guest artists the Steeles — will include interludes in which Minnesota Opera board members discuss such matters as the age-old "casserole or hot dish" quandary.
But one dilemma has been solved, emphatically: whether and how an opera company can operate during a pandemic. (This will be Minnesota Opera's first in-person event since early February.)
"With COVID and various challenges, the entertainment industry has taken a monumental hit in a way few industries can understand," Murakami said. "It has been truly crippling to the entertainment industry, so this is really welcome."
And even with the current limitations, artists such as Kenney have savored the opportunity to pursue their vocal vocation.
"It was really neat," he said. "It's something entirely new, but these days to have an opportunity is really rewarding. I think everybody has learned a whole bunch with this process, so I think that in the future we will be able to do this kind of thing."
In baseball parlance, after being shut out, Minnesota Opera no longer has to worry about being the victim of a no-hitter.