Dear Mr. Gelb…

Well, to be blunt, you’re not just wrong, you’re dead wrong.  And since the eyes of the (baseball) world are on the beautiful city of Minneapolis right now I’d like to invite you out here for a visit.

“The Minnie-Apple?” you say. “What could that Midwest backwater possibly have to interest such an urban New York sophisticate as myself?” Admittedly, the bagels here aren’t nearly as good as most places in Manhattan, and for some reason the Twins simply cannot beat those damn Yankmes (yes, Derek Jeter is one of the greatest players ever; no, I still loathe the Yankmes; yes, I will be very conflicted when he’s introduced at the game tomorrow). But we have something here that you could learn a lot from: allow me to introduce you to the spunky folk at Mill City Summer Opera.

Sometime a few years ago some local members of the arts scene decided that it would be fun to start a summer opera company and hold all the productions in an outdoor platz that is part of the ruins of an old milling company, now turned into an educational museum. The next morning, when they had sobered up, it still seemed like a good idea, so they ran with it. The result is one of the most fun and entertaining additions to the Twin Cities art scene in many a year. Let me set the stage for you, so to speak –

The Venue

If you’re going to stage an opera you need some huge, fancy, overwrought, really expensive, amazing, hulking monstrosity of a hall, right? Right?

The Mill City Ruins, home of the Mill City Summer Opera (taken with that fancy panorama thing on the iPhone!).

Not quite. The choice of the Mill City ruins was a masterstroke of genius. Not only is it a visually striking venue, but because of the physical nature of the space it has excellent acoustics. Plus, did I mention the visually striking part? Opera is about space, and the use thereof, so starting with a room like this already puts the production on a dramatic level. Of course, one has to deal with the occasional plane overhead, random fireworks, and the weather. Fortunately, the weather Gods have been kind.

The Productions

Ok, so they only do one a year, or more accurately one a summer. 2012 was Pagliacci, 2013 The Barber of Seville. This year is Tosca. Notice, please, that Dr. Atomic does not appear on that list. Honestly, they can’t. Productions such as that require a more established company that can fold an opera like that into a season.

The cast is heavily tilted towards Minnesota natives, and, Mr. Gelb, you would recognize a couple of them. Standouts include Adam Diegel, who has appeared on your stage as recently as this season. Others of the cast have also appeared at the Met, and Houston Grand Opera seems to be a favorite of theirs as well. There is also an exceptional young treble name Riley who sings the part of the Jailor’s son. You will probably hear more of him in the future. Chorus is also representative of Minnesota, featuring members of the Minnesota Opera and the Minnesota Boys Choir.

The orchestra is excellent, and although I should promote the woodwinds I’m actually going to highlight the fabulous ‘Cello section, who really shone during the jail scene in act 3. The band is made up of members of the Minnesota Orchestra, SPCO, Minnesota Opera, Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, and other fantastic freelancers in the Twin Cities.

The Response

The audience was a mix of old opera junkies, newbies, general arts people, and the like.  At Sunday night’s performance I made friends with a middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter. It was their first time to any opera, and they were absolutely loving the experience. There was much cheering of the cast, as well as the traditional booing of Scarpia (he really is an ass, isn’t he?). Don’t believe me? Here’s a picture to prove it:\

Bows for Mill City Summer Opera’s fantastic production of Tosca! Check out the Jailor’s Son on the right – super cute kid, and really talented!

You can see that everyone is standing up and cheering, as well they should be. It’s a wonderful production and I think you should fly in and see it.

Well, therein lies a problem. You see, Mr. Gelb, this run of Tosca has been sold out for weeks.  It seems that the people of the Twin Cities really do want to go see opera, provided that it’s in a great setting, with a great cast, a great orchestra, and (here’s the kicker) a cash bar! Yep, shortly before snapping this picture I put down my empty beer. Nothing quite like enjoying Puccini with a brew. Honestly, you would have an easier time getting tickets to tonight’s All-Star game then Wednesday’s Tosca.

So, Mr. Gelb, I’m sorry that your company has so many issues that you seem intent on displaying to the world.  It sounds to me that you think the Met has become totally bloated and overblown, even for the world’s leading opera company (goodness, it is opera, after all; isn’t it supposed to be overblown?).  But that’s not the biggest problem. I think that under your leadership the Met has forgotten that you’re supposed to be in this for your audience.  You know, the ones that you claim don’t want to come to opera anymore. If that is indeed the case with them, then there has to be a reason why they don’t want to come.

I betcha they’d come to Mill City’s Tosca. Ya, you betcha they would.

8 thoughts on “Dear Mr. Gelb…”

  1. Four stars for the opera production/conception, five for the review– but for Tosca sake, you Minnehahas sure like your beer.

      • Not kidding–when I started the search, I was amazed that there were three new organizations formed in cities I frequently perform (Indianapolis, Louisville, and Cincinnati) within the past couple of years and that they all had productions happening in June (showing a total of 12 chamber operas between them) so was really curious how many groups had formed since 2000.

        Granted, most of these are chamber opera companies, but a significant number of them are producing new works (I remember reading at one of the websites from a companies on the east coast that over 300 new operas had been performed since 2000 in that region). About a handful of them are already inactive (which is a surprisingly low number) and a handful of the orgs listed are just new music ensembles or collectives which produce operas written for them, but the majority are small companies, some producing grand opera, many producing chamber opera, and a few producing experimental and multi-media operatic works. Check out the list–it’s really remarkable how much opera activity has grown in the US!

        I plan on doing an analysis of the growth of opera and operatic companies since 2000 just to give us a sense of what this looks like in the broader scheme of things–something I think that’s sorely needed to give us perspective on what so many folks are calling a “Classical Music Crisis!”

  2. I wonder if Mr. Gelb would understand that Mill City is OUR OWN BATHS OF CARACALLA…?? I wonder if that venerable performance site is even on his radar……Or the Arena of Verona…..

  3. I was there Sunday as well! It was awesome, and a great mix of people having a great casual summer evening. That mother and daughter you met sure came in on a high and I hope they continue to seek out opera, especially as there is so much available here in the TC (the MN Opera is noted for being innovative). Actually, Bill, tickets sold out in a matter of DAYS once they were available to the general public, even with an extra performance or two over last year (Barber of Seville, that was amazing as well). This is a creative use of an existing facility, providing employment for a number of local musicians and an additional “entry point” for anyone interested in opera, music, and an all-around fun evening. And did you know there is now a “Twin Cities Fringe Opera” which just formed a few months ago? I missed the first production but will be on the lookout now.

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