Lean, mean opera

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2012 - 6:31 PM

Two small productions this weekend take the weight off opera and focus on the music.

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Krista Palmquist and James Bohn, standing at center, and Dan Dressen, seated at center, were surrounded by the chorus during a rehearsal of “The Shoemaker” at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Maybe Gary Gisselman and Philip Brunelle should do this every 15 years. That's how long it has been since the two produced a new Stephen Paulus opera.

The last time it was "The Three Hermits," and this weekend, the creative team has again gone to a Tolstoy story with "The Shoemaker," which will be staged Saturday and Sunday at Plymouth Congregational Church in Minneapolis.

The work was commissioned by a group from House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul, Brunelle said, with the idea that Plymouth would produce it.

"People have been saying to Stephen for years, 'You've got to write another one' and he came up with this," Brunelle said.

Gisselman came in to guide the staging, just as he had done with "The Three Hermits." Poet Michael Dennis Browne again provided the libretto.

"With ['Hermits'], it was clear that the choir members were pilgrims on a pilgrimage," Gisselman said, addressing the issue of finding pace and movement for a 50-person ensemble. "I asked Michael who the choir is here, and he said, 'The inner voice of the character' and I thought, how do you stage that?"

Gisselman said he's dressing all his singers -- including soloists James Bohn, Dan Dressen, Maria Jette and Krista Palmquist -- in choir robes and letting the church's architectural aesthetics stand alone.

"The story takes place in a peasant's hut, but to try to do that smacks of really bad Christmas pageant," he said.

Paulus said he got the idea for this opera from his mother, who told him to consider the Tolstoy story, "What Men Live By."

"She asked if I'd read it and I said no, because you know, 'When did you become an opera expert?'" Paulus said, amused. His mother reinforced her message and like a good son, Paulus read the story.

"I thought it was wonderful, so I approached Michael and away we went," said the St. Paul-based composer.

The story focuses on a shoemaker who takes a homeless man into his house and gives him work, a theme of compassion that Paulus found meaningful.

"It's perfect for Plymouth because they've been really focusing on the homeless issue lately," he said.

(2 p.m. Sat., 10:30 a.m. Sun.; 1900 Nicollet Av. S., Mpls.; free.)

Minnesota Concert Opera

Shortly after he moved back to Minneapolis last year, Stanford Felix got the wheels moving on a new opera company. Minnesota Concert Opera launches this weekend with "I Puritani (The Puritans)" at the Cowles Center.

Felix had been gone for 22 years, singing and studying in New York, then teaching at Emporia State University in Kansas.

"I had sung with Minnesota Opera and Philip Brunelle and Dale Warland so I had a lot of contacts up here," Felix said. "I knew we wouldn't have a problem finding good singers."

Concert opera is performed in formalwear, with a piano or small ensemble. For "I Puritani," the company will use a Steinway and percussion. Felix said that a "Julius Caesar" planned for next spring will bring in a small chamber orchestra.

"The visceral sound you get from being so close to the singers is what you're looking for with concert opera," Felix said.

Plus, because singers are familiar with the work and needn't worry about costumes and staging, they can stay flexible enough for one-week rehearsals and then a short performance schedule. "I Puritani," by Vincenzo Bellini and Carlo Pepoli, is a love story set in the 17th-century English Civil War. It is sung in Italian with surtitles.

Among Felix's singers are Rodolfo Nieto, a bass-baritone who has performed several roles with the Minnesota Opera. Soprano Tracey Engleman is on the faculty at St. Olaf College, and Felix drew his tenor, Ben Gulley, from their work together at Kansas Concert Opera.

In addition to the "Julius Caesar" at the end of April, Minnesota Concert Opera will perform "Il Trovatore" in January. Barb Brooks, a longtime vocal coach in the Twin Cities, is the musical director and pianist for "I Puritani."

(7:30 p.m. Fri., 3 p.m. Sun.; Cowles Center, 528 Hennepin Av. S.; $15-$25, 612-206-3600 or www.thecowlescenter.org.)

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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