Like a mole sauce, the decor of a Victorian parlor or Cardi B's wardrobe, a Picnic Operetta assembles pieces that shouldn't fit together but somehow do.
In the case of "Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County," it's opera, Bruce Springsteen songs, greenery and delicious food.
Marking its 10th anniversary this week, the roving Mixed Precipitation company selects a classic opera (this year it's Otto Nicolai's "The Merry Wives of Windsor," based on Shakespeare's play). Company members pare it down, mix in contemporary pop songs, create lively subtitles (the show is in German) and tour the roughly 90-minute result to parks and gardens around the state in August and September, serving a half-dozen snacks to the audience at key moments.
"It's the peak of our harvest season, with gardens overflowing with vegetables and flowers looking their absolute best," said Susan Melbye, who until recently ran Bronx Park Community Garden in St. Louis Park, where "Dr. Falstaff" will play Sept. 8. "To me, it's the highlight of the whole summer, and I know that's true for many families in the Community Garden. It's like a celebration.
"One year, for no apparent reason, all these butterflies came out. The air was just full of butterflies, and the sun was shining and they were singing their lungs out, with three or four musicians. It's just a very special event."
This year's operetta has a Minnesota twist.
"It's an idea we've been kicking around for a long time, to do something based on 'Merry Wives of Windsor' but also more rooted in Minnesota history," said Scotty Reynolds, founder of Mixed Precipitation, which produces the operetta. He grew up on the shores of Lake Superior in Silver Bay, Minn.
"The character of that region is in me," he said, "and the situation around mining, the taconite plants, is a part of my family's history."
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" is regarded as one of Shakespeare's worst plays, but Reynolds sparked to its strong female characters. In "Dr. Falstaff," a trio of women retaliate when the titular grifter appears, trying to exploit the economic hardship left by the closing of a taconite plant.
That darkness-on-the-edge-of-town vibe makes interpolating such Springsteen songs as "Badlands" and "Dancing in the Dark" a slam-dunk.
The opera's — and the Boss' — bleak themes may sound like Picnic Operetta's signature playfulness is taking a year off, but Reynolds says that is not the case.
"We usually start with a heavy opera, musically and in content, and then find humor," he said. "In this case, we're starting with an opera that is very silly, lighthearted and fun but placing the characters in a situation where they wrestle with big issues."
Sites for the 2018 tour include Babbitt, Cook and Finland, Minn., areas tied to mining. He interviewed Iron Rangers to get context for the fictional tale, which is less about the conflict between industry and environment and more about "honoring the experience of people who do the work of holding a town together when citizens are in crisis."
Uniting people is one reason Picnic Operetta happens outdoors.
"For somebody to offer to bring opera into our gardens? Ohmygosh!" Melbye said. "And the idea that food from gardens is being served? I love that, and I especially love showing kids how all of these things come together.
"A lot of us gardeners [Bronx has 22 plots] want to raise our kids knowing where foods come from, and the wonderful operetta snacks show what you can do with those foods. Passing [the food] around in that beautiful setting just makes it better."
The food is visually tied to the show, like "moss on the rocks" — balls made with popped corn, sunflower seeds and buckwheat groats, covered with a mossy-looking kale powder. And get ready to eat taconite.
"We're using beet powder to help us make these little beet/chocolate crumbs, and everyone can scoop themselves what we're calling taconite pellets from a big bucket we pass around," said Natalie Vandenburgh, co-captain of the food team with Nora Rickey. "They taste great! The beet powder is tart, so it sort of reads like raspberry."
Vandenburgh was a fan and then a volunteer before joining the show this season.
"I think it's cool how the Picnic Operetta aims to support all of the parties involved," she said. "The artists are paid and paid fairly. We support local farmers by buying their produce. We bring awareness to all of these places around the state that are involved in producing food. And we're supporting the arts."
Jenny Sautter, whose Omega House garden in south Minneapolis was where Picnic Operetta originated, loves the idea of exposing music and theater fans to community gardens. The operetta has since outgrown the space, but she remains a superfan.
Her children have been to the show every year of their lives, including when her son was a sleepy 2-week-old.
"People sometimes hear 'opera' and think, 'Not for us,' but it's such a perfect thing for families," Sautter said.
She recommends seeing the operetta in different places. She has visited places she didn't know existed, such as Eagan's Caponi Art Park, and she enjoys watching the performers alter the show to fit each setting.
Reynolds said the actors love figuring out which sunflowers to hide behind and which tomato plants to peek over. Bronx Park is one of his favorite spaces, partly because of a big adjustment that must be made there.
"It's right off the Cedar Lake bike trail and there are some train tracks that sometimes add bonus entertainment," he said. "We'll have a hula hoop contest while the train barrels by, because it's too loud to keep performing."
Which, if you're doing the math at home, adds one more unlikely element to the Picnic Operetta: freight trains.