Opera director David Lefkowich recently guided a visitor through a tunnel deep within the entrails of Minneapolis’ old Pillsbury A Mill. To be honest, it felt a little creepy there.
Which is precisely as Lefkowich intended.
Completed in 1881, the former flour mill has been refurbished as chic postindustrial living spaces, now known as the A-Mill Artist Lofts. Lefkowich still thinks the building churns with dramatic potential, though, even after a $181 million renovation.
Case in point: The apartment building’s über-cool lobby, featuring a mix of 19th-century stonework and artful lighting, makes the perfect starting point for Lefkowich’s new production of “Acis and Galatea.” First seen three centuries ago at a stately home in England, the pastoral Handel opera (based on a Greek myth) tells the story of a semi-divine nymph who falls for a lowly shepherd.
“We’re setting the first act as an engagement party in the A-Mill lobby,” Lefkowich said. “It’s a celebration of these two beautiful people.”
Lefkowich is founder and artistic director of Out of the Box Opera, a three-year-old Twin Cities company with a growing reputation for smashing the genre’s most tired tropes. In Lefkowich’s re-imagining, Galatea the nymph (sung by soprano Siena Forest) becomes an elegant and status-hungry creature of the Kardashian generation. She’s as crazy about money as she is about her paramour Acis (tenor David Walton).
As Lefkowich put it: “She’ll be dressed in an evening gown of sorts, and is clearly socially elevated above Acis.”
All is sweetness and light in Act One. But then a dark cloud looms on the horizon. His name is Polyphemus (sung by baritone Andrew Wilkowske), a jealous rival who’s far from pleased with Galatea’s choice of life partner.
Likening the militaristic Polyphemus to the sadistic Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca,” Lefkowich insisted the character is more than a cutout villain. “When Polyphemus arrives he is all-powerful,” Lefkowich said. “But he has this humor, which is in Handel’s music. It’s like the gravedigger’s scene in ‘Hamlet,’ comedy within a tragic setting, but with no slapstick element.”
The tragedy of “Acis and Galatea” brings the production through the A-Mill’s spooky underground tunnel, originally designed to generate hydroelectric power for the mill’s flour-making machinery. That’s where Polyphemus murders Acis, pairing the dastardly act with its visual counterpart in the murky confines of a tunnel still used today to transport water to the Mississippi River.
“It’s a space that’s mostly unknown to even the residents who live in the building,” Lefkowich explained. “It felt like tragedy could happen there on an operatic scale and I felt I had to include it.”
A total of four locations within the A-Mill are used for Lefkowich’s staging, with the production ending on the rooftop.
Galatea’s inner strength means her life is not completely ruined by the death of Acis, Lefkowich explained. “I’m constantly looking for pieces that have a strong female voice,” Lefkowich said, “where the character does not exist as part of a man and doesn’t need a man’s help to survive.”
Staging the final scene in the rooftop’s open air, he said, becomes a symbol of hope for Galatea’s future.
No more sleepyheads
If the characters of Lefkowich’s “Acis and Galatea” are constantly on the move, so too are audience members.
By following singers around the A-Mill, ticket buyers will be treated to an up-close-and-personal experience, Lefkowich said. “Going to a conventional opera house or theater is an exciting endeavor, but seeing an opera in a former flour mill as you walk through these cool spaces is unique.”
With Out of the Box Opera, Lefkowich previously staged opera shows in an art museum and at a boxing gym. And he could see the delight on audience members’ faces, he said. “Watching them experiencing it in an immersive situation is unlike anything I have ever seen. People’s faces light up.”
Thrilled by that extra level of emotional interaction, he aims for more of the same with “Acis and Galatea.”
“I think we’ve had too many experiences where people are falling asleep at the opera,” he said. “This production doesn’t allow that. The sound will be all around you, you will be standing next to the singers, there’s no sense of distance at all. It’ll be action-packed from start to finish.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.