A baseball scandal, singing soldiers, a horse that eats a hat. These are a few of the surprising ingredients for Minnesota Opera’s daring 2018-19 season, announced Tuesday.
Just one of the season’s five operas is a surefire box-office banker — that would be Verdi’s tear-jerking “La Traviata.” Two of the season’s other operas — Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night” and Joel Puckett’s “The Fix” — are contemporary works, written in the past decade. And Nino Rota’s “The Italian Straw Hat” is virtually unknown outside Italy.
Even the season’s single Puccini selection, the comic opera “La Rondine,” is one of the composer’s least performed pieces. Yes, 2018-19 is shaping up to be one of the most risk-taking seasons in recent Minnesota Opera history.
Ryan Taylor, now entering his third year as Minnesota Opera president and general director, was surprised by that characterization. “If I were to go to a different company and say this is the season we’re going to present, we’d have a riot of people saying this will not sustain us.
“But audiences here in the Twin Cities expect something different,” he continued. “I feel like the 2018-19 operas are all designed to fit an aspect of the personality of our audience. They’ve expressed interest in pieces like this.”
Taylor is especially enthusiastic about reprising “Silent Night,” an opera the company commissioned and premiered in 2011.
“Silent Night” retells the story of the truce that happened on Christmas Eve in 1914, negotiated between rival soldiers in the World War I trenches. Hailed by the Star Tribune’s reviewer as a “grimly beautiful” drama with “an astonishing range of forms and styles,” the opera earned a Pulitzer Prize for Puts.
“Silent Night” has swept the industry, Taylor said. “It is now in the top five most performed new works of the last 20 years or so. And to be able to revive it for the 100th anniversary of the Armistice is important.”
“Silent Night” is also the most successful product of Minnesota Opera’s New Works Initiative. Founded 10 years ago, the project aims to provide Twin Cities audiences with regular servings of new and contemporary operas. The company has invested more than $7 million in commissioning new works by American composers, in a program widely viewed as pioneering.
Next up from the New Works Initiative is the March 2019 premiere of “The Fix,” composer Joel Puckett’s take on the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, when Chicago White Sox players conspired with gamblers to “fix” the World Series.
“It’s the 100-year anniversary of the scandal,” Taylor said. “And spring training is the right time to bring out the story of the fix. It’s a heartbreaking story, but the music is so immediate and beautiful.”
Timing was also a consideration in bringing “The Italian Straw Hat” to the Ordway for its Minnesota debut. Those who know Rota’s music only from the score he wrote for “The Godfather,” Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary 1972 movie, will be surprised by this piece — its froth and frolic play a strong counterpoint to the movie’s brooding chiaroscuro.
“We often like our January show to be more lively and upbeat, to bust through the winter doldrums,” Taylor said. “The Rota piece will do that in spades.”
Fresh talent, little diversity
The 2018-19 season brings an impressive mix of new and familiar faces to the Ordway Center stage.
They include internationally renowned soprano Nicole Cabell in the lead for “La Traviata” (she starred as Mimi in last season’s “La Bohème”). Soprano Karin Wolverton returns as Anna Sørensen in “Silent Night,” a part she sang in the original production. A company debut for vibrant, up-and-coming Irish soprano Celine Byrne in the leading role of Magda for “La Rondine” means 2018-19 is set to be a strong season for lovers of the female voice.
However, the season’s roster of conductors and directors is overwhelmingly male and Caucasian, at a period when the hiring practices of opera companies and other arts organizations are closely scrutinized for fairness and inclusivity.
“We’ve had long conversations about finding new people from diverse backgrounds,” Taylor said. “One problem is that candidates who are appropriate for these positions are booked up heavily because of the demand.
“That’s not an excuse — it means we really have to get on the stick and look further and further in advance. I’d like to see the gender equality get more balanced among our conducting and directing staff, and we’re working on that.”
A replacement for music director Michael Christie is something else the company will need to work on. Christie leaves the company after next month’s run of “Rigoletto” performances, and the next two seasons have been earmarked to identify candidates capable of providing what Taylor calls “a steady hand for the orchestra.”
That steady hand of continuity is necessary, as the opera’s orchestra is not a full-time entity; it rehearses on a per-production basis. Standards in the orchestral pit will therefore be particularly worth monitoring in the 2018-19 season, as Minnesota Opera seeks to further its reputation as one of America’s spunkiest, most forward-facing opera organizations.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.