Where did Skylark Opera go? It's a question Twin Cities arts audiences started asking about a year ago, when the company's website went mute on plans for the 2016 season.
But now, suddenly, Skylark Opera is back with a brand-new artistic director and an ambitious project: a dark, dramatic adaptation of George Bizet's opera "Carmen."
The company's newly appointed artistic director, veteran stage director and former Minnesota Orchestra administrator Robert Neu, has opted for a lean, 90-minute staging of "Carmen" rather than the full operatic version. Created in 1981 by legendary British director Peter Brook, "The Tragedy of Carmen" was designed to go straight for the theatrical jugular.
For starters, the production involves just six solo singers rather than the usual dozen. Three instrumentalists (on piano, viola and cello) take the place of a full-size orchestra. And the production dispenses with the large chorus, cinematic sets and lavish costumes of the grand opera tradition, focusing instead on the obsessive drama between Carmen and her lover Don José.
Neu hopes the show makes a bold statement about the company's future. "This intimate, surprising view of repertoire is what Skylark Opera is going to be about," he said.
Neu's Carmen is played by Seattle-based soprano Tess Altiveros. Although she has sung regularly in large main-stage productions for Tacoma Opera and Seattle's Vespertine Opera Theater, Altiveros considers herself an advocate for small-scale opera productions like Skylark's. She believes these shows humanize the operatic experience, making it more relatable for experienced and inexperienced operagoers alike.
Altiveros specifically admires Brook's condensed version of "Carmen." "In many ways it seems darker, more disturbing, more intense," she said. "It's the perfect gateway for those who might be curious about opera, but feel it's an inaccessible or elitist art form."
There's nothing stuffy about the show's venue, either. The Midpointe Event Center is an airy and open space in St. Paul's Midway district. Its seating capacity is limited, with room for just 140 people.
The set is extremely raw. "It consists of two benches," explained Neu.
And the stage itself is supposed to feel like an alley, with the audience seated on both sides, in tight proximity with the singers.
"Brook's 'Carmen' is a piece with constant nervous activity and action," said Neu, "so I think the setting suits it well."
Back from the brink
Founded in 1980 as Opera St. Paul, and subsequently renamed North Star Opera, Skylark has an illustrious track record with dozens of productions to its name.
Over the years, the company introduced a number of Midwest premieres to Minnesota audiences, including an adaptation of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and a production of the 1910 opera "Treemonisha" by ragtime pianist Scott Joplin. This established Skylark's reputation as a plucky local company with an eye for the unfamiliar.
Why did it go dark so suddenly?
The short answer is money. "Our financial model was really challenging," explained Ann Spencer, vice president of Skylark and a board member for more than 30 years. "We did full-scale productions, with a full professional orchestra and singers. I don't think our audiences always realized how expensive it was — about $160,000 for a two-opera season."
What's more, Skylark was always steadfast in its commitment to affordable tickets, with a top price of $29 for the new "Carmen" (compared with $200 for the top Minnesota Opera ticket this season). This tightens financial margins even further.
"We were planning two pretty big productions in 2016," added Spencer. "But we weren't sure we could responsibly go forward."
Specifically, board members like Spencer saw a problem with cash flow. Could the company cover its expenses? Could it pay the performers?
The 2016 shows were canceled in March 2015. Next came several months of uncertainty as board members wrestled with the company's options. For a while, it looked like Skylark might fold completely. "It came very close," confessed Neu.
The new artistic director copped to other reasons for Skylark's difficulties, including programming decisions. "Skylark was founded 35 years ago as a company that primarily did operetta," said Neu, who served as a guest director on nine Skylark productions in the past decade. "As operetta fell out of favor with the public, the company started adding more popular musicals, which was great. But I think the artistic profile got a little hazy on what, exactly, Skylark did."
Neu was appointed interim artistic director by Skylark's board of directors in April 2016. The position was made permanent four months later. His recipe for the future? More opera rather than operettas and musicals. And more casual venues and stagings. After "The Tragedy of Carmen," Neu will take Skylark to the Woman's Club of Minneapolis for a new adaptation of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" set during Prohibition. That show opens June 16.
"I don't see this company going back to a proscenium theater to stage a big traditional musical or a big traditional opera," said Neu. "That's already being done in the Twin Cities."
Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.