Opera Comes to Lake Wobegon?
Opera is one of the great hybrid arts of Western culture, bringing together the talents of composers, librettists, singers, instrumentalists, and stage directors. It is foremost a spectacle of entertainment—a story set to music, where reality can seem charmed. Characters on the verge of dying from respiratory failure manage to belt out that one last aria. Buxom mezzo-sopranos portray Roman emperors without a trace of irony, provided their vocal chops are up to the challenge. Men with high voices are routinely heroic and fat ladies regularly play the ingenue.
About Mr. and Mrs. Olson
"Norman Olson is a taxman and his wife, Karen, teaches 10th grade English. They live in St. Paul. It's May. School will be out soon. The summer stretches before them. He is thinking about the lawn. She is thinking about divorce. In search of companionship—or something—she goes into an online chat room and there meets a man whose mind appeals to her—his thoughts about living life boldly and hurling yourself forward though you know you'll make mistakes and hurt people. Meanwhile, her friend Joyce, 43 and single, is advising her to savor what she has and guard against destructive impulse.
"A simple premise for a story, and I hope it makes for an amusing evening," says Keillor. "I'm sure the singers will enjoy it too, because the piece lets the tenor sing the 'Habañera' (with new words) and the soprano sing 'Nessun dorma' and 'Che gelida manina' turns out to be an aria about Jell-O. Many thanks to the dead for dying when they did and allowing us vandals the freedom to plunder."
Garrison Keillor has been in the business of entertainment at least since A Prairie Home Companion began in 1974. Opera has been a frequent visitor to Prairie Home, starting in the early days with opera parodies such as Okie D'Amore and La Influenza, and operatic scenes improvised from audience suggestions (e.g., broccoli, wind-chill, and a No. 6 bus) by tenor Vern Sutton and mezzo-soprano Janis Hardy, with Philip Brunelle at the piano. Over the years, numerous opera stars have sung on the show, including Cheryl Studer, Bryn Terfel, and Susanne Mentzer; and Marilyn Horne sang rousing versions of "La donna e mobile," "The Pennsylvania Polka," and "I Dream Of Murray With the Thin White Hair."
"Anything I know about opera I learned from my wife," says Keillor. "Her dad took her to Northrop Auditorium when she was six to see Grace Bumbry sing Carmen and she loved it and was never the same afterward. She takes me to operas and it's always fun, and sometimes it makes your hair stand on end. We saw a Der Rosenkavalier with Renée Fleming and Barbara Bonney that was magical. You always hope for that, going to the theater, and we sat in the very back row of the uppermost balcony at the Met and were transfixed for the whole evening. Parsifal, on the other hand-well, never mind.
"I got the idea to write Mr. and Mrs. Olson from doing a benefit with a bunch of opera stars and hearing all these great sopranos and one dreadful tenor who stood up and butchered 'Nessun dorma' and I thought, maybe it's time to give that one to the ladies."
Mr. and Mrs. Olson has been orchestrated by Prairie Home band member Andy Stein. A remarkably versatile musician fluent in classical, popular, rock, and jazz idioms-able to play the Brahms Violin Concerto and also improvise à la Joe Venuti and do tunes from The Nutcracker as hoedowns-Stein was a founding member of Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen, a jazz-tinged rock 'n' roll band from the early 1970s. He has also performed with Itzhak Perlman, Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Smashing Pumpkins, Billy Joel, and Tony Bennett, among many others. He was a featured soloist with Winton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and has given a series of acclaimed tributes to the great jazz violinist Joe Venuti.
A composer and arranger as well, Stein has written several film scores, pops orchestrations, and works for violin and orchestra that have been performed by Joshua Bell, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Pamela Frank, Cho-Liang Lin, and others. André Watts recently commissioned Stein to construct a piano concerto from music by Schubert. His orchestral version of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet was commissioned by The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and premiered in 1997. Mr. and Mrs. Olson is Stein's first opera.