Down On The Farm

Opera among the silos of outstate Minnesota, and a new staging of Steinbeck's grim classic.

The summer of 1993 I painted 150 dorm rooms. We used only two colors, Marshmallow and Navajo, both of them shades of white. Most of the people in the small, southeastern Minnesota college town where I lived were white too. There wasn't much to do after work. We watched the volunteer band perform John Phillip Sousa on Thursday evenings in the town square and developed a taste for watery beer. One night a tornado touched down a few miles away and the next door neighbors threw their couch down the stairs. A week after starting the job, I stopped trying to wash the paint out of my hair.

At work we listened to a lot of talk radio. It was the summer of the flood and the National Weather Service provided a daily dose of near-pornographic detail. In between dire forecasts, the radio announced that a previously unseen Aaron Copland opera, The Tenderland, would be playing on a farm about 100 miles west of our town. Depicting a young woman's fleeting romance with a roaming farmhand, the opera featured a chorus of area residents from each of the seven towns it visited. Tickets were three bucks. If the cost was not prohibitive, reaching the farm nearly was: The flooded Minnesota River submerged all crossings for 30 miles. Yet when we arrived, a thousand people from surrounding towns had already filled the bleachers, leaving their swampy fields and ruined crops temporarily behind. The whole county had shown up, or so it seemed, and attendance at other sites was similarly enthusiastic.

Based on the success of that tour, the University of Minnesota Opera now returns to the farm with Donizetti's Elixir of Love, featuring performances in noted opera capitols Ihlen, Red Lake Falls and New Rockford (after a two-night opening last weekend at the Gibbs Farm in Saint Paul). But where Copland's Tenderland used its site to underscore an almost archetypal emotional fable--the story of a girl leaving her family and home on the morning of graduation--the lightweight Elixir of Love is more like an opera-hayride, a fairy tale down on the farm.

Liberally (and playfully) translated into contemporary English by U of M Music School Director Vern Sutton, the story starts in the yard of Adina, a wealthy young woman. While her friends tend the garden, Adina recounts the legend of Tristan and Isolde and the magical potion that drew them together. Meanwhile, the sapheaded and lovelorn Nemorino pines for just such a concoction to win over the insensate Adina. Yet he becomes despondent with the arrival of a swaggering army recruiter, Belcore (flanked by flag corps of players from a local high school), and his subsequent engagement to Adina. When another visitor, Dr. Dulcamara, pulls up with a pickup truck of snake oil... well, the title The Elixir of Love explains itself, no?

The principles--all graduate students in the University's music department, and mostly Minnesota natives--bring as much personality as vocal talent to their parts. Wearing a wide-collared plaid shirt with pearlescent snaps and a yellow Dekalb cap, Jon Harney's Nemorino evokes surprising sympathy. This is the guy at the Eagles Club with the snappy belt buckle, dropping tears onto a table of spent pull-tabs and Grain Belt empties. Jeff Crane plays the poltroonish Sergeant with a jaunty step and a cheerful disregard for the tune, and Leslie Mick gives Adina the assurance and PG-rated sex appeal of an enduring prom queen; she informs the good doctor that her feminine wiles are more potent than any elixir (not to mention her jello-and-tuna salad).

Location performances bring the kind of unique challenges that might turn a producer to strong elixirs. Quirky amplification, a nuisance during the last tour, seems to have been tamed here. A more insurmountable problem, mosquitoes, remains. But then, during the inevitable lovers' capitulation, a pair of egrets flew high overhead. A fine idea, this outdoor opera.

Yet, lest we descend into hazy pastoralism, a visiting news team from KMSP displayed the patronizing potential of cultural tourism. Arriving in the usual newsvan-cum-rolling-billboard, the handsome reporter first milled among the crowd in a short, neat skirt and a satin blouse. Ten minutes later, the van had sprouted a 20-foot antenna and the reporter had changed into "down-home" digs: chinos and a denim shirt. We're here on a farm to observe the cultural legitimacy of the common man... now say hee haw into the microphone for our viewers at home... Uff da.

In 1949, Arthur Miller defended his Death of a Salesman with a polemical advocating a new "tragedy of the common man" dedicated to the high moral crises of ordinary people. One of the finest examples of such a play, John Steinbeck's stage adaptation of his novel Of Mice and Men preceded Miller's archly earnest essay by more than a decade, and it receives a gorgeous treatment in the Hidden Theatre's current production. Steinbeck's play is attuned to an almost elemental corruption in American agriculture; Lennie and George's journey into the abusive machinery of California farming is a trip through Darwinian predation, loneliness and desolation. Bosses here pay their workers $250 for a lost arm, then fire them a few seasons later. Laborers compete for table scraps in a mealtime rush, and shoot anything that has exceeded its usefulness. Women wander through the bunkhouses in search of human companionship, however lewd and hostile it may be. The good life for these migrant farmhands is any communal existence beyond subsistence.

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