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Picnic Operetta returns: Serving up Mozart with a side of ’80s hits

Clare Nieto

Clare Nieto

Live performance can be unpredictable...especially when your stage is a barnyard. Anna Hashizume vividly remembers a Picnic Operetta performance at a petting farm last year.

“There were a lot of farm animals that were roaming around, and it started raining 10 minutes into our performance. Everyone, audience included, picked up everything and moved into this barn and we finished out the performance there.”

Even Shakespeare in the park doesn’t entail quite so close an experience with the out-of-doors as Mixed Precipitation’s Picnic Operetta, staged in locations ranging from vineyards to community gardens across Minnesota. The 11th annual production, The Clemency of Tito’s Tennis Club, opens on Thursday at Dodge Nature Center in West St. Paul.

Like past productions, Clemency takes a classic opera and gives it an accessible, comedic twist. Producing artistic director Scotty Reynolds said the company has long had Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in their sights. “We like to start with a really big opera,” he says. “ La Clemenza has a really epic story involving an assassination plot and rivalries in the interior court of the Roman emperor. The stakes are really full of adrenaline.”

While Reynolds says that the Picnic Operetta is the first opera-going experience for a sizable portion of its audience, it also attracts seasoned opera lovers who enjoy the company’s fresh takes. “When we get the approval of the people who travel to Europe to see operas, that is a certain type of pat on the back,” he says.

This year Hashizume, an experienced opera singer, has the prominent role of Sesto. Though the character is male, the mezzo-soprano role is played by women today. “Back in the day,” she explains, “when castrati used to roam our world, it was played by a castrato male.”

Samples of fresh, locally grown snacks are part of the Picnic Operetta experience. To serve during a moment when Sesto is feeling torn, says Reynolds by way of example, chef “Tracy Yue and I brainstormed foods that might represent conflicting emotions. The metaphor will manifest in sweet-and-sour spiciness. The test kitchen is still evolving, but a melon ball with some hot pepper spice and cheese has been proposed.”

You can count on a few pop songs being thrown into the mix, often Reagan-era radio chestnuts. “We gotta get out of the ’80s,” Reynolds acknowledges, “but we keep having fun with it.” This year’s selections will lean New Wave. “We appreciated the challenge of taking something that would be heavy synthesizer and doing it precisely without one.”

Setting the story in a tennis club, says Reynolds, allows the company to address themes of “forgiveness and clemency and call-outs and calling in and community healing, reflecting on a culture where we’re looking to hold people accountable when they’ve done something really heinous.”

“I believe that opera is music for the people, but unfortunately it has become something that people think is only for rich people,” says Hashizume. “I feel like this is bringing opera back to its roots.”

The Clemency of Tito’s Tennis Club
Various locations
Through September 29; mixedprecipitation.org