'Return of King Idomeneo' mixes music and food in latest Picnic Operetta

The tomato shooters greeted patrons at the Picnic Operetta as a toast to the blood spilled during the Trojan War.
The tomato shooters greeted patrons at the Picnic Operetta as a toast to the blood spilled during the Trojan War.
Photos by Ty Sassaman
In just a few short years, Mixed Precipitation's annual Picnic Operettas" have become must-see productions for theater fans and foodies alike, providing an infectious mix of music, comedy, and freshly prepared harvest-based foods. I traveled to the California Street Farm in northeast Minneapolis over the weekend to check out the 2012 edition. (A trip, I might add, that would have been a lot easier if the damn Lowry Street Bridge would be finished.)

The latest production, The Return of King Idomeneo, takes a Mozart opera about a returning Greek general and the horrible choice he faces at home and mixes in a 1950s setting and vibe, complete with a B-movie monster from the sewers, a brilliant scientist ready to save the day, and some 1950s pop and rock to merge in with the opera.

Beyond that is the food. Chef Nick Schneider and a team of volunteers craft five courses for each operetta, starting with a tomato shooter and running through several garden-based delights, such as a stuffed cucumber slice and salted and sautéd kale, meant to represent the seaweed ravaging the community.

The light tone of the production belies the heavy material beneath. After fighting in the Trojan War, Idomeneo returns home to Crete. Along the way, a gale threatens his ship and he begs a favor from Neptune. The deal is struck. Neptune saves the ship and the crew, but Idomeneo must sacrifice the first person he sees on land.

As it happens, the first person he sees is his lovesick son, Idamante, who has the hots for Ilia, a Trojan refugee. Idomeneo, not surprisingly, drags his heels, and Neptune sends in his revenge, a rampaging seaweed-based monster that threatens to destroy the city. Thankfully, Ilia is also a brilliant scientist, but will all of their work be in vain? Will Idomeneo be forced to kill his son?

That this is being presented as a light afternoon of entertainment probably answers that question, but the drama is high for much of the show, bringing out all the passion Mozart created with his music. The company, led by Jim Ahrens as Idomeneo, sings magnificently throughout, whether it is a song from the opera or a tune made famous by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

The performances from top to bottom are a lot of fun, as they work between the serious undercurrents of the original opera and the lighter overlay of the setting and staging. Performing amidst vegetables and herbs can't be the easiest thing in the world, but no one got upstaged by the garden's truly impressive onions or peppers.


The Return of King Idomeneo: A Picnic Operetta
Through September 23
Various locations, rain sites are secured in the neighborhood of each site.
Suggested donations $10-$20
For information and reservations, call 612.619.2112 or visit online.

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