I Hear Mid-America Singing

The waiting is the hardest part: Soprano Martina Haakenstad backstage at the Metropolitan Opera auditions at the Ordway

The waiting is the hardest part: Soprano Martina Haakenstad backstage at the Metropolitan Opera auditions at the Ordway

The season's first snowfall means business. No matter if it's a measly little dusting that vanishes with the flick of a windshield wiper; once the first snowfall arrives, there's no turning back. One flake and tacky lights are flashing from every other bungalow on the block. Two flakes and anything cranberry-flavored becomes irresistible. Three and fast-food joints break out the gold-rimmed commemorative glasses. Our lazy, backyard-grilling, cutoffs-wearing selves vanish, mysteriously replaced by Currier and Ives clones. Suddenly we've got quiet, genteel culture to shake an electric window scraper at.

It comes as no surprise that a silent film might be a hot ticket on such a week. Snow falls gently on the Heights Theatre in Columbia Heights, making the ornately restored interior seem all the more cozy. Thursday evening's screening of Fritz Lang's silent classic, Metropolis, was organized by parishioners at St. Timothy's Lutheran Church, as a benefit for one of their own, Columbia Heights resident David Hams, who has been hospitalized since late September with a life-threatening illness. That explains the audience demographic--200 distinctly Lutheran-looking folks, many of whom are over 60. The pallid, trench-coated geeks who pack the Oak Street are a decided minority here; only three or four sit uncomfortably in aisle seats, stuffing their faces with popcorn.

A cheerful theater volunteer addresses those assembled. "Our society here in the United States is founded on education, church, and theater," he intones, launching into a rundown of upcoming films. News that the Heights is "an exclusive Disney-authorized theater" and as such will be featuring "an exclusive run of 102 Dalmatians" elicits an impressed murmur from the grandparents in the house. But Mr. Volunteer isn't done yet. "I have a surprise for you," he beams, hardly able to contain himself. "We've managed to get ahold of 'Bacon Grabbers,' a very rare Laurel and Hardy short that we'll be showing before the film." "Ooooh!" we all whisper politely.

Without further ado, the entertainment gets under way, as organist Daniel Lloyd takes to the pipes with Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," accompanied by ambient disco lights. Heavy velvet curtains part, revealing Laurel and Hardy. The audience screams with delight. "You idiot! " shouts a middle-aged woman behind me, berating Stan Laurel for climbing an unstable ladder.

The restless Lutherans manage to settle down as Lloyd moves to minor chords, signaling the beginning of the feature presentation. Aside from a few misplaced snickers, the theater falls silent, as the brilliant Lang masterwork engrosses concerned congregation and cinema aficionados alike.


WHAT COULD BETTER scream Minnesota winter and high culture than a snowy November morning at the opera? (Okay, maybe Nutcracker on Ice.) Upper Midwest regional auditions for New York's Metropolitan Opera commence Saturday morning at 10:00 a.m., and the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is a hotbed of tension. Though most of the singers auditioning today are sequestered in rehearsal rooms upstairs, the Ordway staff is pinballing nervously about the lobby. A simple inquiry directed at a lobby greeter finds me surrounded by five uniformed Ordwayers, including two with very official-looking walkie-talkies. Clearly this event--which, I might add, is open to the public--is a very big deal.

Having alienated myself from all things Ordway forever more, I wait outside the auditorium with a very well-dressed older couple (regular attendees of the annual event) and three fellows in cargo pants and Ragstock jackets who are there to support an auditioning friend. Inside, that small sampling holds for the entire audience, about 300 people in all. The stage is sparsely decorated, with only a single grand piano and a few pieces of the Turandot set to distract attention from the singers.

A tenor from Minneapolis takes the stage, introducing himself in a flat, quiet Midwestern accent before belting out Puccini as if he was born to it. Two balding, sweater-clad men, attending with their respective families, lean across several seats to snidely dissect each performance. When the three wizened judges ask mezzo soprano Shannon Unger to perform a third piece, her smile is confident, her voice flawless. The audience responds warmly, a suspiciously dad-like shout of "Bravo!" rising above the applause.

I return from intermission to find the vivacious hopeful sitting in my seat, and I take the opportunity to interrogate her about any behind-the-scenes opera dirt. Unfortunately for me, Unger utilizes a lone-wolf strategy involving "practicing in the bathroom until five minutes before my time, then rushing onstage." Still, she assures me, most of those auditioning have met or worked together before, and she knows of no shady backstage behavior.

A white-haired gentleman politely approaches. "You were magnificent," he says. "I hope we hear you at the Met."

"Thank you, sir. I just hope I can make my car payment," Unger quips, referring to the potential for cash awards, including, ultimately, a $15,000 grand prize.

Meanwhile, up on the stage, a scrawny young woman is demonstrating a crowd-pleasing ability to produce notes only dogs can hear. A trio of older men sitting stageside catches my eye, their heads moving in incongruous sync with the heaving bosom of a lovely soprano. Callbacks promise to run late into the afternoon, but many have settled comfortably in their seats, ready to take advantage of a day of free highbrow entertainment. Insulated from the weather and tacky holiday culture, we do our part to abet Minnesota's image as a pristine, snow-globe wonderland. If only Martha Stewart had a serving suggestions for Tater Tot hot dish.