When the curtain rises on Minnesota Opera's 2019-20 season, the sounds of snarling brass instruments and angry timpani will fill Ordway Music Theater for the company's first-ever staging of Richard Strauss' masterpiece "Elektra" (October 5-13). It's a startling way to launch a new season featuring five operas, including three not previously seen at Minnesota Opera.
With its high bodycount and chronic family dysfunction, "Elektra" is far from a frothy, light-hearted concession to opening night audiences. Featuring Strauss' most advanced and dissonant music, it brings director Brian Staufenbiel back to Minnesota Opera three years after his intriguing staging of Wagner's "Das Rheingold." Sopranos Melody Moore and Alexandra Loutsion share the taxing part of the vengeful Elektra in their company debuts, with the young German conductor Elias Grandy whipping up Strauss' incandescent orchestra.
"Elektra" was written more than a century ago, but still sounds shockingly new. Vengeance of a more reassuringly tuneful sort is served up via Mozart's perennially popular "Don Giovanni" (May 2-16, 2020).
Details of the new production are still being decided, so it's impossible to say how Minnesota Opera will situate Mozart's serial seducer for the #MeToo era. One positive sign is that "Don Giovanni" will be conducted by a woman, a welcome step in the right direction for an industry still wrestling with an acute gender imbalance in creative positions. American conductor Karen Kamensek has extensive experience working at opera houses in Europe; she will lead all but one of Minnesota Opera's seven "Don Giovanni" performances.
Women artists are even more prominently represented in "Edward Tulane," a Minnesota Opera commission led by the Russian conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya (March 21-28, 2020). Currently music director of Chicago Opera Theater, Yankovskaya is the only woman to hold the music director title at a major American opera company. What's more, the new family-friendly opera is based on "The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane," a children's book by Minneapolis author Kate DiCamillo. And the composer is New York-based Paola Prestini, widely praised for her innovative music and tireless interdisciplinary initiatives.
Rounding out the 2019-20 season are productions first seen at other companies. From the Glimmerglass Festival in New York state comes Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," a staging by Francesca Zambello (Nov. 9-17). The Glimmerglass director's colorful view of Rossini's romantic comedy has commedia dell'arte stylings. Argentine mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack stars as Rosina, the young woman yearning to escape the clutches of an older guardian. Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov is the busy barber Figaro who finally frees her.
Countertenor Cortez Mitchell, an alumnus of Minnesota Opera's Resident Artist training program, sings the part of the refugee in Jonathan Dove's 1998 opera "Flight" (Jan. 25-Feb. 2, 2020). Based on the true story of an Iranian immigrant forced to live for 18 years in Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, "Flight" has obvious contemporary resonance. But Dove's treatment of the tale is comedic, too, with a cast of transient characters engaged in a variety of trysts and confrontations. Sets and costume designs for "Flight" come via Opera Parallèle's recent staging in San Francisco. Directing the production will be David Radamés Toro, another alumnus of the company's Resident Artist program.
All told, the 2019-20 season features a canny mix of familiar favorites with fresh and enterprising choices. It's more balanced than the current season, which is heavy on novelty, while retaining the company's commitment to contemporary music. With two female conductors, one woman composer and one woman director, the season also takes an important step toward gender equity.
A few question marks remain. One concerns the venue for Minnesota Opera's 2019-20 performances, with all five operas set at the Orday. In 2018, the company staged a highly successful production of Gregory Spears' "Fellow Travelers" at The Cowles Center in Minneapolis. One hopes the company will continue experimenting with alternate venues, especially in light of its recent purchase of the Lab Theater in Minneapolis.
Another mystery is whether the company will hire a new music director following the nonrenewal of conductor Michael Christie's contract after the 2017-18 season. Six different conductors will be used over the course five operas in 2019-20. As the season progresses, hopefully Minnesota Opera president and general director Ryan Taylor will clarify his intentions for naming a replacement. Or maybe he will decide orchestral standards are adequately fostered by the current system of guest conductors.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Minnesota Opera 2019-20 season
“Elektra,” Oct. 5-13
“The Barber of Seville,” Nov. 9 -17
“Flight,” Jan. 25-Feb. 2, 2020
“Edward Tulane,” March 21-28, 2020
“Don Giovanni,” May 2-16, 2020
Ticket info: 612-333-6669 or mnopera.org.