Two years ago Jack Swanson was kicking his heels at home in his native Stillwater, having just completed his training as an operatic tenor.
He had precisely one professional booking in his diary, and was wondering whether he had made the right career decision.
“There were definitely a few moments where it was like, ‘Wow, is this really going to happen?’ ” he said.
This Saturday, Swanson is back in Stillwater again, and the transformation is astonishing.
At just 27, he has sung leading roles at major opera companies such as Glyndebourne and Los Angeles Opera, and is being feted as one of the most exciting young tenors on the international circuit.
Swanson himself can scarcely believe the speed with which his operatic career has rocketed, in an industry where singers often toil for years without a breakthrough moment.
“The opera business is not for the weak of heart,” he said. “But I got really lucky with some things, especially being cast as Bernstein’s Candide at Los Angeles Opera last year, with stars like Kelsey Grammer and Christine Ebersole.”
For his homecoming, Swanson is headlining Opera on the River, an outdoor concert of favorite songs and arias in downtown Stillwater’s Lowell Park, overlooking the St. Croix River.
“We’re doing this free concert because we really want people who have never seen this type of music before to not worry about having to buy a ticket,” he said. “We want them to experience some big-hitter opera arias by composers like Verdi and Puccini, plus music theater pieces by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim.”
Swanson was himself a relatively late convert to opera. He joined Erik “Doc” Christiansen’s choir at Stillwater High School and started vocal lessons in his junior year, singing “mainly Michael Bublé covers.”
But his voice teacher, Obed Floan, heard something special in Swanson’s tenor, and set him on a path that led to operatic studies at the University of Oklahoma and Rice University in Houston.
“Obed would send me home after lessons to listen to particular tenors that he thought I’d like and could learn something from,” Swanson said. “I listened to great tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti, Nicolai Gedda and Jussi Björling, and got totally hooked on it.”
Dreams of a new festival
An opera singer himself, Floan was instrumental in bringing Swanson for Saturday’s concert. With his wife and fellow singer Megan Wagner, Floan has founded Operatunity Theatre, a new company that aims to build an annual “nationally recognized music festival” in the Stillwater area.
“The idea came from friends of ours in Madison, Wisconsin, who’ve been running an Opera in the Park series for 20 years now,” Floan said. “Last year they had over 17,000 people attending this one concert.
“Can we get 17,000 people in Lowell Park, Stillwater? Probably not. But we’re sure going to try.”
Launched with a $13,333 grant from the state agency Explore Minnesota, building Opera on the River from scratch has been a big logistical challenge, but Floan and Wagner have been heartened by the positivity they’ve encountered in the Stillwater community.
“The support has been overwhelming,” Floan said. “In about two months we’ve been able to raise 90 percent of the funds needed. You can see that people are really hungry for this kind of thing to happen.”
Part of that hunger was created by the late, lamented Stillwater Music Festival. Established by the New York-based but Minnesota-rooted Brooklyn Rider string quartet, it ran for a decade before closing four years ago.
That festival undoubtedly paved the way for what Operatunity Theatre is doing now, Wagner said. “It primed the community for this type of sophistication in music and the performing arts. The community wants great music to return.”
One strong supporter of Opera on the River is Stillwater City Council Member Mike Polehna, who played a key part in securing approval for Saturday’s concert.
“It was the first time we’ve had somebody come to a City Council meeting and sing opera to us,” he said. “I think it’s awesome what they’re doing.
“It’s important that we bring the arts to Stillwater, not least because it gets people and families out to meet their neighbors, and makes for a better community.”
Starring in DiCamillo opera
The concert’s headliner will be back on home territory again next year for his debut at Minnesota Opera, where he’ll sing the title role in “Edward Tulane,” a new opera by Paola Prestini based on a novel by Minneapolis-based author Kate DiCamillo.
“I’ll be appearing as a rabbit,” he said, smiling. “But it’s more the soul of the rabbit I’m playing, so I don’t know if you’ll see me in bunny ears and a fluffy tail.”
For Swanson, Opera on the River is more than just another date in an increasingly hectic international diary.
“There are people in Stillwater who saw me when I was 15 singing a solo in choir, and I’ve had amazing support from this community in my career so far,” he says. “It’s all very exciting, but I may be a bit nervous.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.
Opera on the River
With: Jack Swanson (tenor), Katherine Henly (soprano), Caroline Hewitt (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Hewitt (baritone).
When: 7 p.m. Sat.
Where: Lowell Park, Stillwater.
Admission: Free. Picnic food and beverages, chairs and blankets are welcome.