Everyone can find something to like with a night at the opera, but be prepared: There’s plenty of silly dancing and pink flamingos to go along with the booming baritones and soaring sopranos in the lakes area this year.
The Lakes Area Music Festival will be featuring two performances of the famed comic opera “The Beautiful Helen of Troy,” from 7:30-10 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 17, and 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, in Tornstrom Auditorium at the Washington Educational Services Building at 804 Oak St. in south Brainerd.
Described as a “hysterical and absurd romp through ancient Greece,” attendees will be treated to world-class theater, vocal and orchestral performances by professional classical musicians and actors, all free of charge to area residents.
Jacques Offenbach’s “The Beautiful Helen of Troy” -- or, in its original French, “La belle Hélène” -- premiered in Paris in 1864 and represents one of the greatest pieces of Opera Bouffe, a particular style of 19th Century musical theater firmly in the comedy tradition and one that featured no shortage of parody, satire and slap-stick farce.
Watching an elaborate rehearsal Thursday, Aug. 15, of the three-act operetta reveals a wonky, sometimes ludicrous experience that may invoke some comparisons to Mel Brooks films like “The Producers” -- which is to say, goofy and light-hearted, with brilliant strokes of flamboyant and irreverent humor.
Area residents were invited to attend an interactive question and answer session Thursday afternoon with key opera performers to illustrate and educate viewers on the ins and outs of the centuries old masterpiece set during the Trojan War.
“It’s just amazing to meet these performers and tell us so much,” said festival volunteer Susan Brown, who has now been involved with the community event for three years. “Your knowledge builds year after year. I don’t know what to ask, but people come and ask very good questions, so I learn a lot from the performers.”
Brown noted opera has been a popular draw at the festival and “The Beautiful Helen of Troy” looks to be well received, as prior operas have been in the past.
Hosting the event were John Taylor Ward, a baritone opera singer and one of the founders and directors of the Lakes Area Music Festival. He’ll be playing the role of Calchas, high priest of Jupiter.
Joining Ward was Anna Dennis, a British soprano whose expert interpretations of Baroque and modern have found audiences across the globe. Dennis will be performing the traditionally mezzo-soprano role of Helen, queen of Sparta.
“Last year it was wonderful to discover the festival and to find what a unique festival it is,” Dennis said. “I don’t know if there’s another festival with such an open door, where it’s really an invitation to the community to just be a part of things. It’s about removing the barriers to experiencing the wonders of festival music. I find it quite touching, actually.”
Festival regulars may remember Dennis in the role of Pomina in the 2018 LAMF rendition of Mortzart’s “The Magic Flute,” which was the first time the Londoner had visited the Brainerd lakes area.
As such, her second turn represents another dip into comedic opera, unusual for Dennis, as the flamboyant humor of “The Beautiful Helen of Troy” differs greatly in style and tone to the more somber operas she usually tackles.
“It’s quite rare that I do comedy on stage. I do some operas with a lighter, more playful sort of tendency,” Dennis said. “I sometimes feel that the most common sensation after coming off stage is that it’s all about pain and suffering. I knew I’d enjoy comedy, but I didn’t think I’d get such pleasure out of it.”
Still, this night at the opera doesn’t only offer a kind of easy-going, popcorn entertainment, Ward noted, it also incorporates scathing cultural critiques and jabs at popular notions, skewering Paris in the 1860s, as well as central Minnesota in 2019 in its own way.
“The social commentary is still there, still relevant,” Ward said. “It really calls you out and it feels amazing.”
Gary Whiteman, a retired high school teacher with 31 years of experience in Brainerd, said he’s been a long-time fan of the opera and these music performers in particular, while the Lakes Area Music Festival presents a tantalizing opportunity for Minnesotans to experience great music in a face-to-face, accessible manner.
“I’ve attended them before and I’ve always enjoyed them. I love the performances, love the singers,” Whiteman said. “I like listening to it on the radio, in fact it's opera I most often listen to. It’s just so relaxing.”