Friday, August 26, 2022

"Pickup Truck Opera Volume 2: The Magic Flute" by Mixed Precipitation at Dodge Nature Center

Mixed Precipitation's "Picnic Operetta" has been a staple of summer outdoor #TCTheater since 2009, combining classic opera, pop music, and passed bites of delicious food. In 2020, rather than letting a global pandemic shut them down entirely, they transitioned to the "Pickup Truck Opera" format, a similar opera/pop music mash-up performed out of a 2011 Ford Pickup that they drove around to local parks. They expanded on this idea in 2021, and return with Volume 2 this year, performed at parks and gardens not just in the Twin Cities but around the state. This year's mash-up features Mozart's The Magic Flute and "groovy beats from the 90s discotheque." As expected from this troupe of traveling artists, this Pickup Truck Opera is a super fun, silly, sweet, and accessible experience of music, theater, and community. You can see it at various locations in the Twin Cities Metro Area, plus Hastings, through September 11 (click here for dates, locations, details, and free reservations).

One of Mozart's final operas, The Magic Flute tells the story of Prince Tamino: "Enlisted by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the high priest Sarastro, Tamino comes to admire the high ideals of the latter and he and Pamina both join Sarastro's community, while the Queen and her allies are vanquished." In this version, the creative team (music director/adaptor Gary Ruschman, playwright Francisco Benavides, and staging director Taous Khazem) has envisioned Tamino as a new teacher at a middle school whose teachers and students have been poached by a tech company that is developing a technology to directly implant knowledge into students' brains, eliminating the need for teachers and learning. This leads to conflict for our characters, and ruminations about what, and whom, we value. 

Rodolfo Nieto as tech guru Sarastro
(photo courtesy of Mixed Precipitation)
It's such a joy to listen to these incredibly talented vocalists sing out in the open air, no amplification needed. In addition to their incredible voices, everyone in the cast is so playful and present, and having such a great time it's impossible for the audience not to have a good time too. Roland Hawkins is an amiable hero in Tamino, with a powerful voice. He's well matched in the lovely-voiced Corissa Bussian as his eventual love interest Pamina. Rodolfo Nieto is funny and charming as Sarastro, the charismatic head of the tech company who wants his employees to have a good work-life balance (or "wife?") even though he works them too hard. Also great are Sif Oberon and Joni Griffith as a couple of janitors in love, Jäc Miller as an annoying employee, Lizz Windnagel as the stern principal performing some impressive Mozartian vocal gymnastics, and Artistic Director Scotty Reynolds popping up in multiple scenes. In fact it feels like the cast is larger than it is with the multiple roles nearly everyone is playing.

Even though I'm not one for pop music and am not really sure what "90s discotheque" is, I recognized a few of the pop songs (including They Might Be Giants' quirky and delightful love song "Birdhouse in Your Soul," which was just perfect for the quirky and delightful love story). The songs from The Magic Flute are sung in German (sometimes a German minor comes in handy when you're watching opera), with very rough and brief translations on charming scrolls and signs. You many not understand every word, but you get the gist of it through the translations, English dialogue, and expressive performances. The singing is accompanied by a small but mighty three-piece orchestra, with occasional support from cast members Rodolfo Nieto on guitar and Joni Griffith on violin. Somehow these disparate musical styles are woven seamlessly together and sound perfectly natural together.

Roland Hawkins as Tamino
(photo courtesy of Mixed Precipitation)
The show is performed on and around the aforementioned Pickup Truck, as performers climb into the bed, or in and out of the cab, and even open the hood for a pivotal plot point. The trailer behind the pickup has been transformed into a stage for the band, with a ladder to the top that performers occasionally scamper up. Sets and costumes are simple, rustic, thoughtful, and cute (costume design by Rhiannon Fiskradatz, puppet design by Lizz Windnagel). During one scene transition, from the middle school to the tech company, achieved by changing the signage on the truck and trailer, delicious cookies are passed out to kiddos and lucky adults. A sweet touch that continues the picnic operetta tradition (and you're free to bring your own food for a picnic as well).

Enjoy the last days of a Minnesota summer with some fun, playful, outdoor opera!