Paul Bunyan opera
BEMIDJI - The Lake Bemidji Summer Opera Festival inaugurated this year will round out the season with two performances of "Paul Bunyan." Performances will be at 7:29 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday in the Main Theater of the Bemidji State Univers...
BEMIDJI - The Lake Bemidji Summer Opera Festival inaugurated this year will round out the season with two performances of "Paul Bunyan."
Performances will be at 7:29 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Saturday in the Main Theater of the Bemidji State University Bangsberg Fine Arts Complex. "Paul Bunyan" is appropriate for children of all ages.
The cast features guest actors and local talent. The music is by Benjamin Britten with text by W.H. Auden.
The opera focuses on a group of lumberjacks living near Bemidji about 100 years ago. The men, brought in from Sweden because they were tough, must work together to find a foreman and deal with the many difficulties of life when Paul leaves camp to start farming. Lumberjacks, disgruntled that their boss might make them farmers, choose Hel Helson, played by Caleb Fricke, as their foreman. The giant Paul Bunyan, meanwhile, struggles to find a wife his size. Eventually, he does find her and the couple have a daughter, Tiny.
"Mom died and that's when Tiny enters," said Elizabeth Comeaux, who plays the part.
"Paul isn't the best father," said Dan Dressen, who plays Johnny Inkslinger, Paul's bookkeeper. "He's kind of a distant father."
Tiny and the cook, Hot Biscuit Slim, played by Cory Froelich, fall in love. In the end, the loggers and all the workers are thriving.
"This is a real opera-as-myth," said Dressen. "It's also the ancient world meeting the technical world. Primeval to the 20th century. The Northwoods is a symbol of nature."
Tiny and Slim end up in Manhattan running a restaurant which is definitely upscale as compared to a logging camp. And Inkslingers is a newspaper reporter.
Special effects include Paul as an unseen voice, played by Mark Christensen. The chorus of lumberjacks, frontier women, old trees, young trees and wild geese start the opening chorus below stage in the pit and gradually rise into the audience's view. Two cats, Moppet and Poppet, and a dog, Fide, sing. The animals are played by Ashley Bramseth, Jessie Fisher and Katherine Tieben respectively. The stage will be mostly bare, but lighting effects will set the various scenes. For example, every time Paul speaks, the Northern Lights color the back scrim.
There is also choreography in a fight scene and a lumberjack high-kick dance.
"This is not a realistic story like 'Carmen' where you have real characters who fall in love and hate with each other," said Dressen.
"Carmen" was the premier performance for the Lake Bemidji Summer Opera Festival last month.
Dressen and Comeaux played Inkslinger and Tiny in the 1988 VocalEssence performance and recording of "Paul Bunyan" in Britten's hometown of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England.
"It's like starting over again," Dressen said.
The opera's stage direction is by Fulton Gallagher with music direction by Beverly Everett.
Gallagher and Everett said they knew the opera existed, but weren't familiar with it. Britten wrote it during his stay as a World War II conscientious objector.
"It was to be his version of an American operetta influenced by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, that whole middle 20th century musical theater group," Gallagher said.
However, he said, Britten didn't like the outcome and reworked it in the 1970s. It was produce shortly before he died in 1976.
Gallagher said the current production has also been revised somewhat to place the opera in northern Minnesota. For example, the logging camp is at Buena Vista and the performers wear red-and-black plaid from the Bemidji Woolen Mills.