As we wrap up our State Fair coverage here at SGT, as these once endless evenings get undeniably a little shorter and a little chillier, we Minnesotans must admit that our short-lived summer is on its way out. But, I propose that we buck our Minnesotans tendencies and rather than despair over our impending doom, let’s make the most of what’s left! We’ve still got a few good weeks of outdoor activities, and one thing you must do, if you haven’t already, is go see Mixed Precipitation’s Alcina’s Island: A Picnic Operetta. Part Twin Cities community garden tour, part love story, part culinary delight; combining classic Italian opera with old time Americana; blurring the boundaries of art, eating and growing - the show is a feast for all the senses.
I was lucky enough to catch up with the show’s artistic director Scotty Reynolds and chef Nick Schneider, as they prepared for their inaugural performance at Eat Street Community Garden, to get the scoop on this year’s show.
Let’s start at the beginning – tell me how the whole concept of the picnic operetta came to be.
Nick: The idea was born here at Omega House [a housing co-op in which Nick and Scotty once both lived.] Scotty came to me with an idea that I had no idea how to visualize but it sounded incredible…
Scotty: I wanted to do something theatrical using innovative space… but to do this I knew I needed community support. Originally the idea was to do an all-day Shakespeare performance out at a farm… Multiple acts throughout the day, complete with hanging out, having fun and eating in a beautiful space. But the garden here [Eat Street Community Garden] seemed easier – I could see it out my bedroom window! And I thought, “what can we use that’s already present to help tell the story?”
So that actually gets at my next question, Scotty – where do you guys see the connection between art, performance and food?
Nick: Once you introduce food, [the performance] becomes more intimate, people relax…
Scotty: …and notice where they are, and who they’re with. Food is an expressive form – bringing the drama into people’s hands in a tactile way.
Nick: You always eat first with your eyes. The garden is such a perfect setting for this kind of art, because you’re right in the midst of the origination of what you’re eating, which is in turn helping to tell the show’s story.
Scotty: And as we’ve gone along, the performers are discovering and embodying the confluence of all of these things.
Here’s a fun game! Summarize this year’s operetta, Alcina’s Island, in five words.
Nick and Scotty: …um…
Nick: Diner meets antipasti with fermented magic!
Well that was six words but we’ll count it. Now you can use more…
Scotty: Alcina is a magic sorceress who lures in men – knights, brave men - and turns them into plants, animals and trees on her island paradise. But we’ve combined the story with American mythology and turned her island paradise into a truck stop paradise, and mixed traditional early opera with classic country music. I want everyone to hear both something they love and something that surprises them, and I think they can with such different music styles in one show.
Italian opera music paired with country and truck stops – that must make for interesting food choices. What are you guys serving?
Nick: We’ll be mixing and matching - diner food made from what’s seasonal and available, that also references Italian themes. We’ll be serving a watermelon antipasti with feta, mint and basil. The watermelon could represent one of Alcina’s transformed lovers, put under a spell… Smoky sweet pepper “jerky” [of the vegetarian variety] is next, served before a battle to embolden a sorcerer-trucker. A tomato cheddar melt hails from traditional trucking roots, while a dramatic talking tree who cries sap tears is represented by a salted maple caramel apple involtini. We’ve also got a “pickled special.” We’ll be rotating the pickled item from week to week; this week, for example, we’ve got pickled ramps on fresh buttered focaccia bread.
Sounds delicious! Last question is a little more abstract - since the Operetta's birth, your reach has definitely expanded. You've gone from performing in just a few gardens in South Minneapolis, to visiting gardens all over Saint Paul and Minneapolis, as well as St. Louis Park, Burnsville and other cities. Plus, you’re offering these performances for free (donations appreciated, of course) in these public spaces, accessible to anyone who wants to be there. The local food movement and the arts - especially opera - are sometimes pegged as elitist, but it seems to me you're breaking down some of these perceived barriers. I’m curious about how the Operetta’s growth has happened, and how you think it fits into these broader social contexts.
Nick: A lot of gardens have been coming to us and asking us to bring the Operetta to them, so we’ve had so much more space to play in this year. Spaces have to support us, by helping out with signage, providing ushers, other small tasks, so they really have to want us to be there. This year we’re even expanding beyond traditional community gardens to churches, mini urban farms and parks. And to me, any way you can excite people about local food or an art form – or in this case both – is a positive contribution to the movement.
Scotty: We make all of these things fun – being exposed to new music, trying food that may be unfamiliar…
Nick: … For a few years we did kale and a lot of people had never tried it before. We also provide recipes, gardening tips.
Scotty: We’re inviting people to corners of the city that they maybe haven’t seen, we’re getting people curious about how there can be different forms of food production, about what can go on in community spaces. We hope that we’re building and connecting communities. Some of the places outside of the metro we’re going to for the first time this year – people are asking for us and it shows that people are really “hungry” for this kind of community building effort.
Those are good words, for sure!
You’ve still got a few more weeks to catch Alcina’s Island. Performances will be held every weekend through October 1 at various venues. Most shows begin at 4 pm and last a little over an hour, and reservations are encouraged. You can find a complete schedule and reserve your spot here.
Georgia Rubenstein works at an environmental non-profit in Minneapolis, and loves food in all of its forms -- growing it, cooking it, eating it, feeding it to her worms, and then starting the cycle all over. She can be found philosophizing about food, considering food policy issues, and working to harness the incredible power of food to save the world.
Photo credit: Cover photo credit, Brooks Peterson. Other three photos, Travis Chantar. Thanks!