Already a heralded success as both a play and a movie, Doubt now takes its bows on the opera stage
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Dale Johnson looks exactly how one would picture Minnesota Opera’s artistic director. Well-dressed, silver-haired, and exceedingly polite, he ushers me into his third-floor corner office, clearing programs and notebooks off a chair so I can sit. Scripts, posters, and books cover the place, adding an artsy touch to the already aesthetically pleasing space. Once an old warehouse, the structure suits its tenant: exposed-brick walls and wooden beams accent the building’s history and durability, while its contents—colorfully decorated cubicles, glossy promotional posters, fashion-forward employees—suggest that it remains relevant even now, decades after it was established. Such can also be said of the Minnesota Opera. The company, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, balances its rich history with modernity, coupling the classics—Madame Butterfly, La Bohème—with boundary-pushing world premieres—Grapes of Wrath in 2007, Silent Night in 2011, and, this month, Doubt.
Johnson says the idea to transform John Patrick Shanley’s play-turned-movie into an opera was hatched a few years ago. He was chatting with composer Doug Cuomo when Cuomo mentioned he had approached Shanley about making his then recently released film into an opera. Johnson was shocked. “Strangely, we’d also been looking at Doubt as potential material for our New Works Initiative,” he says. “It seemed to be tailor-made for opera—that Doug also saw it just affirmed what we’d already been thinking.”
In August 2011, Johnson called Cuomo to talk again about the idea. But this time, he was ready to do more than brainstorm. “I told Doug we needed something quick, and asked if he could turn it around for January 2013,” Johnson tells me, his eyes lighting up as he recalls the conversation. “He said he could, and that was that.”
It is unusual for the Minnesota Opera to crank out brand-new productions in such a short time frame (Johnson says composers and lyricists are usually given at least two years to put together new shows, not the year-and-a-half he gave Cuomo and Shanley). But it is not unusual for the company to stage world premieres. Conceived by the Walker Art Center in 1963 as Center Opera, the company’s main task was “to compose and perform new works by American composers.” This unique focus on contemporary pieces distinguished Center Opera from more traditional troupes. Nationally, it was an anomaly, regarded by many as progressive and often dubbed “alternative.” Locally, too, it stood out: where the St. Paul Opera stacked its seasons with Mozart and Vivaldi, Center Opera performed works from Dominick Argento and Benjamin Britten.
In 1969, Center Opera split from the Walker, changing its name to the Minnesota Opera in 1971 and, in 1975, merging with the St. Paul Opera. Along with the merger came the compromise of adding traditional repertoire to its billings. But even then, the company never abandoned its original commission: to give new works the opportunity to someday become classics.
That mission came into jeopardy in the early 2000s, however. As Johnson faced budget cuts and the challenge of trimming the opera’s season from five shows to four, he wrestled with his choices: should he do as the majority of opera companies do and concentrate on staging only time-tested, audience-approved classics? Or should he keep with his company’s history of pursuing new pieces and setting the pace nationally for progressive, thought-provoking opera? After discussing it with the opera’s board members, Johnson says the answer quickly became clear: keep the contemporary work. “Our audience was tired of seeing the same thing year after year,” he says. “We were producing the ‘top 10’ operas every five to six seasons, but our audience was responding most to the new works. So we decided to be bold and give them what they wanted.”