Skylark Opera Theatre has been around almost 40 years. But in 2016, the company canceled its season following financial trouble. It came back last year with a scaled-down model, producing two site-specific chamber operas with a small cast and just a few musicians.
The switch seems to be working.
Its 2017 shows had limited seating but full houses and great acclaim. One year into the new approach, Skylark continues to focus on staying small and mixing it up.
"I am so into reinvention right now, because that's what the world is around us," said artistic director Bob Neu, a longtime Sklyark show director who took up the post with the 2017 revamp. "Things are changing so fast that one has to keep up with it. The way it's done traditionally is perfectly great why should we compete with that?"
The company used to perform on a college campus every summer. The new Skylark seeks out a new space for each show. In 2017, this took it to an events center in a Midway strip mall, where it presented Peter Brook's La Tragedie de Carmen, a hybrid of Bizet's classic. Then Skylark turned the Women's Club of Minneapolis inside-out by leading audiences through different rooms, performing Mozart's Don Giovanni set during prohibition.
Skylark's 2018 season starts with its newest opera, and one that's leading a chamber opera movement beyond Minnesota. With music by Laura Kaminsky and a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, As One premiered in 2014 and has since been produced all over the United States and in Berlin. Skylark will be performing March 16-25 at St. Paul's North Garden Theater, an old movie house that has also recently been revitalized.
As One follows a single character, Hannah, on a physical, emotional and geographical journey as she goes through gender transition. A baritone and a mezzo-soprano share the role, playing "Hannah before" and "Hannah after," accompanied by an onstage string quartet. It's more than a coincidence that Kaminsky wrote this for a quartet, which blends individual talents into one voice.
"That's the story the two actors are telling: two sides of a person that are becoming, finally, their own person," Neu said.
Two weeks before opening, Neu stood by a music stand in a sunlit church room in the Lowry Hill area of Minneapolis. He was working with Bergen Baker ("Hannah after") and Luke Williams ("Hannah before") on a climactic moment when the two raised their arms energized, but not Broadway and then embraced. It wasn't romantic or familial, but captured the feeling of embracing yourself. "To feel aligned, at peace, as one," Baker sang, reaching a high G.
Kaminsky's score uses hemiola to build tension in Hannah's story: While the vocalists sing at two beats per measure, the music takes up three. Music director Jeffrey Stirling said this gives the effect of talking.
While breaking away from the proscenium has been freeing, it's challenging to find venues that are big enough for Skylark's needs, Neu said. Members have performed in spaces used more for weddings than theater, which carry a steep price.
"The challenge when you work on a small scale is having people understand that you still need to raise money," he said.
This fall, Skykark will stage its next opera, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte. Rather than framing the show as a light battle of the sexes, the production will look closer at how the women react to the tricks the men try to play on them. Continuing the second season under the new model, Skylark's focus is on creating interesting shows and growing an audience base of people who will come see its work no matter how different the approach. That's something Neu idolized about companies like Theatre de la Jeune Lune, whose artists rebanded as the nomadic Moving Company after the Tony-winning theater shut down: building a strong enough trust with audiences that they show up no matter what.
"If it's a title they haven't heard of, they try it," he said. "They might not love everything, but in art you can't guarantee that everyone loves everything."
At the very least, it will be interesting.
Skylark Opera Theatre's As One is performing March 16-25 at the North Garden Theater in St. Paul. Tickets and information are available at skylarkopera.org.