MINNEAPOLIS — When you think of opera, certain music and imagery might come to mind, but this month the Minnesota Opera is making a big break from tradition. Beginning Friday, it is launching MNiatures: Tiny Operas, Big Ideas, a series of short, locally produced, operas that are all just ten minutes long... or less.
"It was a wild ride," said Oanh Vu, a puppeteer, who wrote and co-produced one of the MNiatures with composer Charlie McCarron.
The duo had no experience producing an opera, but they were excited to see the Minnesota Opera was looking for local artists and original stories that can help break new ground.
Kent Erdahl: "It seems like a pretty intimidating thing to ask, 'Hey, who wants to write an opera?'"
Oanh Vu: "Yeah, at least they were saying it was only ten minutes. They were wanting folks to be really creative, and so they gave us a lot of creative control. They only gave us two stipulations: It has to be primarily written for the voice and it has to be narrative."
Vu, a trained puppeteer, decided to take the theme a step further, using miniature shadow puppet techniques to help illustrate her miniature opera story, titled Chim Lạc (Lost Bird).
Throughout the performance, Vu mixes a variety of shadow puppeteering techniques, including cut-outs and human silhouettes, to bring the story to life. She also mixes both English and Vietnamese lyrics, to tell a personal story of cultural family dynamics in a new way.
"The show is about a grandchild and her grandmother who has passed away," Vu said. "She feels a loss at never fully knowing her grandmother, and she's given a second chance to really see who her grandmother was in her full life when a magical bird transports her back in time."
The music transports as well. McCarron mixes song, electronic and orchestra, despite having to rely on a pandemic production strategy.
"I ended up writing for 26 musicians in this project," he said. "The Minnesota Opera Orchestra was kind enough to record at their homes, because we didn't want to bring a whole orchestra together, but we got everyone recording in their homes and then mixed it all together for the final product."
The end result shows how new voices can spark life into old art forms, no matter how tiny the opera, or big the idea.
Chim Lac will be available to view on the MNOpera.org beginning on Tuesday. The first MNiatures performance Dear America, Beat Your Heart Defiantly, Naked and Open with Love, is available to view right now.