Pop music and classical opera meet picnic-on-a-farm with Picnic Operetta

The ensemble cast of "Escape from Alcina's Island" // Photo courtesy Picnic Operetta

The ensemble cast from the 2015 Picnic Operetta show, “Escape from Alcina’s Island” // Photo courtesy Picnic Operetta

Unlikely pairings can lead to uniquely satisfying outcomes: whiskey chased with pickle brine, Lady Gaga duetting with Tony Bennett, cronuts. This concept is familiar territory to Scotty Reynolds, who has not only embraced it but created an entirely new artistic enterprise from it in Picnic Operetta.

Juxtaposing classical music, pop music, a five-course picnic, and environmental activism is Picnic Operetta, helmed by Reynolds since its inception in 2009 and part of Mixed Precipitation. “It’s a classical/ pop-music jukebox agitation propaganda musical,” he says, describing the edible opera adventure that he’s carefully nurtured for the past decade.

Picnic Operetta’s annual outdoor opera is billed as a harvest celebration; every year they perform from August through October at 15-plus food-producing sites throughout Minnesota, using the farm setting to connect the music and story of the opera to the land where it’s being performed. “There is a bigger myth you can tell when performing outside, and I think the players absorb energy from each performance location,” Reynolds says.

Scotty Reynolds, left, offers audience members a tray of food // Photo by Marie Ketring

Scotty Reynolds, left, offers audience members virgin bloody mary shots to complement the evening’s performance of “Idomeneo” // Photo by Marie Ketring

The idea for Picnic Operetta came from Reynolds’ desire to create a site-specific, genre-busting, multimedia artistic experience. “I think we’ve stayed true to the original vision while playing with scale,” he explains, referencing how the size of the ensemble has grown and how the number of performance locations has increased over the years.

This year’s show, “Dr. Falstaff and the Working Wives of Lake County,” is a new adaptation of Otto Nicolai’s little-known German opera based on Shakespeare’s comedy, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which Reynolds adapted to incorporate the music of Bruce Springsteen. Food helps set the scene with each year’s performance. This season, Reynolds evokes the opera’s evening setting (despite the performance taking place during broad daylight) using a midnight-purple beet kvass jello shot. In the 2012 production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”—infused with ’50s doo-wop and ’60s girl-group tunes—audience members were invited to toast the show’s bloody Trojan War opening with a virgin bloody mary shooter.

“We’re serving food for a reason,” Reynolds says when asked if the extra component is a necessary element of Picnic Operetta or a side note. The five-course tasting menu is integrated into the plot in such a way that it feels like the food is a character, he explains. “The food draws the audience a little closer together in the experience of hunkering down for an outdoor opera production. It nourishes them in the journey that they are on.”

A "Roadside Slider" was offered at the performance of "Escape from Alcina's Island". It was an open-faced tomato-cheddar melt on focaccia bread, garnished with truffle salt and black pepper // Photo courtesy Picnic Operetta

“Roadside Sliders,” open-faced tomato-cheddar melts on focaccia bread garnished with truffle salt and black pepper, were offered at the performance of “Escape from Alcina’s Island” in 2015 // Photo courtesy Picnic Operetta

In addition to the food, the shows each year also unapologetically promote responsible environmental stewardship. “Our show this year places the silly characters of Shakespeare’s comedy alongside contemporary questions about industry, job creation, and the environmental impact of capitalism,” Reynolds says. The action is set in 1970s Northern Minnesota, a time when the Reserve Mining Company regularly dumped taconite tailings into Lake Superior. The Environmental Protection Agency successfully sued the mine in a landmark decision that set the precedent for the EPA to have more power over regulating corporate pollution.

Picnic Operetta manifests several of Reynolds’ seemingly disparate artistic experiences. He studied theater at the University of Minnesota, played the baritone horn in the pep band and marching band, and, after seeing one of their shows, was inspired by the traveling theatrical ensemble San Francisco Mime Troupe—which he ended up joining post-graduation.

“We were doing a show in the commedia dell’arte style about a biochemist in a dystopia, who travels back in time with his robot friend to rescue his wife who was speaking out against genetically modified food,” Reynolds says straight-faced. Years later, that show’s zany energy inspired Picnic Operetta’s cartoonish style and further encouraged Reynolds to find new ways to combine myriad elements into one novel whole.

Reynolds found Picnic Operetta’s chef, Nick Schneider, while both were living in the Omega House, which describes itself as an intentional community in Minneapolis’ Whittier neighborhood. In addition to providing a place of community, the Omega House also operates the Eat Street Community Garden and a 280-acre wilderness property in western Wisconsin. “We wanted to conceive an arts event that would potentially bring people to the community garden,” says Reynolds. “The calendar of my years was so informed by the farm and the community garden. I wanted to do theater that responded to that seasonality, and that was a harvest-themed show.”

The ensemble cast from the Picnic Operetta performance of "Idomenio" // Photo courtesy Picnic Operetta

The ensemble cast from Picnic Operetta’s 2012 performance of “Idomenio” // Photo courtesy Picnic Operetta

Mixing classical repertoire and more contemporary popular music (last season’s production mashed together music from Haydn’s “Creation” with tunes from Queen) makes for a Bohemian feast that is traditionally rooted yet freshly vital. Reynolds says he has always been inspired by the classical singers he’s worked with, but with Picnic Operetta he’s seeking to create an opportunity that more fully realizes their dramatic potential rather than focuses only on their refined vocalism, as is the case with most operas.

To reach a wider audience than opera’s typical clientele, Picnic Operetta is a suggested-donation event. Additionally, Reynolds makes concerted efforts to connect with local organizations to develop audiences in areas of the state that might not normally have access to this type of art. Audiences average around 150–200 people at shows in metro area venues, and around 100 in Greater Minnesota.

With such varied performance sites and a modest annual budget of $74,000, building those diverse audiences can be difficult. “I wish I could do audience development full-time,” says Reynolds, who works at Interact Center for the Visual and Performing Arts, a program for artists with disabilities, in addition to leading Picnic Operetta. “From my work at Interact I’ve developed a commitment to all forms of accessibility and inclusion in both my audience development and artistic practice for all of my endeavors, including Picnic Operetta.”

Even with these hurdles, Reynolds’ efforts have paid off: nearly 40 percent of attendees report their experience at Picnic Operetta as being their first time seeing opera. “There are still a lot of barriers around [paying] a dozen performers with funding from a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, showing up in a new community garden, and starting to do something,” Reynolds says. “Having that non-traditional audience—it’s great when that happens, but it’s almost never an accident. Reflecting on the world and on the project reminds me that there is still so much to do.”

“I’m proud of the repertoire that we’ve chosen and the cool manner that we choose to tell stories, but I wanted to keep digging deeper,” Reynolds muses, throwing out ideas about possibly doing something by Spanish composer Manuel De Falla in 2019, and perhaps tackling a Russian opera at some point. “I’ve thrived on the attitude of ‘too small to fail,’” he continues, adding that he takes pride in the nimbleness and flexibility of the operation he’s created. “However, moving forward, I’d like to reach more communities, travel farther afield, and address inequalities in our community through our art. We do a good job of being mindful, and I’d like to continually strive to be a bit closer to the cutting edge.”

Picnic Operetta 2018 takes place over multiple dates at multiple locations through October 7. Visit mixedprecipitation.org for more details.