The Ladysmith Story: Backstage at the Making of a Midwestern Opera
The Ladysmith Story: Backstage at the Making of a Midwestern Opera
Have you ever seen an American opera?
If so, was it an original opera?
If so, was it produced in Minnesota?
Unless you caught “The Grapes of Wrath” three years ago, here’s your chance to answer yes to all three.
On July 23, “The Ladysmith Story” will debut at the Red Eye Theatre in Minneapolis. That follows its world premiere in the town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, the source of its historical inspiration. The opera took four years and 85 thousand dollars to produce, raised mostly from individual contributors in the Twin Cities and Ladysmith.
Reporter Diane Richard takes us backstage.
SONG “We’re Ladysmith Now”
KRISTIN KENNING This is an opera about a town. A town that changes its name.
BRAD BRADSHAW This is kind of my baby. This was basically my idea. I was born and raised in Ladysmith. So I was the genesis of the project from the beginning.
SFX Hey Brad! Look at all of you…
BRAD My name is Brad Bradshaw and I’m the executive director.
SFX BRAD Oh, legally, I’m supposed to go over the main points of your contract, but you guys can read, so you’d know. I feel like—what was her name?—Ursula in “The Little Mermaid.” Ah, ha, ha, now I have your voice, as an opera singer.
BRAD Well, if you go about 100 years back, Ladysmith went through a name change. It was first Flambeau Falls, then it was Corbett for a while, then Warner. Right around the turn of the century, the town, in order in ingratiate itself with Charles Smith, who was building lumber plants in Wisconsin, they decided to name it in honor of his new bride, Isabel Smith.
BRAD So fast forward about 100 years, in 1985, when I was just a wee little lad, I was in junior high school and Ladysmith was celebrating its hundredth centennial. And my dad brought home, I remember it very specifically, it was a blue book with gold gilding, and it was “Ladysmith Lore.” And I started thumbing through the pages and discovered this story.
BRAD So the project started out with me, composing, and I thought, this idea is too big for just me, as an amateur composer. So we brought on Christopher Gable. I knew he had a great sense of humor and was a wonderful colleague. Not just a wonderful musician and composer, that’s granted, that’s priority No. 1. When I approached Chris, he said, ‘Well, my wife, Merie, has written a few librettos.’ And I’m like, ‘Good, two for one special’!
BRAD Actually, 99.9 percent of people involved in this project is a product of the University of Minnesota.
MERIE I’m Merie Kerby and I’m the librettist for “The Ladysmith Story.”
MERIE The libretto came together towards the end of 2008, early 2009, then I handed the words on to Chris to start the music. It’s sort of a strange hybrid between poetry and dramatic writing. A lot of times in poetry you can get by with beautiful words and image and conveying emotions. But for an opera you really also have to have a story that people want to hear.
MERIE The thinking of the characters, that’s definitely a space where you also want to leave room for music, because the composer will then come along and think of motifs to go with each character or a quality of melody or instrument. So I see my job as providing the building blocks for that. We did use some historical people in here and then some invented historical people. The main characters are really the invented ones—Will, Lucy and Tom—who to me sort of symbolize or encapsulate different currents in that time in America.
MERIE I hope this opera has good legs, and I wanted to give it a story that would give it those legs too. Because I think if more people know there was new American operas, that they’re a vital part of the artistic fabric of our country, that they would want to see them.
CHRIS GABLE I’m Chris Gable and I’m the composer of “The Ladysmith Story.” It usually starts with the words. I kind of run them through my head and say them over and over, and eventually a tune will come out of that. Often at the piano, I’ll just play around and improvise. Also I can also kind of start to hear music coming out of the page.
DIANE What’s the song and the melody that’s going to stick in people’s head as they leave the performance?
CHRIS Probably the “We’re Ladysmith Now” song. And it goes…[sings]
MERIE Once you hear it, it’s hard to forget. I sometimes find it, it’ll pop up in my head when I’m doing something else. I don’t usually think about venison roasts that much, but now I do quite often.
CHRIS Well, you wrote the words, honey.
SONG “We’re Ladysmith Now”
KRISANNE WEISS My name is KrisAnne Weiss, and I’m playing the role of Lucy Peters, who is the lead role in this opera. This is all set against the backdrop of Lucy having to decide whether she’s going to leave the town with her boyfriend, who is anxious about what the boom in industry will mean for the town, and whether she’s going to stay and see what will happen to her own life. So that’s sort of the central struggle for her. Then there’s this other interloper guy comes in, big city guy, with lots of fancy talk. She likes him, too.
SFX Composer [Stanley H. Rothrock, II]
STAN You’re coming in a beat late on “it can be.” Which fits, but it’s wrong. There’s one less quarter in there. I mean, it fits, so if you screw it up it’s not a huge deal but…
ROB ASKLOF [off mike] That’s not what the composer intended.
STAN That is true. And the composer is living, and he can come after you.
DIANE What’s your name?
BILL MURRAY Bill Murray, like the comedian.
STAN [off mike] Bill? If you can…
BILL I work for Minnesota Opera. I gave up singing a while a go, but because Brad Bradshaw asked me to be in the production, and he’s a good friend, I said yes.
BILL I’m Will, the guy who gets dumped. Who can’t change, who refuses to change. I go Out West. That’s what I sing a lot. Let’s go west.
BRAD So the tenor role is played by Rob Asklof, a wonderful singer we brought on. He plays the role of Tom Maxwell, who’s kind of Lucy Peters’s—the lead mezzo played by KrisAnne Weiss—her love interest in the story. I don’t want to give it away, cause I want people to see it. He’s kind of a flirty, debonair kind of guy who sweeps Lucy off her feet and wins her over.
SONG Tom and Lucy duet
MERIE Will is a young man who has grown up on a farm in Ladysmith, formerly Warner, formerly Corbett, formerly Flambeau Falls. To me he is the person who wants to build his own place and have his own place and space, and he wants to have ownership over it and not have people coming in from outside, as he would see it, saying they built it. He also has that very individualistic explorer streak, where he would love to strike out on his own west and see what he can do. Then there’s Lucy. She and Will are not necessarily officially engaged, but everybody in the town would assume that they would be soon.
KRISTIN KENNING Many people are in the position of deciding if the person they’re with is the person they need to be with for the rest of their life.
KRISTIN You know I feel like those are some of the strongest moments in the show. Because we see this relationship she has that is healthy and strong. It’s just not the right relationship for her. So she has to make an excruciating decision. And she chooses this new man that she doesn’t know very well. We don’t know if it’s going to work out in the end, but she does decide to make a choice that’s a little scary. She’s taking a risk, and I can identify with the feeling of ‘should I take a risk, should I not?’
KRISTIN I am Kristin Kenning and I’m the director of “The Ladysmith Story.”
KRISTIN Most of my theatrical musical experience is as a performer. It was just four or five years ago started thinking, I’d really like to direct, I’d really like to shape a whole show. Well, the opportunity to direct any opera, I’m really up for. But this is especially interesting because it’s new. Chris wrote it for this community. I get to stage a new piece of work AND it’s opera, I’m very lucky. Yeah. The one that probably I find myself singing the most is probably not one of the ones the audience will sing. It’s a duet in 7:8 time signature that took a lot of work for the actors to get on their voices and on their bodies and get on stage. So we rehearsed it so often and I know their parts so well, that I’ll be chewing my cereal in the morning, chewing it in 7:8 pattern, and I’ll be like, Oh my goodness, gotta turn on the radio and get something else in my head for a while.
KRISTIN [sings and claps] Lucy, I’m leaving this town… Oh, I can do it and sing at the same time. This is their problem, too, because they’re trying to count, come in on time, sing and act. Honestly, for the difficulty of that scene, they’ve got it now. They’ve put in the work, and it looks great.
SONG “I’m Leaving This Town”
KELSEY GLASENER I’m Kelsey Glasener, costume designer.
SFX Kelsey interacting with performer: What size shirt to do you wear off the rack at the store? 16 1/2, 36/37, or large/tall. Pant size? 36/34. Shoe size: 11 1/2 medium. Any allergies to metals, fabrics, wool, detergents, Febrese? None. Only thing I’m allergic to is cashews, so if you keep those out of my pockets I’ll be all right. O.K. excellent. That’s all I needed. Good to meet you and there’ll be fittings in a week. Quick turnaround.
KELSEY Oh my gosh, right now I’m just trying to make sure we don’t have naked people on stage. But sure, there’ll many opportunities to accessorize down the line. Yes, there should be hats. About the nudist colony of Ladysmith? No, I don’t think they want to tell that story. Opera worthy, hmm, maybe. Only if the soprano dies.
BRAD There’s this great interchange between Minneapolis and Ladysmith as we start going over there and some people are coming over here. Then we’ll pack up the show, chorus and all, and we all move like a bad Muppet movie: We’re doing a show, going on the road! Going to Minneapolis. I tell people in Minneapolis who are part of very prestigious arts organizations here, and they just look at me like, ‘What in the world are you doing, Brad Bradshaw?’ And I’m like, ‘We’re doing art, and it’s connected to the community, and people love it, and it’s really happening.’ This isn’t just fundraising spiel, this is actually happening. And there’s been a few people who’ve been like, Hmm, opera, big ladies singing high notes in metal brassieres with horns on their head. So we’re hoping that the reaction will be like, ‘Wow, opera is about me and you, it’s about us.’ That’s part of the reason we’re doing this, too, is that American opera, for it to be truly successful, has to be relevant and tell the stories that resonate inside of us.
KRISTIN I think it’s going to be extremely well received. Always, when you put opera on the title of anything, it causes probably some members of the community to say, ‘I don’t know if I want to see an opera.’ We considered calling it a musical project, using words that seem more comforting or familiar. But honestly, we’re going to sell out all of our houses, I’m sure of it.
SFX KRISTIN directs lumberjacks [played by Sandy Schoenecker, Gary Hecimovich, Zachary Spooner, plus one more]
KRISTIN [off mike] It’ll be in G. I’m in the wrong key. Let’s just sing it once, then we’re going to dance, then we’re going to do the whole thing.
GARY My name is Gary Hecimovich. I’m Lumberjack 3 in The Ladysmith Story. I originally come from Weyerhauser, Wisconsin. Weyerhauser is approximately 16 miles from Ladysmith. Ah, they had auditions. They were looking for people who had some musical talent.
SONG GARY sings Lumberjack song
GARY Oh, we’ve been working on the music now for the past six weeks, and we have another month to go to put the choreography together, so there’s a lot of time and dedication by everyone involved.
SONG Lumberjack song
KRISTIN [off mike] You are in so much trouble, I can’t even express.
SFX plays tape back
SFX Dance rehearsal [Matt Jenson, choreographer]
JULIAN WARD My name is Julian Ward. I guess if I had to describe my role, it would be rehearsal accompanist. And I guess I will also be playing in the orchestra as well, when we get to that point.
CHRIS It’s a chamber opera, which means it’s not a grand opera, it doesn’t have a full orchestra backing the singers. It’s just a very small ensemble of six musicians. It’ll be flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion, and a conductor, of course. Because you can get a lot of different colors with it. It’s very flexible, and it’s a nice mix of winds and strings and percussive sounds too.
MERIE All the rehearsal stuff is from the piano vocal score, which is what the singers want to practice with. The piano vocal score is sort of like a pen and ink sketch. Then when you hear it with the orchestra, it’s like you can see what the real painting looks like.
CHRIS They have this concept called ‘filling the hall.’ And it really is kind of a physical phenomenon where you sing loud enough that it really does start to resonate back at you. With a good singer, it can sound really fabulous.
BRAD You know, I hear my colleagues, who some are very close, personal friends, I hear them get up and sing this beautiful music. And I am so grateful that I have been able to provide an opportunity for artists to make art. And that I think is one of the most profound things anyone can do in life, is it provide that opportunity, because it changes the world. Don’t let any critic, any cynic, tell you differently: Art matters.
To find out more about “The Ladysmith Story,” visit www dot Ladysmith Story dot o.r.g. Performances take place July 23, 24 and 25 at the Red Eye Theatre in Minneapolis.
New American operas are rare, and new Midwestern operas more so. Produced in the Twin Cities, “The Ladysmith Story” opera celebrates a turn-of-the-20th-century Wisconsin town poised for change as well as the lives and ambitions of its people.