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Bemidji Theater, local opera lovers team up for ‘Tosca’

Judy Roy, former tribal secretary for Red Lake, and her granddaughter Victoria sitting in the front row enjoying popcorn and the opera. “I love the arts,” said Roy, “and I want to give my granddaughter the experience at a young age. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI—A July 2011 performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” from the Royal Opera House in London was shown using the enhanced digital screens at the Bemidji Amigo Theater Saturday to an appreciative audience. The event is the culmination of a year’s worth of work by dedicated opera lovers here in Bemidji and the help of theater manager Duane Black. It was Black who put the committee in touch with Dwight Gunderson, the Director of Film Buying for Cinema Entertainment Corp (CEC), the parent company of the Amigo.

Gunderson was on hand to see the results of their hard work.

“The first person to contact me was Pam Olson and I have to thank her for putting me in touch with people like the Gallaghers,” said Gunderson. “We are running four operas, one every three to four weeks, and we are hoping to get enough of an audience to justify putting together an entire season this fall. I am very encouraged by the turn-out today.”

Opera as we know it began in Florence, Italy in the 17th century with words set to musical scores sung by celebrated singers and orchestras conducted by noted composers of the day. Although not for the general masses at that time, opera is now enjoyed by people in all economic and social levels due, in no small part, by the addition of English sub-titles.

Season tickets to the Met or the Minnesota Opera remains a source of pride for those lucky enough to afford them, but not many people can afford the time or expense to travel to see the productions. And to that end, Bemidji is fortunate to have a small group of people who were willing to take the time and effort to bring these extravagant productions to us in a larger than life, full-screen with surround sound presence.

Nancy Gallagher, who with her husband Fulton, was one of those who would not give up the hope of bringing great opera performances to Bemidji. 

Nancy was seen at other musical events soliciting people who would be willing to voice their support for this venture. In the end, the committee found out that Met HD was not available but Gunderson was able to procure two other companies that would provide films of live performances of operas from the great houses in Europe.

When the lights dimmed at theater 4, the picture was an overview of the city of Rome, much the same today as it was in 1800 when the story took place. Maestro Antonio Pappano introduced the story, the characters, explained the set and told of how the composer, Puccini, was known for a “strong sense of place.”

“Tosca,” a story that takes only a day to the following sunrise is a melodrama in three acts in which nothing ends well. But it is in the drama of fine performances that the emotional impact overwhelms the viewer.

“I’ve had tears in my eyes,” said Fulton Gallagher, “and the audience seems to be enthralled: the large, screen, the power of the voices and the sound system is extraordinary.”

Another Bemidjian Vickie Brown seconded that opinion with her own: “Opera is the ultimate art form. It is wonderful to see the performers so close and not from far away in the seats.”

Because of the large screen, all of the facial gestures that one would normally see in a movie but not in a live performance unless seated in the first few rows, were there to enjoy. The self-absorbed beauty Floria who uses her feminine wiles to woo her lover, the handsome young artist Mario Cavaradossi; the Baron Scarpia whose lust for Floria is accented by his repulsive physicality captured the viewers so that the thrust of the knife, the shots and the leap from the parapet drew gasps. The audience sat rapt throughout with no restlessness, or as one would say, “You could have heard a pin drop.”

Pennington resident Larry Zee was there with his wife Pat. They used to have season tickets to the Minnesota Opera but feel that it’s too far to travel now. Zee was enthusiastic even before the start of the opera, cheerfully handing out a synopsis of the opera with the names of the cast and creative team.

The committee and the theater crew had no idea how many people would actually come to this first in a series of four performances from famed European opera houses. Of course, Bemidji, true to form, came out to support the arts from youngsters to seniors and in-between. Intermission was graced with a chocolates and punch reception in the adjoining room to add a bit of conviviality and “class” to the day. But it was patrons carrying in bags of popcorn that brought familiarity to the event. Or as they said, “doesn’t everyone want popcorn during a movie?”

At the end of this month, March 30, we will again visit the Royal Opera House in London for another melodrama, Puccini’s “LaBoheme.” The show will begin at 2 p.m. and tickets are already on sale at the Amigo box office; $20 for adults and $10 for children.