‘Swede Hollow’ is the subject of a new opera and the site of its premiere

For theater in the park, you just couldn’t have found a more conducive setting than Saturday’s postcard-perfect late spring afternoon in St. Paul’s idyllic Swede Hollow Park — and this wasn’t just any performance either. An enthusiastic crowd gathered to hear award-winning composer Ann Millikan’s new one-act chamber opera, named for this very spot.

The world premiere of “Swede Hollow” served as the capstone in a day-long line-up of multicultural performances presented for this year’s Art in the Hollow festival. Courtesy of an Artist Initiative Grant funded by the taxpayers of the great state of Minnesota, Millikan created her first-ever operatic composition in homage to the people and history of the site, the generations of families who’ve called the little valley home.

Unlikely though it seems at first, this verdant ravine, hidden from day-to-day view 120 feet below street level, offers an abundance of dramatic fodder for opera.  Beginning in the 1850s, the valley drew immigrants looking for work in the burgeoning lumber industry or building the new railroad. The vale was home to a century’s worth of hardscrabble newcomers to the country — from Sweden, Italy, Poland, Mexico — until 1956, when city officials expelled Swede Hollow’s residents. Citing the fact that the valley had no water or sewer service, the city declared the hollow a health hazard. When the last of the families were gone, the settlement’s buildings and homes weren’t merely razed, they were burned to the ground.

Millikan based the intersecting stories of “Swede Hollow” on archival evidence and interviews with former residents, creating fictional composites of the Swedes, Italians and Mexicans whose stories she encountered. Her deep research lends the libretto evocative and specific historical details, and bestows on her tales the warmth of genuine feeling and lived experience.

“Swede Hollow” is an opera for four voices – two men, two women – and a small chamber orchestra (at the debut performance on Saturday, 11 members of Mankato Symphony Orchestra, led by associate conductor Joseph Rodgers). This weekend’s world premiere was directed by Scotty Reynolds, known for his work on similar music and theater-in-the-park productions for Mixed Precipitation. The sets are effective but minimal, little more than a few props, a chair and small table, and cleverly layered (therefore quickly switched-out) period costumes.

The score is atmospheric and unobtrusive, shifting pace and affect gracefully in accord with the narrative pivots of the accompanying text. The vocalists – soprano Rachel Wandrei and mezzo Meredith Cain-Nielsen, baritone Stephen Mumbert and tenor Brad Bradshaw – merit particular mention for ably overcoming the challenges of such an al fresco acoustic performance, each of them performing a variety of nuanced roles with aplomb.

“Swede Hollow,” an opera by Ann Millikan, made its world premiere at the Art in the Hollow festival Saturday, June 2 in Swede Hollow Park in St. Paul. If you’d like to see similar “opera in the urban ecosystem,” check out the upcoming “picnic operetta” play on Mozart, “The Return of King Idomeneo,” a dining-and-performance production that will be presented by Mixed Precipitation in community gardens in and around the Twin Cities beginning this August.