Out of the Box Opera company is known for being avant-garde.
So, as opera-lovers filled one of the Weisman Art Museum's main galleries for a sold-out opera/gospel fusion event on Saturday night, many didn’t wholly know what to expect.
“Traditionally, opera happens in an opera house and you have a proscenium stage and an orchestra, and that’s been our only definition of opera up until this point,” said founding artistic director David Lefkowich. “Out of the Box takes the idea of opera and turns it on its head.”
By creating a set list that included gospel classics like “Glory” and “Oh Happy Day” alongside opera arias like “Addio del Passato” and “Nessun Dorma,” Out of the Box Opera challenged preconceptions about traditional music genres while spotlighting the fluidity of music as a medium.
With the Mill City Singers and the MacPhail Community Youth Choir as vocal backup, the robust and energetic performance had people tapping their feet, clapping their hands and joining in with the chorus.
“Gospel and opera share more similarities than you’d think,” said Jim Berman, one of the founding producers of Out of the Box. “They have the same emotional vocabulary. They all sing about hope, despair and love. The voices in opera may be different, but we've heard the same sentiment, the same feelings expressed in these other voices too."
Berman said one of the biggest challenges facing opera is getting people to listen and engage with the music. Through opera-fusion events like this one, he hopes people see the genre in a new way.
“Personally, I think opera has a bad rap,” said Lefkowich. “I think it’s an art form that has the potential to die out completely. I never liked opera while I was growing up, and I’ve come to appreciate it now. And if I can appreciate opera, I know other people can appreciate opera as well.”
Lefkowich has directed operas not only in Minnesota, but nationally and abroad as well. He first began working with renowned gospel singer and songwriter J.D. Steele when Steele served as a celebrity judge for Out of the Box’s "Diva Cage Match" event in 2017.
Although Steele has little experience in opera himself, he directed both choirs for the opera/gospel show, wrote an original song entitled “The Dream” and worked hard to create a program that blended both musical genres.
An engaging conductor, Steele encouraged the audience to sing along to popular chorus lines, put their hands in the air and join the choir in calls of “amen.”
“You knew you were coming to church tonight, right?” Steele joked.
Although some songs were more identifiably “gospel” or “opera” than others, Out of the Box showcased the beauty of an in-between space.
Capitalizing on that unidentifiable middle ground between gospel and opera, Out of the Box was able to remove opera from its traditional context and reframe it.
“Every time I get involved in a project in its infancy, and I put my heart into it, it tends to grow into something really powerful over time,” said Steele. “Any time I get into a project where I get connected to my heart, I believe, you know, this is something that could be really wonderful in the future.”