The three divas seated in white plastic chairs in the courtyard of Minneapolis’ Mill City Museum have plenty in common.
Heather Johnson, Karin Wolverton and Sarah Larsen sing the lead female roles in Mill City Summer Opera’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” opening Friday night in this very courtyard.
They’ve earned critical acclaim separately for performances across the United States — from the Met in New York City to Santa Barbara, Sarasota, Fla., Kansas City, Tulsa and Santa Fe.
They’re comfortable in the July afternoon heat. All three grew up just north of St. Paul.
They say the Minnesotans on the production could take the rest of the cast in curling, hockey and, of course, hotdish.
And they all say they owe a chunk of their careers to Joel and Karen Johnson of White Bear Lake.
The Johnsons were longtime music educators at Roseville schools. Karen Johnson taught music at Central Park Elementary for more than two decades. Joel was choir director at Roseville junior and senior high for 32 years.
Heather Johnson’s connection is obvious, since they share a last name. Joel and Karen are her parents. Heather has lived in New York City for 23 years; Joel and Karen have lived in the same house near Bald Eagle Lake in White Bear for 50 years. It seems natural she’d find a life in music, and she says her parents were “extremely supportive,” but they suggested a backup degree in education might not be a bad idea when she went to the University of Minnesota-Morris. “They soon realized that wasn’t going to happen,” she laughs.
(For the record, all three had family who recommended backup degrees in education. Wolverton went to St. Olaf in Northfield and Larsen went to Simpson College in Iowa.)
Joel was Wolverton’s choir director at Roseville High. She was his assistant. “Early on, she distinguished herself,” Joel says. She mastered Mozart at 15 “and was always the first one to learn her part.”
“Heather’s parents were my music family parents,” Wolverton says. “I stayed here in Minnesota and they followed me through my schooling and career.”
“Mrs. Johnson” was Larsen’s elementary school music teacher. She remembers when she was an apprentice at Sarasota (Florida) Opera and Heather Johnson was in their production of “Hansel and Gretel.” Larsen recognized a couple at the ticket counter: “Are you Mrs. Johnson?” she asked.
Joel Johnson had retired by the time Larsen got to Roseville High, Karen Johnson says, adding that she and her husband have been able to see students go from “infants to professionals.”
And, yes, they’ll be at Mill City Summer Opera’s “Cosi” a couple of times, Joel says.
This is the first time the three have shared the stage. Mozart’s comic opera is a good fit for the outdoor summer performances, they agree.
In “Cosi fan Tutte,” Ferrando and Guglielmo decide to test their girlfriends’ fidelity by pretending to go off to war. Sisters Dorabella (Larsen) and Fiordiligi (Wolverton) are heartbroken, but their maid Despina (Johnson) advises them to take lovers while their boyfriends are away. Ferrando and Guglielmo return in disguise and woo the sisters, who finally give in — and switch boyfriends in the process.
The cast is having a blast, Wolverton says. “It’s hard keeping up with all the antics.”
“Everyone ups the ante,” Larsen says. “But not in a competitive way.”
“It’s collaborative,” Johnson says, adding that there’s a funny costume twist as the boyfriends come back in disguise.
Wolverton travels many months every year, so it’s a bonus to be home for the summer. “And you have all those shoes to choose from,” Larsen says to her, referring to picking a pair from a bedroom closet rather than a suitcase.
Johnson is staying with her parents. “Being at home is like a luxury,” she says. Friends and family who have followed her career will see the show.
Larsen’s church choir is coming. Her mother (a baroque music specialist who sang with the Dale Warland Singers and other groups when the Larsens lived in the Twin Cities) is going to stay with friends around the Twin Cities when she comes to see “Cosi.”
Larsen’s family moved to Roseville from California when she was 10. Since she’s been back, she’s visited Taste of Scandinavia in Little Canada where she worked (“and was horrible”) in high school. “The last time I sang here was in the Como Park Pavilion,” Larsen says. She was 16 and singing in a production of “Annie.”
Larsen says her family moved from California to Minnesota for the schools. Music education was important to her parents, who were both musicians.
Mill City Summer Opera has been staging summer productions in the ruins courtyard behind Mill City Museum since 2012. But this will be the last at the riverside location. The Minnesota Historical Society, which runs the site, won’t be extending the group’s contract. Next summer, the company plans to stage summer opera in St. Paul at Paikka, a venue in Vandalia Towers.
Mill City ruins’ brick walls, rusted steel girders, smooth glass and open roof create a unique venue for opera, says Johnson, who’s on the Mill City Summer Opera board of directors. The three agree the acoustics are terrific.
“This is without question, the Minnesota experience,” Johnson says. “Arts, culture, outdoors and by the water.”
The crew, the orchestra, costumes, props and staging get nothing but praise from the three. And they’re not just being Minnesota Nice. “It’s world class,” Larsen says.
Wolverton has performed in several Minnesota Opera productions, including the role of Anna Sorensen in the 2011 world premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night.” Johnson got her start with Minnesota Opera’s young artists program (along with “Cosi” baritone Andrew Wilkowske). She and Larsen haven’t sung in a mainstage production for Minnesota Opera.
The three would be happy to perform “at home” again.
Even in January?
“I’d do it,” Johnson says. “I’d even do it outside in January.”