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Iron Opera Documentary; Snakes in ND; News Discussion; Movie Review: Furiosa

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Iron Opera is a documentary exploring high art in small towns. Aurora, MN, population 1,665, stages a full-scale Italian opera for the Northern Lights Arts Festival.
Iron Opera is a documentary exploring high art in small towns. Aurora, MN, population 1,665, stages a full-scale Italian opera for the Northern Lights Arts Festival.

Today’s Segments:

Iron Opera is a documentary exploring high art in a small town. It introduces us to a legendary concert pianist who teamed up with an Ojibwe language teacher, a skateboarding accordionist, and talent imported from every corner of the Earth to pull off the impossible. It's airing on Prairie Public May 30.

Have you ever seen a Smooth Green Snake? They inhabit much of North Dakota, and as Chuck Lura explains, they're beneficial and down-right friendly.

News Director Dave Thompson reviews the news.

Matt Olien is Prairie Public's movie critic. Today he looks at the latest in the Mad Max saga, Furiosa.


Iron Opera Transcript

Iron Opera is a documentary exploring big dreams in a small town.

It is showing on Thursday at 9pm central right here on Prairie Public. Writer, director, producer Mike Scholtz spoke with Main Street’s Ashley Thornberg.

Ashley Thornberg

So how did you find out about this big Italian opera production that is happening in the town of Aurora, Minnesota and throughout parts of the Iron Range? And by the way, the population of Aurora is 1,600, give or take.

Mike Scholtz

Yeah, there's there's an A&W restaurant. So that's how I gauge population. So it's got to be at least a thousand, you know.

I'm a little embarrassed. I live in Duluth. I live just outside of Duluth and I had not heard of the Northern Lights Music Festival before.

Ashley Thornberg

That's pretty Iron Range-y to not know about.

Mike Scholtz

There is a bit of a cultural difference sometimes between Duluth and the Iron Range. They almost have, you know, different things going on at all times. So, you know, we've got a great opera company here in Duluth, Lyric Opera of the North, and I was familiar with them.

But someone at our local PBS station here in Duluth told me, did you know there's an opera company that is on the Iron Range? And I couldn't imagine like a more delightful dichotomy of things. You know, we think of the Iron Range as this very industrial, you know, locale.

[Speaker 8]

People who were working their butts off.

Mike Scholtz

Yeah. You know, there's mines, but there's also, you know, timber and there's there's all this work going on up there. But it's also, you know, as I started to research it, it's one of the most heavily educated rural areas in America.

So it's such an interesting culture up there. And they have managed to keep this opera company and this Northern Lights Music Festival is kind of the deal at the center of this, which does chamber music and orchestral pieces. They've kept this going for, I think, over 15 years now.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Give us a sense of this background, because there is a very specific immigration pattern that led to that sort of blending of culture and that higher education that you mentioned.

Mike Scholtz

Yeah, because they have the mines up there, they got a much wider, you know, number of countries, people emigrating to that area. They were there for the work, obviously. But, you know, a lot of parts of, you know, I grew up in Fargo-Moorhead and it seems like, you know, we just got Scandinavians, a lot of Scandinavians there.

And the Iron Range, I've heard it described as the Upper East Side of New York as if it were just lifted up and dropped into a forest. There is, and I think someone in the film actually describes it that way.

Ashley Thornberg

And I will say there were every name. I was like, I wouldn't have known how to pronounce that by just looking at the names of the people, most of the people in the show, in a lot of ways.

Mike Scholtz

It's true. So all of these, you know, people came over here and they wanted to make sure their kids were well educated. So the Iron Range, mostly funded by the mines, has some of the most beautiful schools I have ever seen in all of my travels.

And with these schools, they have beautiful auditoriums, like these auditoriums on the Iron Range are like opera houses.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, the drapery, the seatings, all of this is just astonishingly beautiful. And I was also shocked. And I grew up, you know, not too far outside of Minneapolis and then moved to Walhalla, North Dakota for a later part of childhood and that part of the state, I also didn't know.

Mike Scholtz

Yeah, yeah. It's one of my favorite parts of Minnesota to go and find stories for documentaries and things like that. It's really interesting there with the mix of people who've moved there.

Ashley Thornberg

I want to play another clip from the show because it really highlights some of the diversity of voices and accents that you're going to hear and then introduces, you know, what I would say is the central theme of Iron Opera.


I've been a part of this opera for years and I still run into people, you do an opera? Here? It's crazy.

It's an Italian opera in the middle of Minnesota. It is a little weird, but it's also fascinating. And it's fun.

Big dreams, small town, right? That's a song or something.

This is a very interesting question. Should there be high art in small places? Well, yeah, without question there should be.

Ashley Thornberg

Let's explore that last little sentence there. Should there be high art in small places? Why did you want to make a documentary about a subject like that?

Mike Scholtz

Yeah, that was the key phrase in the film when the cinematographer and my co-director, Maurice Anderson, were planning the film. That's what we wanted to kind of dig into. And we were so happy to meet the person who said that in the clip was Veda Zuponcic.

And she's the director of the Northern Lights Music Festival. And when we met her, she kind of had the same thoughts that we had, that, you know, just because we live in these small towns doesn't mean we don't listen to public radio and listen to the operas on Saturdays and think about things like that. And we were really excited about exploring this part of the world where there's still a mix of, you know, there's a mix of people's political backgrounds, their beliefs, you know, I think in America now we think that the urban, you know, people think one way and rural people think another way.

And I just, you know, I don't find that to be true when I'm moving around the state and interviewing people. You know, we have multitudes, people are complex. And so there's no reason we can't have things like opera that might seem like sort of a big city thing, there's no reason we can't have those in small towns.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah, well, and even within just that few seconds of that clip, we hear from a kid with a thick Finnish accent, and he has spent most of his life in Minnesota. But then we also hear from a young transgender student. And then throughout the film, which we don't see in that particular clip, is that you hear from some Ojibwe people who are teaching their cultural practices and bringing in the music that was here far longer than the opera and the other music that the immigrants brought with them.

And just seeing all of that come together. And again, in such a tiny town, were you at any point just like, really, all of this? There's hardly anyone here.

And this is so reflective of the actual diversity of this country.

Mike Scholtz

Yeah, I mean, we hoped that we would find kind of a diversity of people and opinions as we started doing this. But you never really know. We were constantly delighted to find, like I was saying before, how complex people are and how, you know, it's sort of beyond my dreams as a documentary filmmaker to be able to find an Ojibwe language instructor who's trained in opera.

And this is a guy named Ryan Bajon, and he gives such a great interview in the middle of the film where we were with him as he's helping some kids build these ricing sticks because they're going to go out ricing. And I say, you know, this is kind of, you know, unexpected to find you out here today and then later on you're going to be, you know, rehearsing for the opera. And he just kind of stopped me in my tracks and I was just like, you know, we can be more than one thing.

And that's what the movie's about, people who are more than one thing. You know, you've got him, you've got this kid, Steve Sokola, with the deep voice that you mentioned. He makes his living as a one man band.

He travels all around the world playing his accordion and his, you know, cymbal on top of his head. But he was trained in the opera. You know, there's the transgender kid who I don't think end up being in the opera, but he's a high school kid now who's really getting into making the scenery.

So just so many interesting people.

Ashley Thornberg

You know what you said there, we can be more than one thing, quoting one of your guests on the documentary. Why do you think we try to pretend that we're not?

Mike Scholtz

I think about this all the time. It's easier to belong to a group and feel like you are, you know, a part of a little club. And, you know, a lot of times that's political, but other times it's religious or, you know, safety in numbers kind of thing.

It is. It's just easier to define yourself as a thing and then not think about how complicated all people are. I don't know.

It's a tough question.

Ashley Thornberg

…There's also this idea that, you know, sometimes with talent comes a little bit of creative differences. And I'm going to play another couple of clips here from Iron Opera. And this is just a tech rehearsal and it sounds well, this is a rehearsal and it sounds like things are going just fine.

So you guys leave this space open. So when everybody walks in in the room, you close in as much as you can. Gabi, can we have a big rehearsal?

Fifty-seven is when the carriage enters.

Ashley Thornberg

And then it pretty quickly turns into this.

That's where it should end, but you have to start with that. You have to start with that. The designers need to see this show from beginning to end.

Peter, what the hell do you think we're doing?

We're out at 10:30, it's 8:48.

Peter, please stay away. Going back, this is the first time I see the horses. This is called teching, as far as I'm concerned.

The designers need to see the show so they can rehearse the changes.

Ashley Thornberg

And that ending there was sort of the classic throw something down on stage and stomp off here. Did any of the people featured in the documentary ever try to say, no, you can include stuff like that?

Mike Scholtz

So Veda Zuponcic told us right up front, you have freedom to shoot anything you want, show anything you want. And I said, well, you know, we need conflict in a documentary and I've done some creative endeavors in my life, so I assume there's going to be arguments at some point. And she said, yeah, that's fine.

That's part of the process. So we went up there, you know, almost every day for about three weeks leading up to the opening night. And every day we would talk to the people there and say, OK, is today the day when people are going to, you know, start throwing a fit?

And they would laugh and say, no, no, we're cool. It's OK. But then a few of them would pull me aside and say, don't worry, it's coming.

It always happens. Someone will, you know, they're passionate people. And they feel strongly about things and there will be creative differences at some point.

And so, you know, this happened two days before opening night at the tech rehearsal and we were secretly delighted. I think a lot of people in the room were mortified that we were catching all of this on camera. But we were, you know, happy to see it because it's just it's part of the creative process.

Ashley Thornberg

Well, yeah. Talk about that thing, because a lot of people don't undertake endeavors like putting on an opera in a small town or making a documentary about an opera in a small town. Like the the the will, the drive, the passion.

And yes, sometimes when those things get a little bit heated, what is, I guess, just your process for how to deal with the fact that you have to have a certain amount of fire to pull off something like that. And if you don't have the fire, maybe you're never going to run into the conflict. But yeah, maybe we won't start anything either.

Mike Scholtz

We also have sort of the specter of the ticking clock and the the the documentary is scheduled, you know, 18, it's 18 days before the opera, you know, and then we move ahead to 12 days before the opera. And then finally it's day by day. And they I cannot believe how quickly they put these operas together because the main cast just shows up like two or three weeks before opening night.

Yeah, they're of course, the opera company is working on it for, you know, five, six, seven weeks ahead of time. And they're getting like the chorus members together and they and they start working with them a little bit. But the main cast, I think, showed up on this one, maybe 10, 12, 14 days ahead of time.

And they managed to put it all together that quickly. So when you've got that sort of ticking clock and time is always your enemy. And I think that's what leads to to some of the conflicts.

And you hear that in that clip you played is they they only have like an hour and a half to go through this two hour plus show two nights before it opens. They just don't have time for everything. Yeah.

Ashley Thornberg

What's your process as a documentary filmmaker for being able to catch people, though, in and I don't mean catch as in a gotcha, but just, you know, you have to be kind of a wallflower, which is really hard to do when you're filming. And what is it about you that allows people to be themselves?

Mike Scholtz

Yeah, I think, you know, the ideal I think people assume the ideal is that as a documentary filmmaker, you are just, you know, a fly on the wall or you're in the background. But you sort of have to develop a relationship with the people you're filming. You have to become friends with them.

And it's weird. I've actually become really close friends with a lot of the subjects of my documentaries and still hang out with them to this day. I sometimes say it's the only way I know how to make friends as an adult is to make a documentary film about someone that I find interesting.

Ashley Thornberg

This is why I interview people, Mike.

Mike Scholtz

It's the way it works. It's hard to find the time to make friends. And so, you know, we'll show up early and we won't even film that much.

That's interesting. The first couple of days, we're kind of just hanging out with people. And so by the time, you know, some of the really interesting stuff happens, you're literally just hanging out with your friends.

And oops, you know, some of them start arguing or some of them say something really funny and you happen to have the camera constantly rolling. So the, you know, it's it's the Heisenberg principle. You can't help affecting the documentary that you're making with your very presence.