Minnesota’s Performing Arts Scene Has Deep Roots

By James Riemermann

Penumbra Theatre The Ballad of Emmett Till Med_photo by Allen Weeks
"The Ballad of Emmett Till" at Penumbra Theatre, photo by Allen Weeks

When Sir Tyrone Guthrie founded Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in 1963, he was widely recognized as a great name in the tradition of English theater. Before long, he proved that a new sort of world-class theater could thrive in the American heartland.

Before that, there was the Minnesota Orchestra, founded in 1903 as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. Under the leadership of the Hungarian-born conductor Eugene Ormandy in the 1930s, it became the most recorded orchestra in the United States and still receives worldwide accolades.

From roots this deep, Minnesota’s stellar reputation for the performing arts—theater, classical music and popular music alike—continues to grow.

Theater Reigns Supreme

Beyond the Guthrie, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is home to more than 200 theaters large and small. A few notables in Minneapolis are Mixed Blood Theatre, staging first-rate drama with a focus on racially diverse casts for 40 years; the Brave New Workshop, doing wild improv comedy since 1958; and the small but highly acclaimed Jungle Theater. St. Paul is home to the History Theatre, the Park Square Theatre and the Penumbra Theatre, which has been staging plays since 1976 that “illuminate the human condition through the prism of the African-American experience.”

There is also a great variety of fun community theaters around the state, where plays are performed by amateur actors out of civic pride and love of the art. The best known among Minnesota’s community theaters is Minneapolis’ venerable Theatre in the Round, which staged its first play in 1952. Other popular community theaters include the Albert Lea Community Theatre, Duluth Playhouse and Bemidji Community Theater.

Classical & Popular Music

Ordway Center St Paul exteriorSome of the great classical music venues include Minneapolis’ Orchestra Hall, home to the Minnesota Orchestra, and St. Paul’s Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, hosting the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Minnesota Opera, the Schubert Club, as well as spectacular Broadway shows and popular musicians.

For more than two weeks in July, the Northern Lights Music Festival brings classical music to Minnesota’s Iron Range, including fully staged operas, orchestra performances, plus classes and more by internationally known performers and award-winning students.

Activities take place in historic and modern venues throughout the area, including Duluth’s Copper Top Church, Virginia’s B’Nai Abraham, and the beautiful Hibbing High School Auditorium (where Bob Dylan reportedly shocked his schoolmates with a Little Richard cover in 1956).

Winona sponsors the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in July, with performances by world-renowned groups and musicians.

In the realm of popular music, Minnesota has been home to legendary performers such as Bob Dylan and the Andrews Sisters, and in the 1980s, the “Minneapolis Sound” exploded into national consciousness. The late Prince was the undisputed leader of the era, but widely acclaimed bands like the Replacements, Hüsker Dü and others inspired a generation of young musicians to leave the garage and change the face of rock ‘n’ roll.

More recent Minnesota greats include Atmosphere, Brother Ali, Dessa, Trampled by Turtles and Haley Bonar. The next Dylan or Prince could emerge at any moment.

Mid West Music Fest in Winona_Shannon Porter
Mid West Music Fest in Winona, photo by Shannon Porter

Over the last several decades, most of the acts mentioned above have performed at First Avenue in Minneapolis; other great Twin Cities venues for live music include the Varsity Theater and Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis, and the Turf Club in St. Paul.

Arguably the top venue for jazz, and featuring world-class music of many genres, is the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, with its sister music club and restaurant in St. Paul, Vieux Carré. Several funky bars, coffeehouses and music clubs make for an eclectic music scene in Minneapolis’ West Bank neighborhood, adjacent to the University of Minnesota.

Outside the Twin Cities, Winona’s Mid West Music Fest showcases more than 100 musical acts on 13 stages in and near the Mississippi River town in late April. Other major music fests include Duluth’s Homegrown Music Festival for a week in late April/early May; country music at Detroit Lakes’ WE Fest in early August; the Moondance Jam in Walker in late July. Music clubs worth a visit in the north country include Papa Charlie’s in Lutsen and Fitger’s in Duluth.

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