J.D. Steele, the driving wheel of renowned musical institution The Steeles, is returning to the theater for Out of the Box Opera’s Fusion Series. Steele’s new stage show, in partnership with the company’s Artistic Director David Lefkowich, blends opera with other musical genres.
Steele is a singular presence in Twin Cities and, for that matter, international music. He will perform an original piece that he composed for the event and direct two groups, the 100-member Mill City Singers and the MacPhail Community Youth Choir, with featured vocalists, soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, tenor Dominique Wooten and alto/sopranos Tonia Hughes and Alexis Sword.
The program will also feature material from opera favorites Verdi and Puccini, as well as gospel songs from Edwin Hawkins, Quincy Jones and Curtis Mayfield, with accompaniment by J.D.’s brother Fred Steele.
“Our goal” said Lefkowich, “is to take what is best in both genres and combine them into something new that will appeal not just to fans of opera and gospel but to music lovers across all disciplines.”
This is not Steele’s first go ’round with opera, as he created Inner City Opera for The Great American History Theatre. Nonetheless, it presents a different experience. Unlike Inner City Opera, which was in his wheelhouse — versed in forms which he’s well familiar — especially gospel and soul, the classical form is new territory.
“Taking gospel and adding opera is not hard for me,” explained Steele. Toward which end, Quincy Jones’ “Everything Must Change” is one of the songs that will undergo a thorough re-tooling. “But doing it the other way, that’s been a challenge — trying to find the right arias that lend themselves to gospel stylization. [But] we’ve found some. Plus, it’s easier for me to create an opera that will allow me to stylize it.”
He added, “I haven’t seen a lot of opera, but I’ve talked to people who’ve been around opera. And I did one at the University of Minnesota called Elmer Gantry. That was about 10 years ago. I got intimidated, because I walked in and, just warming up, they were seriously blowing without mics.
“Their voices are so big and [they] sing like that all the time,” he continued. “It’s amazing. I was just trying to keep up. But they wanted me to do my thing. So, I did some of their thing and I did mine. It worked out.”
Steele’s other numerous acclaimed outings include the nationally toured Mixed Blood Theatre hit Two Queens, One Castle, local smash Point of Revue, also at Mixed Blood, and Penumbra Theatre’s wildly successful Get Ready.
Lefkowich is, to say the least, appreciative of working with Steele. “I met J.D. in 2017 when he was a guest judge for [Out of the Box Opera’s] inaugural Diva Cage Match at the Uppercut Boxing Gym,” he recalled. “I was incredibly impressed. He has worked with everyone in the business and his music has taken him all over the world. When Out of the Box chose gospel as this year’s theme for the Opera Fusion event, it was the perfect opportunity to collaborate.”
He continued, “The wealth and depth of knowledge J.D. has about gospel music as an art form and his willingness to play and think creatively has made this process joyful. To have the opportunity to learn about gospel music from a master like J.D. has been an unforgettable experience.”
Steele is gratified Out of the Box Opera is bringing the show to an audience that might not ordinarily be exposed, staging the production at both the Weisman Art Museum and North Minneapolis’ Capri Theater. “That’s going to be a free show,” said Steele of the Capri show. “They’re giving away tickets to people who usually couldn’t afford them — Plymouth Christian Youth Center, Northside Achievement Zone, renting a bus for Alliance House residents.” [Editor’s note: The Feb.10 show at the Capri Theater will no longer take place].
Steele summed up, “This is a first. I’ve looked around and I don’t see where anybody’s ever done it, where they’ve fused gospel and opera. That excites me. My heart is into it.”
Out of The Box’s “Fusion Series” will be presented Sat., Feb. 9, 7 pm at the Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Parkway on the University of Minnesota Campus. Tickets are $55 for reserved seating and $40 for general admission. The Capri show has been canceled.
For more info, visit www.outoftheboxopera.com.