Bringing aria to area: Northern Lights fest illuminates Range

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Iron Range residents are often presented a simplified interpretation of the past: many of our ancestors came from overseas to mine the ore that built a nation. What is often missed in this description is why. Save for a handful of Cornish mining jacks, these men didn’t come here because they liked to mine heavy iron ore. These women didn’t dream of watching their sons and husbands risk their lives while they were relegated to household chores. Every Iron Range immigrant, no matter their nationality, shared the desire that life might be better for their sons and daughters.

And for a better life, these children would need exposure to the best of the humanities. That’s why schools were so important to early Iron Range communities, and why you would find opera houses and theaters in all the major towns of the region, along with a rich tapestry of musical experiences.

This tradition might have faded with our population losses, but the spirit is not forgotten. That’s why for three weeks every summer, northern Minnesota’s Iron Range becomes home to some of the world’s best classical music talent. Already underway, the Northern Lights Music Festival based in Aurora will be bringing a full-scale production of the opera “Carmen” to Chisholm today and Ely tomorrow, with other events in several Range towns.

Veda Zupancic is just the sort of Iron Range native who benefitted from the community’s appreciation of fine music. A second-generation Slovenian immigrant, she’s now a renowned concert pianist and classical music teacher in New Jersey. Eleven years ago she returned to her hometown of Aurora to found the Northern Lights Music Festival, an opportunity for young people, locals and esteemed national music talent to experience opera together.

“(On the Iron Range) the public schools were marvelous,” said Zupancic when I spoke to her this week. “Every kind of occupation and vocation was provided, and that included wonderful music programs. It was the kind of place where Aurora could win a state orchestra competition.”

“Immigrants were coming from the former Austro-Hungarian empire and Italy, where music traditions were strong,” said Zupancic. “These were things even simple miner’s families wanted for their children.”

The Northern Lights Music Festival stemmed from Zupancic’s desire to bring her east coast students a new experience in the place where she grew up.

“You can’t love opera if you’ve never seen one,” said Zupancic. “I came back and was stunned by the (Mesabi East) auditorium. It was so beautiful and I thought my students could benefit from coming here and that local businesses would benefit, too. It’s expanded as people showed more and more interest.”

Full opera productions followed, including sold-out shows in recent years. Now the festival spans out from Aurora to places like the B’nai Abraham Cultural Center in Virginia and the Chisholm High School auditorium.

You can more about the Northern Lights Music Festival at Tickets are still available for this afternoon’s 3 p.m. performance of “Carmen” at the Chisholm High School Auditorium. You can catch a 7 p.m. Monday performance of “Carmen” at the Washington Auditorium at Ely Memorial High School.

Several student and mixed professional concerts are going on throughout this final week of the festival, including Thursday, July 17 and Friday, July 18 concerts at Chisholm and Aurora, respectively, featuring winners of the student concert competition performing with the professional concerto. There will also be 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. July 19 performances of “Noye’s Fludde” (Noah’s Flood) at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Hibbing, followed by a 7 p.m. performance back at Mesabi East.

According to Zupancic, in “Noye’s Fludde,” a children’s opera, the voice of God has a Finnish accent. Speaking for my Finnish ancestors on the Iron Range that’s all too fitting. The Iron Range musical tradition spans all ethnic groups, and reaches new audiences today thanks to the work of people like Veda Zupancic and others like her.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This post first appeared in the Sunday, July 13, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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