"North Country" Fare: The 40th-anniversary edition of Jay Stielstra's folk opera sails into The Ark
Forty years ago, Jay Stielstra was playing his songs to enthusiastic listeners around Ann Arbor, mostly at Mr. Flood’s Party, a bar that once stood on 120 West Liberty. Bouyed by the response to his tunes, the folk singer decided to write some continuity and put them together in a play, North Country Opera.
“The main thing that carries it are the songs,” Stielstra says. “I asked other musicians I knew in Ann Arbor if they wanted to be in a play, and they all said yes.”
Stielstra knew one of the founders of the Performance Network, the late David Bernstein, and brought the work to him. “David was very enthusiastic,” Stielstra says, and North Country Opera premiered in 1982 as the fledgling theater's second production.
The play was revived in 1992, 1993, and 2003 in Ann Arbor, and in 2022 it toured Northern Michigan, with the 89-year-old playwright along for the ride. North Country Opera returns to Ann Arbor for one night, October 18, at The Ark.
Set in the Buckhorn, a bar on the shores of Lake Superior, North Country Opera features songs that touch on Michigan’s rivers and woods. It also “digs into some social issues," says Peter Knox, who appears in this production. "There are things that are important to Jay that are mentioned in a subtle way, not hammered over your head.” Knox says Aaron Stielstra, Jay’s son who is also in the cast, shares this view.
In North Country Opera, a young man falls in love with the beauty of the Upper Peninsula and with a woman he meets there. He heads back to Detroit, pursuing what he thought were his dreams, but comes to realize he misses the loves he left.
Ron Miller, who directed some of the earlier productions of North Country Opera and its sequel, North Country Opera Continued, returns to direct the 40th-anniversary edition. The cast features Rochelle Clark and Brad Phillips as the young couple, with Chris Buhalis, Kristi Davis, Peter Knox, Christina McMullen, David Menefee, and Aaron Stielstra. Judy Banker directs the Buckhorn Bar band, which includes David Roof, Grant Flick, and Ben Willis. Barbara Schmid and Dan McCarthy co-produce.
“The new iteration has all of Jay’s original writing,” Miller says, though he made some changes for the current production. He added an extra scene to the first act to show more “of the relationship between the two main characters and the choices they faced. I also added a narrator who stands outside the place to set the stage.”
Miller also added three songs from Stielstra’s oeuvre.
“Jay paints such a beautiful and clear picture. I wanted to find a way to bring more of his songs into this,” says Miller. “Jay is a fine craftsman. His songs are simply structured, and he’s able to express so clearly the emotions of the person singing or paint a picture of something that is identifiable. A lot of local musicians fell in love with his lyrics. He defines Northern Michigan in some of his songs."
Stielstra writes from his own love of the U.P., saying he has fond memories of fishing trout and hunting grouse there and that he became “quite familiar with Northern Bar.” He was also a carpenter back in the day, and today, he lives with his wife, co-producer Barbara Schmid, in a house he built on a dirt road off M-52, about six miles south of Chelsea.
In 2017, Stielstra was honored with a state of Michigan legislative tribute for his contributions to conserving the state's natural resources. Former legislator Rebekah Warren presented the award at The Ark and other Michigan singers and musicians performed in Stielstra's honor. "So many Michigan folk musicians look to Jay as a real inspiration for their own performance," Knox says.
One of the songs Miller added to North Country Opera helps define the choices the two leads must make. Another explores the relationship of a grandfather to the others. And the third, sung by the narrator, helps set the story for audiences who aren’t familiar with the Upper Peninsula. “The focus is to welcome the audience and bring them further into the play.” Miller bookended the play with one of the new songs.
He also decided that an Irish barkeeper in Detroit would no longer be Irish—the result of recasting the role.
“Some people aged out of the roles,” says Miller, “but I didn’t want to make a big thing about ages. This isn’t Brigadoon, but it’s timeless because, in some respects, life in the U.P. is timeless. Things do change, but there is a foundation and a way of life [that remains consistent] because of the way people have had to adjust to the impact of water and other aspects of nature. This story really deals with that. Who can make a life up there when there’s so much else in the world, luxuries of life you don’t find in this little town?”
Knox, who appears as the Detroit barkeeper and helps the male lead sort out his life, says Miller is “delving into the motivations of the individual characters. … It’s easy to caricature these people as loving caricatures of north country people, but it’s important to find true realities for them and about how they are connected to the land and to each other.”
Perhaps Miller's production does present a fuller picture of U.P. living, but it's likely most audiences are coming for Stielstra's songs.
“Be forewarned: You’ll probably be humming some of these songs as you leave," Knox says, "and they’ll probably be stuck there.”
Ann Arbor-based journalist Davi Napoleon did her undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and holds a doctorate in theater history, theory, and criticism from New York University. Her book is “Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater.”
“North Country Opera” comes to Ann Arbor for one night only, October 18 at 8pm at The Ark, 316 S Main Street. For tickets and further information, visit theark.org.