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'Bunch Of Songs' Becomes 'Country Opera'

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'Bunch of songs' becomes 'Country Opera'



The way Jay Stielstra puts it, the origins of “North CountryOpera” were modest.

“I’ve had a bunch of songs for a number of years,” says the author and producer of the musical drama that will be staged at Performance Network tonight and Saturday night. “How it came to be is I took the songs and strung them together so a plot of sorts developed. I understand that’s not the way it’s usually done.”

Stielstra, 48, has rarely been accused of doing things the way they’re usually done.  He ran unsuccessfully for Ann Arbor City Council as a liberal Democrat in 1965, but he was a Bear Bryant clone of a football coach who lashed Ann Arbor (now Pioneer) High to the mythical state Class A championship in 1962.

He walked away from that job to coach the fledgling program at Huron High when that school opened in 1967, but after seven years of trying vainly to repeat his earlier successes, he gave that up in order to concentrate on teaching social studies, and on the songs he had started to write.

HE IS A non-violent, pacifist sort who loves to hunt, and he is a theatrical novice who has produced a play.

“The libretto - is that what it’s called? - is new,” he says. “The songs, well, the oldest one in there is probably from the early ’70s.”

There are 18 of them sprinkled through the play’s three acts, and Stielstra estimates they represent about 20 percent of his total output. That ouevre, while small, has had a prodigious impact on those fortunate enough to hear selections from it in one of Stielstra’s infrequent public appearances.

“There’s the cream of the crop, and then there are the good writers, and then there’s everybody else,” says David Siglin, who has heard plenty of all three varieties in his years as co-proprietor of The Ark coffeehouse. “I think he’s the cream of the crop. He’s right up there at the top.

“I’VE ALWAYS thought that somebody who was more commercially oriented vocally and ego-wise could take his songs and make them cult hits. Somebody who wanted to make it in the folk scene could steal all of Jay’s songs and make a mint.

“I don’t think Jay really cares about making it musically, and that's great for Ann Arbor. To me, he’s sort of the poet laureate of Ann Arbor, and he can compare with anybody in the country as far as I’m concerned.”

But he’s also a poet of the north country.  He was born and raised in Ludington before coming to Ann Arbor, like so many others, to attend the University of Michigan. Obviously, he likes it here, or he wouldn’t have stayed for more than 30 years. But he also likes it there, or he wouldn’t go back every chance he gets, and therein lies whatever tension exists in the play.

“I’ve always liked the northland very much and I spend a lot of time there,” says Stielstra, “but I like the sophistication of a city like Ann Arbor also. There’s a conflict there, I suppose.

“ITS HARD TO make a living up north.  It's hard to get through the winter. You can end up doing nothing but drinking beer, playing pool, going to high school basketball games and snowmobiling.

“But it’s great country. I’ve been there the last two weekends. I told Ryan (Des Ryan, the play’s director), ‘there’s no rehearsals on the weekend now; trout season has started.’ ”

Mostly, the play’s action is a vehicle for the songs: Boy (college-age adventurer played by Michael Smith) meets girl (young bartender played by Connie Huber) in her native town of Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula; boy goes to Detroit to become a stockbroker and begins to wonder about “the girl he left behind; ” boy returns to Grand Marais to find what he can find.

Smith and Huber are not the only familiar figures on the local folk music scene who appear in the cast. Cheryl Dawdy, David Menefee, Charlie Weaver and Jamie Valen portray Grand Marais locals. In addition to directing, Ryan, not a folkie but a veteran of local theatrical productions, plays the bartender at the “Motown Lounge” in Detroit.

“I’D NEVER BEEN around the theater, except in the audience,” says Stielstra. “I asked Des (also a teacher at Huron High) if he would direct it and he said he would, and then I just took it one step at a time. I didn’t want to say we’d do it unless everybody agreed.

“I just picked-out what I considered to be some of the finest folk singers in Ann Arbor, and I was delighted with how interested they were. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I didn’t know it would be this much work.”

That’s when he started looking for a bar; not because of the work involved, but because all the action of the play takes place in bars, and he thought it would be appropriate to stage it in one.

The first bar he tried was the Blind Pig, and the first person he spoke to, perhaps misunderstanding his intentions (“I’ve got this musical, see, and I’m looking for a place to stage it”), directed him around the corner to David Bernstein and Performance Network.

"IT WAS A fortunate meeting,” says Stielstra. “He was looking for plays and we were looking for a theater.”

Thus, 408 W. Washington St. will be the venue for the first two performances of “North Country Opera,” today and Saturday at 9 p.m. Tonight’s show is sold out, although a few tickets may be returned from outlets at Herb David Guitar Studio and the Old Town, and Saturday’s is nearly so, partly because the facility is so tiny.

“The smallness is kind of nice because we can do all the music acoustically,” says Stielstra. “That’s quite pleasant, and more in keeping with the musical preferences of the people in the cast. It also saves a lot of hassle with a sound system.

“And it’s almost a tavern. It’s around the comer from the Blind Pig and down the street from the Del Rio.”

Folk favorites Mike Smith and Connie Huber star in "North Country Opera."

Actor Charlie Weaver and producer Jay Stielstra discuss production.