Quote of the Day: Since 2009, the Lakes Area Music Festival (LAMF) has created a culture of openness – breaking down barriers to the arts while forging a unique community of world-class artists, audiences, and volunteers. John Taylor Ward, Artistic Director for LAMF

Co-founders of Lakes Area Music Festival John Taylor Ward and Scott Lykens with Conductor Christian Reif. July 2023. Photo: Titilayo Ayangade, for LAMF

In the summer of 2009, two young students from Eastman School of Music began providing concerts in the Brainerd Lakes Area of Minnesota. Scott Lykins, who is a 2004 graduate of Brainerd High School, started LAMF with his friend John Taylor Ward. They brought in a few more friends from Eastman School of Music along with a three members of the MN/SPCO orchestra and did about six concerts that first year. The Festival has grown since then, now bringing in over 200 world-class musicians, providing over 50 events, including an opera, several large orchestra concerts, as well as chamber music, a Gala, Cabaret, a Night at the Opera featuring arias from many different operas, and a children’s program called “Explore Music.” They perform at area assisted living centers and other outreach organizations including the jail.

Ori Marcu and Sydney Dardis, Vocal Fellows with the Lakes Area Music Festival, 2023. Photo: Mary Aalgaard

This year, I had the privilege of hosting two young women who were LAMF vocal “fellows,” part of the young artist program, and a trumpet player for the final weekend. They were all absolutely delightful houseguests. I enjoyed getting to know them, talking about music, their education background, and career goals. The vocal fellows, Ori and Sydney, were here for a month, working with the artistic staff, singing in the Cabaret, Recital, Night at the Opera, and the opera Don Pasquale. I asked them each for a statement about their experience here in the Brainerd Lakes Area and with LAMF.

Sydney writes: LAMF, to me, was such a special and life changing experience to be able to perform with some of the nation’s most talented artists. As a vocal fellow, I was granted the unique opportunity to learn from these renown industry professionals and perform in an orchestra concert with them. As a young artist, the chance to sing with an orchestra and conductor of this caliber was truly such a special experience that I will never forget. Not to mention, covering Norina in Don Pasquale and being able to see how professional opera singers work in rehearsals was an incredible learning experience. My summer at LAMF was one I will cherish for years to come. 

Ori summed up the community spirit in her response: As a vocal fellow I received connections and materials I will use well into the future of my career; but what made this festival so special was the community. There was always somebody there to support or provide for the artists, be that housing, food, or friendship. 

I get a little teary reading their responses. My own kids are about their same age, and my son Zach has sung in the chorus in a few of the LAMF operas, as well. He said that everyone was welcoming and supportive and that he had a great experience being part of this impressive organization. I formed a special bond with Ori and Sydney and felt all kinds of mom vibes as I sat in the audience, proud of “my” singers. 

Vanessa Becerra as Norina with vocal fellows Ori Marcu and Sydney Dardis in LAMF’s 2023 summer production of Don Pasquale. Photo: Kelly Humphrey and the Brainerd Dispatch

I loved the staging for Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. The concept design, by Chloe Treat and scenic design by James Rotondo, was in an assisted living center. Don Pasquale is living there, as he is getting elderly and in need of more care. Ori and Sydney played employees of this center. Don’s nephew Ernesto wants to marry Norina, but his uncle doesn’t allow it. Instead, he wants to marry a young woman to thwart Ernesto’s inheritance. Dr. Malatesta and Norina come up with a plan to trick Don and have him agree to the marriage between Ernesto and Norina. It’s a bit ridiculous, sure, it’s an opera after all. But, a funny one, and with the setting and characters and incredibly talented cast, they pull it off. This classic Italian opera, sung in Italian with English supertitles with a world premiere in 1843, came to life on stage under the direction of Christian Reif, assistant conductor Stefano Flavoni and stage director Ian Silverman along with the creative team. I liked it so much, I went twice (plus, the proud “Opera mom” vibes)!

Thomas Cilluffo as Ernesto and Wayne Tigges as Don Pasquale in the 2023 LAMF production of Don Pasquale. Photo: Kelly Humphrey and the Brainerd Dispatch

Wayne Tigges played the title role of Don Pasquale. His strong voice and stage presence really carried this role. He’s ridiculous in his demands, disgusting in his desire to be with a much younger woman, yet endearing as we feel a little bad for him when Norina puts him in his place. John Taylor Ward plays Dr. Malatesta with great humor. He comes up with the crazy plan and wins Don over. Their fast-paced duet was one of the highlights of the performance, and received enthusiastic applause. Thomas Cilluffo played the love sick Ernesto with great heart and humor. His entrance with a bag of chips that he handed out to audience members during his aria was hilarious. One of my young piano students got a chip. “No,” she said, “I got two chips,” and giggled. What a skill to make opera fun for even the youngest audience members!

“Assisted Living Residents” Charlie Johnson, Sue Johnson, Joel Mathias (who also played the notary) Ori Marcu, Vanessa Becerra as Norina, and Sydney Dardis in the 2023 LAMF production of “Don Pasquale.” Photo: Kelly Humphrey and the Brainerd Dispatch

Vanessa Becerra came in to play Norina, and she nailed the role. She was absolutely darling as the young sweetheart, but also strong and sassy as she plots to give Don his comeuppance. Early on she sings an aria about love that is staged with Ori and Sydney. She grabs Ori’s romance novel as she sings. The young women giggle and react, like college girls in the dorm mooning over the cute guys. They sing more in Act II when the chorus comes on, all as staff or visitors of the center, as the ridiculous plot unfurls. 

Vocal Fellows Sydney Dardis, Ori Marcu, Marcus King and Joel Mathias, “residents” Charlie Johnson and Sue Johnson, Vanessa Becerra as Norina and John Taylor Ward as Dr. Malatesta in the 2023 LAMF production of “Don Pasquale.” Photo: Kelly Humphrey and the Brainerd Dispatch

With a pay-what-you-can ticketing program and both formal and informal events, along with a program for kids that includes a week-long camp, there was something for everyone with the LAMF. Their block party had the biggest attendance to date, with people coming early with lawn chairs to set up and listen, or sitting in the patio section of a local restaurant and enjoying food and beverages on a gorgeous summer evening. For “Beethoven and Beers” night, my friend Krista and I also brought our adult sons to the the local brewery where the musicians let loose and gave us wonderful entertainment from classical to classic rock and jazz, all while we enjoyed delicious food and beers from Round House Brewery.

Trumpet player Amy McCabe at the 2023 LAMF final concert. Photo: Mary Aalgaard

The LAMF season concluded with a symphony of Wagner & Shostakovich music. I housed a trumpet player for the weekend who played in this concert. Amy McCabe is a member of the Marine Band, and it was fascinating to hear how one gets into that band and all the places they’ve played, including a special concert for President Barack Obama at the White House. The opening piece to the concert, Festive Overture, nearly took my breath away. It had so much energy and movement, like the waves rolling on the lakes and wind blowing through the trees. The entire concert was amazing. The section by Wagner, Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, featured soprano Felicia Moore whose strong voice soared above the orchestra. 

Wagner & Shostakovich Symphony, Conductor Christian Reif, 2023 LAMF season. Photo: Mary Aalgaard

I mention only a few highlights of the festival in this article. They had many more, and I did not make it to all of them. Hosting musicians made the event even more special to me. One French Horn player said that he’d been sponsored by the same woman for years, and they’d formed a lasting friendship. He was sad to learn that her health prevented her from hosting him this year.

My own heart is full from the experience. One note, though, to visiting musicians. You don’t need to buy much of your own food. If your hosts are anything like me, they will want to provide for you. I couldn’t resist my farm girl upbringing and midwestern hospitality. I made my guests our traditional Minnesota meals of Tater Tot Hotdish and Chicken Wild Rice soup, then sent them home with my homemade sourdough bread. 

I wish them all the very best in their careers and in their lives. I hope our paths will cross again, soon. Thank you to Scott and Taylor for bringing this wonderful experience to our little spot in the world. And, a huge thank you to all the volunteers who provide housing, transportation, food, and much more! It truly creates community and improves quality of life for all who are involved.

Go. Create. Inspire!

Journaling Prompt: Have you ever hosted guests? Have you been a guest in someone’s home for an event or while traveling? What are some of your favorite connections?