MOORHEAD — The words "date night" can stir up varied feelings depending on who you ask.

The words "speed dating," however, almost certainly stir up terror — that is unless it’s referencing the delightfully funny and relatable “Speed Dating Tonight!,” an opera by Michael Ching and based on a concept by Dean Anthony coming to the Fargo-Moorhead area once again this year.

At the center of this production are the Gate City Bank Young Artists, performing this continually evolving, contemporary production, including new numbers like “I Want to Meet a Guy from Fargo.” From around the country with an impressive list of credentials, this year’s set of young artists with the Fargo Moorhead Opera are bringing their shining talents to local stages and even some unconventional venues.

“This program shows great innovation and leadership by the FM Opera to offer one of the few of its kind here in our community,” says Karin Houglum Rudd, senior vice president at Gate City Bank and a board member of the FM Opera.

The cast of “Speed Dating Tonight!” rehearse at Rustica Eatery & Tavern in Moorhead, where they'll perform again Monday, March 16. The production will also have subsequent showings at Theatre B in Moorhead with a similar staging and experience. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
The cast of “Speed Dating Tonight!” rehearse at Rustica Eatery & Tavern in Moorhead, where they'll perform again Monday, March 16. The production will also have subsequent showings at Theatre B in Moorhead with a similar staging and experience. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

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Unconventional combinations

Ahead of their two-night debut of “Speed Dating Tonight!,” which kicked off Sunday, March 15, and continues Monday, March 16, at Rustica Eatery & Tavern in Moorhead, the group of virtuosos takes a seat at the bar after a rehearsal. They discuss their experiences with the formative craft and explore the evolution of opera as seen through the lens of small communities like Fargo-Moorhead as well as metropolitan centers.

“One of the really cool things is that a lot of smaller opera companies — even smaller than Fargo-Moorhead — are coming up and doing things in really interesting venues,” says mezzo-soprano Rebecca Sacks. “This is an example of that.”

One of four Gate City Bank Young Artists, Rebecca Sacks is originally from California. She received her bachelor's degree in music from Stanford University with a Master of Music from the University of Georgia, where she was a recipient of the Carl and Patricia Hoveland Fellowship in opera. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
One of four Gate City Bank Young Artists, Rebecca Sacks is originally from California. She received her bachelor's degree in music from Stanford University with a Master of Music from the University of Georgia, where she was a recipient of the Carl and Patricia Hoveland Fellowship in opera. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

Sacks plays an onlooking waitress, immune to the uneasy interactions that play out just across the bar between an interesting cast of characters, including the liar, the cheat, the drama queen, the introvert, the dog-lover and the mama’s boy.

Following Monday's performance of “Speed Dating Tonight!” at Rustica, the cast is set to move the production to Theatre B in Moorhead for a subsequent two-night run at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17, and Wednesday, March 18.

“The thing about opera is it started really intimate,” says tenor Gabriel Hernandez. “People were first composing stuff for bars and salons and parties, so I think it’s cool that we’re getting back to what the tradition of opera first was. That’s opera, and that’s how we make really great shows.”

Before joining the Fargo Moorhead Opera’s Gate City Bank Young Artist Program, Gabriel Hernandez made his company debut with Bronx Opera in their English adaptation of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
Before joining the Fargo Moorhead Opera’s Gate City Bank Young Artist Program, Gabriel Hernandez made his company debut with Bronx Opera in their English adaptation of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

“But I also love grand opera,” Sacks pipes in from across the bar with universal agreement from the group. “I think there’s a place for both.”

“I’ll be doing a grand opera in April, so doing both is fun,” says soprano Kara Covey. “There’s a company based in Los Angeles called the Pacific Opera Project who have done stuff like Mozart’s 'The Magic Flute' and set it to a 'Super Mario Brothers'-themed world. They’re trying to bring in the nontypical operagoer and find a new way to create artistic choices for the artist and audiences involved.”

In an apt depiction of many modern-day dates distracted by screens, Nathan Haltwinger plays a speed dater who can only converse in abbreviated texting lingo like “OMG.” Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
In an apt depiction of many modern-day dates distracted by screens, Nathan Haltwinger plays a speed dater who can only converse in abbreviated texting lingo like “OMG.” Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

Relatable stories

Originally commissioned and premiered in 2013 by the Janiec Opera of the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina, the one-act comic opera “Speed Dating Tonight!” is just one example of how modern productions are finding ways to relate with audiences.

Intended for 45 singers or more, the production can be adapted for varying numbers of singers, the ratio of men and women and even length of time.

Yet, even productions written some time ago continue to resonate today, like “Cavalleria Rusticana.” The late 19th century opera by Pietro Mascagni pioneered depictions of crude passions of everyday people instead of dramas focused on nobility.

“The opera we’re doing in April, 'Cavalleria Rusticana,' is about a couple who are in a fight on Easter,” Hernandez says. “Everybody fights on holidays!”

Operagoers can look forward to a story of love, jealousy and revenge played out by the Gate City Young Artists at North Dakota State University’s Reineke Concert Hall next month.

Jamie Hagen plays the speed dating coordinator in “Speed Dating Tonight!” She has sung with the FM Opera since 2001 and returns for a third year of performing in this particular production. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
Jamie Hagen plays the speed dating coordinator in “Speed Dating Tonight!” She has sung with the FM Opera since 2001 and returns for a third year of performing in this particular production. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

If you go

What: Fargo Moorhead Opera Presents “Speed Dating Tonight!”

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, March 16, through Wednesday, March 18

Where: Rustica Eatery & Tavern, 315 Main Ave., Moorhead (March 16), and Theatre B, 215 10th St. N., Moorhead (March 17 & 18)

Info: Tickets are $30; Rustica performance is a festival seating performance with seats at a first-come, first-served basis as guests arrive at the venue. Doors open at 5 p.m. for food and drink at Rustica.

Note: As of Friday, March 13, FM Opera planned to continue all performances of "Speed Dating Tonight!" Visit www.fmopera.org for a message to patrons about COVID-19 and to find any updates if things change.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.