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The Carletonian

Review: Carleton-St. Olaf production Swede Hollow asks, “Who gets to be American?”

<r many in our country today, home is an ambiguous and often conflicting concept.

This idea was at the heart of last week’s performances of the opera Swede Hollow, co-produced by the Music Departments of Carleton and St. Olaf.

Written and scored by St. Paul-based composer Ann Millikan, Swede Hollow follows the lives of three generations of immigrants in the Swede Hollow neighborhood in St. Paul. Brought to life by a cast, orchestra and production team that includes Carleton, St. Olaf and local Northfield students, the opera leaves the audience pondering on what home really means—and, by extension, what it means to be American.

After the mysterious orchestral introduction of the overture, the story dives right into the first scene, “Mexicans, December 11, 1956.” Quickly, the audience is thrusted into the world of the Swede Hollow getting a glimpse of the residents’ daily lives. The scene suddenly ends with a tragedy, when the city of St. Paul evicts the residents, burning their homes to the ground. One of the Mexican residents, Alita, played by St. Olaf’s Sarah Shapiro ’21, delivers a beautifully emotional aria, “My home falls in flames before my eyes.”

“Scene II: Italians, 1920’s” introduces a pair of young immigrant couples with their bustling communal lifestyle. When they are struck by a tragedy—a sudden death of one’s father—they persevere through the hardship, together as a community. The strength of this community shines through when the quartet, played by St. Olaf sophomores Zach Kubasta, Jenna Leonard, Noel Patterson and Carleton sophomore Rebecca Margolis ’21, sings, “My love lives high above the ocean.”

The third scene, “Swedes, 1850s,” captures the humble beginnings of the neighborhood through the arrival of its first settlers.

Through the dialogue between two brothers, Millikan depicts the complex relationship between new hopes and old sentimentalism, their dream for the future and the longing for the past. Caught between the two worlds, the older of the two, Elof—played by St. Olaf sophomore Lukas Jaegar—delivers a superbly emotive yet subtle aria, “I carried my chisel from inland high plains.”

It is noteworthy that the stories and fictionalized characters are based on historical research and interviews with former Swede Hollow residents. In writing the libretto, Millikan made efforts to maintain the powerful cultural and emotional integrity of their stories.

The stage props helped connect the three worlds: the door frame and chisel never leave the scene. The simple doorframe, representing the three different ideas of home, is at the heart of all stories. The characters from all three eras interact with a chisel, which metaphorically and physically represents the continuity of the common geographical space, all the while reinforcing the symbolic idea of home.

In the finale, the entire cast walks onto the bleachers, encircling the audience. They then deliver a powerful choral performance of “Dakota Land,” a poem by Anishinaabe poet Marcie R. Rendon, celebrating the original inhabitants of the region.

Seamlessly weaving through time, the progression of different groups of migrants highlights changing idea of who gets to be American. Swede Hollow forces us, especially within the context of our politics and society, to reflect once again on our many identities.

The production was made possible through the Broadening the Bridge initiative, which aims to connect Carleton and St. Olaf both in formal classroom curricula and experiential learning.

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