The period-obsessed drama series "Mad Men" used troubled married couples caught up in commercialized 1960s American culture to create award-winning, must-binge-watch television almost 10 years ago.

The Lyric Opera of the North uses a similar swinging 60s approach to stage two heavy operas in one groovy show.

That's right: The words "groovy" and "opera" were just used in the same sentence.

Leonard Bernstein's classic 1952 "Trouble in Tahiti" and "The Filthy Habit," a 2004 work by Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi, were both given a neat 1960 makeover for an opening-night audience of almost 200 people at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth on Sunday evening. The 1960s twist, which could have felt like a gimmick, instead added spark and color to an already unconventional staging.

For newcomers to opera and its all music structure this is a good place to start.

"Trouble in Tahiti," which opened the night, is not set on the idyllic Pacific island but rather in bleak and soulless suburban America. The loveless married couple Dinah, played by Holly Janz, and Sam, played by Christopher Burchett, have money, success and good looks but find little happiness in their lonely relationship.

Looking like Don and Betty Draper on their way to a cocktail party, Dinah and Sam struggle to communicate their dissatisfaction with each other. "Let us try to be kind," they sing, but being kind is not the same as being in love.

Burchett shows a wide range in his performance. He sings with braggadocio into a rotary phone after a successful business deal but finds the sorrowful and hollow notes when reconciling his relationship. Janz has a towering voice, the strongest of the night, and lays it wide open during a counseling scene on a lime green mid-modern couch in her analyst's office.

The two walk past and sing past each other as they agree to see a bad movie set in perfect Tahiti rather than talk out their problems.

While the Bernstein libretto is sad and heartbreaking, Director Marni Raab injects some light moments with a bubbly three-voice chorus and a golden handball trophy.

Things get even lighter in the second opera "The Filthy Habit."

Set in a New York City apartment decorated in Andy Warhol-inspired pop art, Marlboro-loving Susan, played by Sarah Lawrence and the health-obsessed Gil, played by Paul Coate, are confronted with a new city-wide smoking ban. The couple has been together a year but Susan has hidden her bad habit until Gil discovers a pack of smokes in the couch.

Dressed in gray sweatpants and a baggy sweatshirt, Coate looks like Steve Martin and sings his way through some wonderfully funny scenes. He roars through a nightmare sequence imagining Sarah having an affair with smokers in a black motorcycle jacket, a French beret and a cowboy hat. Former Minnesota Ballet dancer Nikolaus Wourms, as smoking man, lights up this scene with silent moves as wispy as smoke.

Lawrence shines the brightest as she lies on a couch and sings sensual, soaring "ahhhhs" while celebrating her love of the nicotine high. "You're a little something that's mine," she calls.

Unlike "Mad Men" Dinah and Sam, Susan and Gil work out their issues and seem headed in the right direction.

Using a musical score that sounds more like the Nelson Riddle orchestra than the Beatles, conductor Andrew Sewell moves a crack seven-piece orchestra through the almost two-hour performance deftly. Piano from Beth Sobzcak and Theodore Schoen on clarinet notably add to the tension and fun during "The Filthy Habit."

While the '60s theme strengthens the Bernstein work it creates some distractions in "The Filthy Habit." References to 21st century signposts like Mayor Bloomberg, "Sex and the City" and organic-food chain stores don't mix well with the decidedly beatnik hippies in the chorus.

In the end the timeless themes of love, loss and loneliness overcome it all - be it in a double opera or a cable television melodrama.

If you go

  • What: Lyric Opera of the North's "Trouble in Tahiti/The Filthy Habit"
  • When: Oct. 29 and 30 at 7 p.m.
  • Where: Clyde Iron Works, 2920 W. Michigan St.
  • Cost: $50 for reserved table seating; $39 general seating; $12 for students with ID
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