On Thursday, Feb. 28 and Friday, March 1, the music departments of Carleton College and St. Olaf College performed Ann Millikan’s opera “Swede Hollow.” The show was made possible by the Broadening the Bridge Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The grant seeks to encourage curricular collaboration between St. Olaf and Carleton. The event took place in Carleton’s black box theatre and featured musicians from both colleges, along with children from the local community.
The opera focuses on the Swede Hollow neighborhood of St. Paul, which Milikan calls the “secret” of the Twin Cities. The neighborhood began to develop in the 1850s with the influx of Swedish immigrants. Many immigrants worked on the railroads and lived in the Swede Hollow neighborhood until they became more economically stable. In its 100 year history, the neighborhood was also occupied by Italian and Mexican immigrants. On December 11, 1956, the city of St. Paul deemed Swede Hollow uninhabitable. Residents of the neighborhood were evicted and their homes burned to the ground. Milikan stated that the goal of the show was to “honor and acknowledge the strength of communities.”
The play opens on the last day of Swede Hollow’s existence. Mexican immigrants Alita and Graciela discuss the city’s decision to destroy the neighborhood due to poor living conditions, remarking that there was nothing wrong with their drinking water. The two reminisce about their old home, then somberly look on as flames engulf it.
“The show draws attention to the experiences of new Americans and the strong bond formed amongst community members.” – Hannah Martens ’20
From there the show moves backwards in time, featuring musical numbers by each wave of immigrants. Swede Hollow depicts the everyday aspects of life in the neighborhood. The audience experiences the hope of Seved, a Swedish immigrant who plans to work his way through the railroad company and eventually become owner.
The excitement of Italian immigrant Elena as she prepares for her wedding is palpable, however the lighthearted mood shatters when her fiance’s father is murdered. The show concludes with all members of the show singing “Dakota Land,” a tribute to the original inhabitants of the land.
Swede Hollow pays tribute to a little known aspect of Twin City history. The show draws attention to the experiences of new Americans and the strong bond formed amongst community members. The theme of home is prominent throughout, focusing specifically on the ideas of leaving, finding and losing it.
As a non-Minnesotan unfamiliar with area history, I found this story fascinating. I really enjoyed having the story told backwards, and found the ending depicting the original land powerful. Furthermore, it was interesting to see this story told as an opera. Overall, I found the collaboration between the colleges successful and enjoyed learning about the historical and social importance of the Swede Hollow neighborhood.