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Local opera legend, Vern Sutton, retires from U
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Vern Sutton (second from right) is retiring from the University of Minnesota's School of Music. Here he directs a rehearsal with some of his students. (Photo courtesy of U of M School of Music)
Vern Sutton, a living Minnesota opera legend, is retiring. He's ending 36 years as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Music. However, Sutton is not yet ready to leave the stage.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Vern Sutton says he discovered the thrill of performing for people in first grade. He played the roll of Baby Bear in a production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

"I was applauded for the first time. I have never forgotten that," says Sutton. "I loved it, and I can't wait to get out on stage every time now to recreate that moment."

Sutton grew up in Oklahoma City, where he was the neighborhood kid always organizing shows. Sutton still loves to perform. He recalls discovering his limits as a child, and later as an adult.

His vocal talents gained him an audition at age 9 with a prestigious national boy choir. He won a spot in the group, but was devastated to learn he'd have to leave home, attend a boarding school and tour for a year.

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Image At the Minnesota State Fair

"I remember when they told me that I'd won, I just burst out into tears. They thought I was happy. And they tried to talk to my mother and she said, 'Nope, he's not ready to go.'"

Sutton came to Minnesota after college to take a job directing a church choir. After finishing graduate school at the U, he landed a job on the school of music faculty.

Sutton says balancing professorial duties with his yearning to perform was tricky. An artistic director wanted Sutton to perform in the nude for Faust Counter Faust. It was an avant garde production by the then fledging Center Opera Company, performing on the Guthrie stage in Minneapolis. Sutton remembers telling the artistic director the -- exposure -- would not be received well by the audience.

"'Besides, I'm a university professor. I really don't think I can appear nude on the stage just as a matter of decorum. My students may come,'" Sutton recalls explaining. "At that point I was teaching a music appreciation course that had 500 students in it, non-music majors. I said, 'They will come and they will see me, and I just don't think it's appropriate,' so we compromised on a very small white bikini."

Sutton is better known for bringing live opera to dozens of rural communities in the upper Midwest. He created Opera on the Farm, as the program was called, after watching a College of St. Catherine production of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land.

I was applauded for the first time (in first grade). I have never forgotten that. I loved it, and I can't wait to get out on stage every time now to recreate that moment.
- Vern Sutton

"And I remember sitting there thinking, 'They built a farm on the stage. We're surrounded by farms, and they built a farm. Couldn't this opera be done on a farm? It takes place on the front porch of a farm house,'" says Sutton.

Sutton's life after retirement from the U will be busy. He's packing his bags for Eureka Springs, Ark., where he directs a summer opera workshop. And he'll continue his stage work.

Sutton's fans marvel at his versatility -- his mastery of classical and contemporary opera, his improvisational skills as a frequent guest on the A Prairie Home Companion radio program, and his affinity for country and western music. Sutton says opera's themes have a lot in common with the music he grew up with.

"Revenge, all kinds of unrequited love, oh many of the themes are the same, and some of the emotions are just as maudlin," Sutton says.

Sutton marks his retirement from the U's school of music faculty with a new production of The Dangerous Liaisons, with performances beginning this weekend. This summer Sutton directs Dracula, a University Centennial Showboat production.

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