It is not often that you can listen to arias and anecdotes about hog farming at the same event, but that is just what will take place at "Opera and Orneriness," held at 7 p.m. Sunday at First Mennonite Church, 429 E. First St.
The songs will be sung by Marie Engle and the stories will be told by her uncle, Stan Epp.
Engle started taking voice lessons at 16 and has gone on to spend two years singing professionally in Vienna, Austria.
"The physical feeling of singing opera — the thought that you could fill the room with your voice — really appealed to me," Engle said.
Now a graduate of Northwestern University, Engle credits her uncle with the idea for the mashup of her singing the stories someone else has written and his personal, first-hand accounts of growing up on a hog farm.
"I'll be performing two different opera arias as well as classical songs," Engle said. "He will be telling mostly humorous stories from his growing up in rural South Dakota."
Engle will perform arias from George Bizet's "Carmen" and Christoph Gluck's "Orpheus and Eurydice," along with other songs in English.
"The main reason that I sing is to communicate something from my heart to the audience's heart. If the audience is engaged, it'll be personal," Engle said. "People assume opera is always dramatic and tragic, but I think that audience will come away with a deep sense of connection with music and whatever emotion they feel from that."
Epp will also be evoking emotions with his accounts of life in a Low German Mennonite community. In his stories, which he has shared at a few other venues around Newton, Epp tries to portray the characters he knew as they really were.
"Some of us call our ancestors 'prairiebillies,'" Epp said. "As farmers, they had unique ways of doing things. It wasn't the fanciest or the most modern, but it usually worked."
The Mennonites were often known by their last names, ethnic food and culture of being serious about their moral convictions and religious beliefs.
While he grew up in a rural town, it was on the edge of the Mennonite community, which meant there were regular interactions with non-Mennonites.
"There are some fairly unique ways of doing things and acting that people find humorous," Epp said.
Epp recalls his grandfathers using a stationary baler, making other non-Mennonite farmers irritated at their stolid refusal to stop working.
"They didn't talk while they worked, and they didn't hardly stop to take breaks," Epp said.
Nonetheless, the lifestyle of the Mennonites was not without the 'orneriness' Epp describes.
"We had this hard-working, serious religious perspective, but there was always this humor bubbling beneath the surface that we weren't sure if we could let out," Epp said.
With the stories of their family's history, Epp also wants to give his niece a connection to her heritage and keep her grounded in her roots as she goes off to New York City.
"She has a gift. She has what I call just a cannon for a voice. She's had a good education and she's going on to a good school," Epp said. "We're just really proud of her, so we want to have some fun and give her a good send-off."
"My uncle Stan is really invested in my career because there aren't many Christians in the opera world," Engle said.
A freewill donation will be taken at the event, with the proceeds going to further Engle's education at the Juilliard School this fall.
"Marie and I just thought we'd collaborate," Epp said. "We want to do it to the glory of God. We want to be honoring to our heritage and to God."