Des Moines Metro Opera

A few weeks back I had the pleasure of finally making it to Des Moines Metro Opera to experience its unique theater, which I had read and heard about for years. It did not disappoint. It’s a very intimate theater, seating app. 500, in a thrust configuration with the audience wrapping evenly around both sides of the stage. Its most interesting feature is having the orchestra pit located within the playing area, so the performers can be positioned downstage of the pit as well as upstage and to the sides of it. This feature enables the action to be even closer to the public. The acoustic is good, not as dry as most theaters of this type, and the stage house itself is quite wide and reasonably tall, so that one gets an “epic” feeling.

I attended two performances and gave an acting seminar to their young artist program singers. My first evening was Dead Man Walking in its Iowa premiere. Jake Heggie was in attendance and I enjoyed chatting with him. When I was head of Cincinnati Opera, we offered a production of this work–the first company to do so after its world premiere in San Francisco–and it was a wonderful experience for our community. The same could be said about the Des Moines project, for which both Sister Helen Prejean and Jake attended and gave talks. These two wonderful people are extremely generous in going around to companies and involving the community. Hats off to them both.

The production was clean and strong and I was really struck by how the resemblance of the performer playing Sister Helen to the real Helen Prejean. Pretty remarkable, not only in appearance but in spunky behavior. Everyone in the cast gave it their all and the band sounded terrific.

The next evening I attended La Traviata, which featured a couple of former students of mine in the leads. Caitlyn Lynch was doing the role only for the second time and was really wonderful, sounding fresh and full, able to pull off the vocal demands in the first act and then evolve the sound to encompass the greater depth of tone required by the later acts. Diego Silva was a lovely Alfredo, beautiful tone to the voice and for his first time out with the role did very well. Todd Thomas is someone I worked with many years ago and great to see him in action again after so many years, very convincing as an older, mature character. The chorus was absolutely spectacular–kudos to Lisa Hasson who prepared them. The production looked very sumptuous and Lillian Groag moved the actors around fluidly. She invented 4 silent clones of Violetta who appeared at various moments doing ghostly movement–I am always interested in such choices but I confess this one did not deliver a payoff for me.

The acting seminar started off in a very interesting way: a tornado sent us all to a secure basement room, after about 5 minutes of class activity! So the first singer and I did some talking work while we waited out the storm. The sky became incredibly dark to the point of seeming to be a very strange night sky–quite amazing. My wife Mari is from Iowa and confirmed seeing many such skies while growing up. After about 30 minutes of basement life, we resumed and had a lovely class.

Michael Egel, the General and Artistic Director of the company, is doing a stellar job taking over from Dr. Robert Larsen, who founded the company and led it for decades. Not an easy task taking the reins from such a legend! His approach is measured and gradual in terms of instituting the changes he envisions and the public is reacting very well. I wish him all the best for continued success at this gem of a company.

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