Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Irruption of Divas

Song Bird Watchers Flock to Indianola

My grandfather was never interested in clearing his woods to plant more fields. Because the migratory birds that returned to his farm each year feasted on bugs, he refused to spray insecticides in his orchard. But after most of his O’Brien County neighbors converted their woodlands to corn and bean acreage, the insect-eating birds stopped coming. Grandpa sold his farm and moved, saying that he would “follow the black-billed cuckoo, who is obviously smarter than the modern farmer.” He headed south to Central Iowa and the cuckoo migrated north, so Grandpa never found his black-billed friend again. He did, however, live to discover another kind of song bird that had also been diverted by human meddling.

Just as the cuckoo’s migratory habits were irrupted by two crop agriculture and the popularization of chemical pesticides, the opera diva began flocking to Marion County in 1973 after two visionary men enticed them to stray from their usual course. When Maestro Robert Larsen and the late Douglas Duncan founded Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), they entered un-chartered territory. At the time, serious opera companies were only found in great cities and famous resorts. Indianola, Iowa was hardly either. Yet, from day one, Duncan and Larsen designed their company on the cutting edge of the art form.

“Their first season was simply audacious and it established the reputation instantly. Think about it, a normal fledgling company will perform three audience-pandering classics. But they did Albert Herring by (Benjamin) Britten, The Medium by (Gian Carlo) Menotti and Prima Donna by Arthur Benjamin. They’ve had the respect of the opera world ever since. St. Louis Opera, for instance, was completely inspired by DMMO,” observed Florida State University professor Kyle Marrero, who served last year as director of DMMO’s apprentice artist program

“Conventional wisdom would be to start with the pops, not a challenging repertoire like they did. Another thing about the beginnings, it was 15 years before they ever repeated an opera. It’s astonishing for a regional company to have such breadth,” added Tom Smith, who last year became only the third executive director in the company‘s history.

DMMO almost didn’t happen. Larsen was teaching an opera workshop at Simpson College because Sven and Mildred Lekberg had endowed a special assistant professor position to attract the young piano wiz. Then in the early 1970’s, the pinnacle company in America, New York’s Metropolitan Opera, offered him a position. Larsen says it was incredibly attractive, but not tempting.

“If I took the Met post, I could see how my entire life would unfold. Far more interesting were the two prospects that staying here presented - teaching young talent and providing a stage for them, plus bringing opera to a part of the country that had never had it,” he recalled.

It takes more than cutting edge programming to lure brilliant song birds year after year. Larsen and Duncan carved a niche in the opera world by scheduling a summer season in Pote Theater’s 488 seat room. Great singers came, usually for less money than they could command elsewhere, because it was the family time of year. Pote’s friendly confines symbolized what is best about life in Iowa -- whatever might be lacking in frequency of cultural attractions is compensated with intimacy. Their plan irrupted the migratory pattern of the diva.

“The summer season allowed me to spend more time in residence in Iowa than I spent anywhere else in a given year, including home,” explained Southern Californian Evelyn de la Rosa, who sang more leads than any DMMO diva since the 1980‘s.

“It’s like no where else in the opera world for its sense of family,” said Janara Kellerman, a Cedar Rapids native who returned from New York to sing the lead in Carmen last year.

“This is my oasis in the dessert. For two months a year, I hear robins, I have friends who are like family. It’s such a respite from the hard part of an opera life. Too often we just do our jobs without an opportunity to make connections with the community or with our colleagues. This is the best sense of the phrase ‘the opera family,’ explained Gwyndolyn Jones, a five time DMMO leading lady from Louisiana.

All the divas we spoke with cited DMMO’s apprentice program as a big part of the family atmosphere and the opera’s international reputation. In its 33rd year, the program saw 850 young singers audition from around the world last season, for just 42 positions.

“I began here as an apprentice. It’s an extraordinary program, the best anywhere. The apprentices are not just selected to fill out the choruses, they are a main focus of the festival. We all go to their concerts and support them. That’s part of the thrill, to hear the young voices coming up,” explained Kellerman.

The apprentice program is the result of across the board success. DMMO got out of the red ink by its second season and made a profit every year since, a winning streak unmatched in the opera universe. Between a fifth and the fourth of the audience comes from outside Iowa, from more than 35 different states and 5 countries each year. That probably makes it the most cosmopolitan attraction in the state. More than 85 per cent of the ticket holders renew each year too. Even within Iowa, ticket buyers came from 66 different counties last year. Any way you look at it, DMMO is a serious tourist attraction.

“This is a small family business only in spirit. The company has a $2 million seasonal budget and a $12 million endowment. Our stage is the same width as that of the Met (Metropolitan Opera in New York). The small house is exciting to sing in, but it’s not forgiving. It’s not for beginners. We applaud ourselves as a house that has launched so many careers,” said Larsen.

The small house is always packed. DMMO’s summer festival program has varied between 95 per cent and 105 per cent “sold out” (some tickets are returned and resold) each summer for the last several years. That allows the company to produce an unusually high percentage of earned income for such a small house. And that helps fund the educational mission - DMMO spends nearly a fourth of its budget on the Apprentice Artist Program, OPERA Iowa and Operation Opera.

The intimacy of the theater is a remarkable asset. The worst seat at Pote is closer to the singers than the best seat at the biggest opera houses in America. Such “opera in your face” is not something the critics are used to and they have responded quite well to it.

“We get more New Yorkers every year, in our audience as well as our apprentice program. They are overwhelmed by our production values. Everyone who wants to make it in opera goes to New York, but outside of The Met and (New York) City Opera, the opera companies there are pretty bare boned. If not for having so many great singers around, their productions are pretty dubious. When these singers see what’s going on here with costumes, sets, camaraderie, interchange with other artists, et cetera, they are blown away,” observed Larsen, with a smile.

Divas blend into Indianola, frequenting places like Cafe Beaujolais, Crouse Café and the Sports Page Lounge.

“We almost all furnish our homes here completely by shopping at Goodwill. Then we donate everything back at the end of the season. First one here gets first pick of the furniture,” laughed Jones.

Sometimes, divas don’t blend in enough. In many other opera houses, a “Green Room” backstage permits fans to wait to mingle with singers after they have changed clothes. In Indianola, the cast comes to the lobby after performances, still in costume, to visit with fans. That can be confusing. Jones and Kellerman frequently play classic characters of loose or tragic moral circumstances. Both divas tell stories about being called “slut” or “tart” or being confidentially told that the men they are “fooling around with” on stage are married. Jones joked that this doesn’t ever happen to Jane Redding, a buddy-diva from Florida.

“I play all the sweet roles,” Redding sighed as her husband Kyle Marerro joined the kidding.

“We call Jane ‘Miss Indianola.’ She even gets invited to sing at the local churches,” he said.

Over the years, DMMO has attracted an impressive list of singers to Indianola. Yet, one singing discovery that Larsen rates with “the best ever,” was already living in Indianola, and was never to be heard elsewhere.

“This company owes its existence to Carol Stuart. She is one of the greatest singers I have ever heard - to this day. But she was not going to leave Iowa to pursue a career. So, we provided her only stage. She was our first Magda (La Rondine), our first Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly), our first Violetta (La Traviata) and so many others (Stuart premiered a record ten lead roles altogether at DMMO),” Larsen recalled.

Stuart was also my grandfather’s favorite song bird, so much so that my mother and her sister both teased him about having a crush on her. Hearing Maestro Larsen recall her history reminded me of one of Grandpa’s favorite quotations, from Charles Lindbergh.

“If I had to choose, I’d rather have birds than airplanes.”

Fortunately, DMMO doesn’t have to choose.

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