Wed June 14, 2017 This is why you should experience opera in Iowa this summer by Matthew Leimkuehler, The Des Moines Register
For Des Moines Metro Opera, year 45 is lookin’ pretty good.
The nonprofit organization plans to kick off its four-and-a-half decade celebration in Indianola on June 23, with performances running through July 16. The season plans to be anchored by three performances, all of which organizers consider must-see shows for new and curious opera-goers. The shows:
“Turandot,” an Italian opera featuring music popularized for use in film and at sporting events. “A Little Night Music,” an operatic rendition of the award-winning musical. “Billy Budd,” a stage version of the Herman Melville novella of the same name.
“It’s a really good year for first-timers,” said Michael Egel, general and artistic director for Des Moines Metro Opera. “All three pieces are good for those who haven’t been.”
Opera programming in June and July comes in a festival-like cluster, giving attendees a chance multiple performances in a three-day period. And, during the organization’s operatic tenure in central Iowa, it has grown to attract fine arts fans from the state and beyond. Last year, Egel said, individuals from four countries and 40 states attended a Des Moines Metro Opera performance.
“We try to create a season that appeals to people from Des Moines who may be coming for the very first time, but also that’s going to attract people to come from numerous states,” Egel said.
Even if the name “Turandot” means nothing to you, chances are you’ve heard music from the nearly 100-year-old Italian opera.
Most notably popularized in 1990 through BBC’s promotional use of the opera’s third act aria “Nessun Dorma” during World Cup coverage, pieces of “Turandot” have since been covered by Aretha Franklin and re-created by Jeff Beck; films such as “Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation” and “Bend It Like Beckham” have relied on “Nessun Dorma” as pivotal soundtrack additions; contestants on reality television competitions such as “X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent” have turned judges’ heads numerous times in the last decade (for better or worse) with attempts at re-creating the opera’s long-celebrated music.
The roughly 80-person performance, which debuted in 1926 and is performed in Italian, recites the fable of a Chinese princess, who punishes with death by beheading all suitors who are unable to answer three riddles in hopes of gaining her affection.
The opera, Egel said, is one that typically marks an anniversary year. Calling it the “grandest of the grand,” 2017 will mark Des Moines Metro Opera’s third time presenting “Turandot.”
“I don’t think there’s a bigger opera out there in terms of voices and sound and impact,” Egel said.
“Turandot” hits the opera stage on June 23, 25, 30 and July 8, 13 and 16.
For the second time in organization history, Des Moines Metro Opera plans to bring a musical to the Indianola stage.
Written by Broadway icon Stephen Sondheim, the Tony and Grammy Award-winning musical known for giving the world “Send In The Clowns” marks a conscious effort by Egel to program a smaller, more elegant production, compared to the massive undertakings of “Turandot” and “Billy Budd.”
“I think it’s an opera where sophistication and glamour are prevalent,” he said.
Stage and costume design for the “A Little Night Music” comes via acclaimed American artist Isaac Mizrahi. Metro Opera will be the third company to produce Mizrahi's version of “Night Music,” with it originally debuting in St. Louis in 2010.
Speaking via phone with the Register, Mizrahi said he spent two to three years developing the visuals seen in the production, which pulls influence from William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." The New York-based fashion mogul was named honorary chair of National Opera Week in 2016.
“It’s such a classic, beautiful show,” Mizrahi said. “The ideas that I brought to the show were also kind of classic.”
“Night Music” is an opera that puts the art on display in a way newcomers can easily embrace, Mizrahi explained.
“There’s something about the art of live singing that’s very compelling,” Mizrahi said. “I really, really … admire opera singers for their physical power. It’s a physically challenging thing to do, to be on stage for that long, singing with that kind of power.”
He continued: “If you’ve never seen (opera), this is a very good show to start. It’s very viewer-friendly; there’s an interesting story … Maybe it (leads) to the next steps, right?”
Catch “A Little Night Music” on June 24 and July 2, 5, 7 and 15.
Based on the 1924 Herman Melville novella, “Billy Budd” is a Des Moines Metro Opera premiere that Egel called seven years in the making.
Typically produced in bigger cities with larger opera houses — Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Chicago and New York have all previously hosted “Billy Budd” — Egel approached the estate of Benjamin Britten, who transformed the book into an opera that debuted in 1951, to discuss the possibility of scaling down the production to fit the DMMO stage.
"A lot of people are aware of it, but you don’t get to see it very often,” Egel said. “(It’s) an opera that was written for an enormous orchestra.”
Egel and the Metro Opera staff worked with the estate to scale down the orchestra to fit the 467-seat venue; the organization will be the first in the world to debut this intimate version of “Budd.” Still, similar to “Turandot,” the Metro Opera’s production of the classic nautical novel-turned-opera plans to boast more than 80 participants across the four scheduled performances.
“Billy Budd” runs in Indianola on July 1, 9, 11 and 14.