Indianola, IA — On Saturday, July 13, Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) adds a new work to the operatic repertory with the world premiere of American Apollo, a new opera by composer Damien Geter and librettist Lila Palmer. Originally conceived as a 20-minute chamber opera in 2021 as part of Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, DMMO commissioned Geter and Palmer to expand and transform American Apollo into a full-length work, which will run for three performances—July 13 at 8pm, July 18 at 7:30pm and July 19 at 1pm—in repertory alongside Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, and a new production and company premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande during the 2024 Festival Season. The opera marks Des Moines Metro Opera’s third world premiere, preceded by Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest (1986) and Kristin Kuster and Mark Campbell’s A Thousand Acres (2022).

About American Apollo

When American portraitist John Singer Sargent died in 1925, only one portrait was hanging in his private studio. But it was not one of his famous paintings that defined the Gilded Age in New England; it was a spare, nude portrait of a Black man: monumental, vulnerable and pulsing with life. His name was Thomas Eugene McKeller

American Apollo gives voice to this overlooked but pivotal figure in American art. Inspired by the January 2017 discovery of a file of ten large-format works on paper signed by Sargent and left to his friend and patron, Isabella Stewart GardnerAmerican Apollo examines the personal and professional relationship between John Singer Sargent, the celebrity image maker and artist, and Thomas Eugene McKeller, the Black hotel worker, veteran and model whose image was transformed by Sargent into white-skinned Greek gods featured prominently in murals throughout Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Poised at the crossroads of race, sexuality, class, celebrity and history, the opera unfolds the story of McKeller, revealing his seminal role in some of the most important works of public art of the late twentieth century.

“As we approach the premiere of the full version of American Apollo, I reflect on the journey that brought Lila and me to this point, and why Thomas McKeller’s story is significant,” said Geter. “The importance of his narrative lies in the United States’ most recent reckoning with race relations, and the excavating of essential Black figures whose contributions to the world were covered up, lost or forgotten. It is my hope that the music serves the drama in a way that makes the audience root for Thomas in his quest to simply be seen.” According to curator Nathaniel Silver of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “while reams of correspondence attest to Sargent’s life and work, successes and failures and even such details as his tastes in music, theater or food, McKeller is almost invisible in the historical record.”

Thanks in part to Silver’s work, librettist Lila Palmer was able to use this extensive new scholarship to craft a rich history for McKeller and Sargent alongside a vibrant cast of supporting characters. American Apollo is now “equal parts portrait and romance,” Palmer explains, and “a bittersweet, strikingly contemporary story of love, creativity and friendship that reaches across what divides us.”

Tickets for the July 13, July 18 and July 19 performances of American Apollo range from $50–$208 and are available at or by calling the Box Office at (515) 209-3257. For more information about American Apollo, visit request press tickets, contact director of marketing and public relations Scott Arens at or (515) 209-3255.

The world premiere of American Apollo is made possible by leadership support from the Pamela Bass-Bookey and Harry Bookey Charitable Foundation. The Lauridsen Family Foundation is the presenting sponsor of the 2024 Festival Season.

The Events Surrounding the July 13 Premiere
Prior to the opening night performance, Paul Fisher, author of the 2022 book The Grand Affair: John Singer Sargent and his World will present a lecture entitled “A Mysterious Apollo: John Singer Sargent and His Muse Thomas McKeller. Fisher's book foregrounds Sargent's private work as well as the women and men, patrons and models who helped shape his artistic production including Isabella Stewart Gardner, Nicola d'Inverno and Thomas McKeller, all of whom feature prominently in the opera. The lecture will occur at 3:30pm in Indianola. Post-performance celebrations will take place at the Blank Performing Arts Center, including hot-air balloons and pilots from Indianola's acclaimed National Balloon Classic

The Production
The creative team bringing this world premiere to life includes DMMO’s Marshall and Judy Flapan Music Director and Principal Conductor David Neely (conductor), Shaun Patrick Tubbs (director), Kate Pitt (dramaturg), Steven C. Kemp (scenic design), Danielle Preston (costume design), Bridget S. Williams (lighting design), Brittany V.A. Rappise (wig and makeup design) and Leah Tubbs (movement director).

A quote by John Singer Sargent—"I don't dig beneath the surface for things that don't appear before my own eyes"— speaks to “the heart of Lila Palmer and Damien Geter's beautiful new opera,” says director Shaun Patrick Tubbs, who makes his company debut this summer. He continues, “When an artist examines their subject, what do they include? And what is left out? In exploring the artist and muse relationship between John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eugene McKeller, American Apolloexcavates the very core, the heart of art, peeling back the layers of paint, as on a piece of canvas, and takes us to that spark of creative inspiration. This opera literally and figuratively stands bare striping away any preconceptions of what it means to love. Damien and Lila have taken such care with every word, note, phrase, and measure. My hope is that audiences will understand and appreciate the value of what it means to be seen, not in part but fully and completely.”

The Cast
The cast features baritone Justin Austin (Thomas Eugene McKeller), tenor William Burden (John Singer Sargent) in a company debut, soprano Mary Dunleavy(Isabella Stewart Gardner), mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng (Ida Mae McDonald), tenor Alex McKissick (Nicola d’Inverno), mezzo-soprano Kendra Faith Beasley(Florence McKeller and Mrs. Smithson), baritone Daniel Rich (Willie McDonald), bass-baritone Shyheim Selvan Hinnant (Clarence and Master of Ceremonies), tenor Isaiah Traylor (George), tenor Antonio Domino (Walter), bass-baritone Robert Frazier (Jimmy O’Donnelly and Mr. Carhart) and tenor Hayden Smith (Mr. Sparhawk). 

About Damien Geter
Damien Geter is an acclaimed composer who infuses classical music with various styles from the Black diaspora to create music that furthers the cause for social justice, as well as a celebrated bass-baritone – “amazing to listen to. Possessed of a rolling, resonant voice even at the lowest register” (Northwest Reverb) – whose varied credits include performances from the operatic stage to the television screen. He is Composer-in-Residence at the Richmond Symphony through the 2024-25 season, and serves as Interim Music Director and Artistic Advisor at Portland Opera, as well as the Artistic Advisor for Resonance Ensemble.

Geter’s rapidly growing body of work includes chamber, vocal, orchestral, and full operatic works, with his compositions being praised for their “Skillful vocal writing” (Wall Street Journal). In the 2023-2024 season, Des Moines Metro Opera presents the full-length world premiere of his opera, American Apollo, while Virginia Opera holds a workshop of Loving v. Virginia, a new major work co-commissioned by Virginia Opera and the Richmond Symphony which will premiere as part of Virginia Opera’s 50th Anniversary Season in May 2025. Geter’s Annunciation is featured on Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s concert Montgomery and the Blacknificent 7, and Richmond Symphony will premiere a brand-new work, Sinfonia Americana, to be conducted by Music Director Valentina Peleggi. His song cycle COTTON, commissioned by Lyric Fest, will see its New York premiere at the 92nd Street Y, starring Denyce Graves and Justin Austin. Additionally, The Recording Inclusivity Initiative records String Quartet No. 1 “Neo-Soul”.

Read Damien’s full bio >

About Lila Palmer
Lila Palmer is a British and American librettist whose warmth, clarity, and stylistic flexibility have made her a favored partner of established and emerging composers alike. An advanced vocal performer herself, Lila’s skill in advocating for and writing to the classically trained voice has enabled her to bridge the gap between the world of interpreter and creative. She is proud to be the only dual graduate of both the Royal Opera House London - Guildhall Opera Makers MA program and American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program.

Upcoming performances of Palmer’s work include The Fox Sisters, with Marc Migo for Teatro Liceu in Barcelona; In Her Own Valley, with Grace Mason for Liverpool Philharmonic; and American Apollo, with Damien Geter for Des Moines Metro Opera. Holy Ground, also with Geter, will be excerpted as part of the Guggenheim’s Works & Process before receiving its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Festival. Lila’s song cycle for soprano Golda Schultz, This Be Her Verse, is out on Alpha Classics, and has been hailed by Opera News as “a new repertoire staple.” The cycle will receive national premieres in Canada, Scotland, Switzerland, and France, where Lila will also attend the 2022 Aix-En-Provence Women’s Opera Lab.

Read Lila’s full bio >

About Des Moines Metro Opera
Lauded by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the most enterprising summer opera fests in the nation,” Des Moines Metro Opera is a progressive opera company located in the heart of Iowa that has taken its place among America’s leading opera festivals. Founded in 1973, it’s one of the largest performing arts organizations in Iowa, annually producing over 100 performances in the metro area and across the region.

Des Moines Metro Opera’s 2024 Festival Season, running June 28 – July 21, includes the return of one of the world’s greatest operatic comedies, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, a new production of Debussy’s Pelléas & Mélisande, and the world premiere of Geter/Palmer’s American Apollo

Media Resources for American Apollo
High-resolution imagery and press kit
American Apollo Info Sheet
Composer’s Notes by Damien Geter
The Genesis of American Apollo by Joshua Borths


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