Monday, December 3, 2007

Corn-Fed Opera

Earlier this summer, I went into mild culture shock while visiting the Des Moines Metro Opera. Perhaps it was because, after steadily becoming inured to the pressures of racing through crowded airport terminals and across bustling downtown streets, I was completely unprepared for the sight of a Country Kitchen restaurant where half the customers looked like Surgeon General Everett Koop! Although it was a pleasant surprise to pass through rolling fields of corn, drive by John Wayne's birthplace, straddle the Middle Raccoon River and attend performances in scenic Indianola, I don't think a person can claim to have truly gotten a handle on Middle America until he has discovered that instant mashed potatoes are the specialty item on the Marriott's Sunday brunch buffet and that the breakfast menu in Omaha's Ramada Central hotel includes such yummy treats as a peanut butter, jelly and bacon sandwich!

While working the malls in Iowa, I got to sample Superman-flavored ice cream (which is not made the way you think it is) and visit the South Des Moines branch of K-Mart during the exceedingly hot 4th of July weekend. And yet, as tempting as it might be to poke fun at such experiences, the hard truth is that, under Robert Larsen's supervision, the Des Moines Metro Opera offered a most impressive artistic product.

The dimensions and acoustical dynamics of Simpson College's 480-seat Blank Performing Arts Center -- plus the fact that all operas are sung in English -- created a wonderful environment with which to support an extremely intimate style of opera theatre. Although two of 1988's productions (Rossini's The Barber of Seville and Mozart's The Magic Flute) seemed like perfect choices for this particular theatrical venue, the Des Moines Metro Opera's third offering, Puccini's Turandot, proved to be quite a surprise. Here's why.


Based on a Chinese fairy tale, Turandot promises lots of Oriental glitz and one of those "Anything you can sing, I can sing louder" duets between the soprano and tenor. Most productions of Puccini's last opera take place in oversized theatres where, confronted by audiences ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 in number, the producer's goal is to drown the ticket buyers in spectacle so that (as with Franco Zeffirelli's recent staging of Turandot for the Metropolitan Opera) the visual impact overwhelms the production's musical values and the audience leaves the theatre whistling the scenery. Under such circumstances, it's not unusual for the soloists to be drowned out by the orchestra and for any artistic achievements to get lost in all the scenery.

There was no way that could have happened in Indianola where, due to the extreme flexibility of the Blank Performing Arts Center's main stage and fore-stage, the Des Moines Metro Opera's production achieved a surprisingly panoramic feeling. With sets by Paul A. Norrenbrock and Katherine Ross, lighting by Martin Ross and fairly elaborate costumes on loan from the Opera Company of Boston, this Turandot offered Iowan audiences a very impressive show. The acoustics of the theatre did a tremendous job of enhancing the orchestral sound so that, when everyone was singing on pitch, one could honestly wallow in the excesses of Puccini's Chinese wet dream.

Pitch, alas, proved to be a problem for soprano Pyramid Sellars, who tackled the title role with a voice that was loud, but not always well-focused. As Calaf, tenor Paul Spencer Adkins did a fairly good job but seemed over-parted (I'd really worry about his singing this role in larger houses). Soprano Jean Glennon offered an attractively sung and sympathetically acted Liu; bass William Walker delivered a nice cameo as the blind old man, Timur. Lee Franklin displayed some attractive flesh as the Prince of Persia.

The roles of Ping, Pang and Pong were taken by Kimm Julian, Mark Kleinman and Reginald Pittman, who performed Act II, Scene I quite effectively from the theatre's fore-stage area (thus offering an extra measure of communication with the audience). Robert Larsen's conducting was fairly solid, but I got the distinct feeling that Turandot was one show which might have been a little too big for him to handle.


That was hardly the case with The Magic Flute which, of the three operas I saw in Indianola, fared best. Using Paul A. Norrenbrock's handsomely-designed unit set (with costumes designed by John Lehmeyer) this staging of Flute was strongly cast, beautifully sung, visually quite rich and staged with surprisingly good taste. Larsen's Mozart conducting was right on target and the sound in the tiny theatre bolstered the singers to the point where this performance of The Magic Flute became one of the better experiences I can recall having had with the opera.

Casting, as I say, was quite strong. Amanda Halgrimson's soaring Queen of the Night had a firm control on the role's coloratura demands while Janice Grissom's radiantly sung and endearingly acted Pamina evidenced the growth this attractive young artist has experienced while a member of the Houston Opera Studio. Marcus Haddock sang Tamino's music with a surety and pureness one rarely encounters (this was a tenorino singing from the balls rather than from his fingernails) and Mark Christian -- an exceptionally fine black comprimario tenor whom I had never heard before -- delivered a superlative portrayal of Monostatos.

The only weak performance came from Bruce Brown's Papageno which, considering that this was his first experience with the role, may simply need some more time to mature. James Patterson delivered a solidly-sung Sarastro while Thea Potanos was an appealing Papagena. Special mention goes to veteran Anne Larson's Third Lady which, along with Rebecca Moore and Lorraine DiSimone's help, offered some fine Mozartean doo-wop singing.

Where does that leave my assessment of the Indianola experience? As readers of this column know, I derive tremendous enjoyment from experiencing opera in small theatres like Indianola's Blank Performing Arts Center (where communication as a part of opera theatre ranks as a top priority). I'm happy to report that the company's artistic standards are extremely high; the product is just a tad below the level of performance one finds at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

And thus, although Des Moines may not rank as one of the nation's trendiest vacation destinations, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a trip there for a weekend of good, solid opera in suburban Indianola. In fact, if one were to combine the St. Louis and Indianola seasons on a week's journey next June (when OTSL will be producing Massenet's Werther, Lehar's The Merry Widow, Purcell's King Arthur and the world premiere of Anthony Davis's new science fiction opera, Under the Double Moon) the combination of seven operas performed in English in such intimate surroundings might be too much to handle. Such a week could offer a truly revelatory operatic experience on a grass-roots level.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on September 1, 1988.

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