The DM Metro Opera, starting its 52nd season, not only presents great stories, it IS one!

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

DES MOINES, Iowa, June 23, 2024 – Oh, to think of all the great stories that have been staged and sung by the Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), which this week starts its 52nd anniversary season in its home on the Simpson College campus in nearby Indianola.

Come to think of it, a few stories in how this cultural jewel was created and grown are pretty good, too.

There’s the one from the early 1940s, about how the farm boy Robert Larsen, at 9 and 10 years old growing up outside little Walnut in western Iowa, would spend his Saturday afternoons sitting or sprawling next to a console radio in the home.  He’d hang on every word and note in the matinee performances broadcasted live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  And he’d dream.  “It was ‘Carmen’ I wanted to see most,” he later wrote in a blog. And when he learned that a touring company was presenting that opera at Tech High’s auditorium in Omaha, he pitched a fit until his dad agreed to take him to experience it.

In the 1950s, in Montezuma in southeast Iowa, the Brownell family would listen to those Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from the Met, and young Frank Brownell III was entranced.  This spring’s “Vivace” magazine from the DMMO tells the story of how Frank’s father “purchased a set of 13 opera performances on records from a jeweler who was closing his shop.  Frank wore out the records listening to them.”  Then an aunt bought the whole family tickets for the Chicago Lyric Opera’s performance – of “Carmen.” Sixty-plus years later, Frank III gave $1 million to the DMMO to support its Artist Apprentice Program, which is now named after him.

In the summer of 1994, a Simpson College undergraduate from Spencer and Algona in northwest Iowa signed on to work on the DMMO festival staff.  He did whatever he was told by the legendary festival director Robert Larsen – yes, the ol’ farm boy from Walnut, Iowa. But the undergraduate, who “was a good singer but only a good singer,” also snared a role as an “extra” in one of the operas being featured that summer – “Carmen.”  A couple of weeks ago, that “extra” from ’94, Michael Egel received a standing ovation from the packed house at the “Opera Gala” that opened this new festival season.  They were recognizing his rise through the ranks of leadership and that he is now in his 30th year with the DMMO.  Egel, now 51, succeeded his mentor Larsen in 2010 as the general and artist director – the person who leads the whole 200-member company each summer. 

Was all that “Carmen,” or just karma?

Whatever, it’s sure been good.

Michel Egel, the opera boss, speaking at the Gala. (DMMO photo by Jen Golay)

“I was born in the spring of 1973, just a month or two before the first performance by the new DMMO,” Egel told me in our chat on Friday. “I’ve often joked that I’m sort of the physical representation of this opera company’s history.”

He went on to say that when he first became a student of Professor Larsen in 1991, “I think he and I were both perplexed by what to do with me.”

They made it work. Oh, did they ever!

You can get all the essential details about this new season – including the few remaining available tickets – on the DMMO’s website.

Three classic operas are being presented “The Barber of Seville,” “Salome,” “Pelleas & Melisande” and there is special excitement for the world premiere of a new one, “American Apollo.”  It’s being fully staged after three years of writing, composing, workshopping and tweaking – all possible because of a “leadership grant” from Harry and Pam Bookey of Des Moines.

Performances start Friday, June 28, and continue through Sunday, July 21.

We RicheBurgers – that’s my wife Mary Riche and I – started tuning for the new festival by attending the Opera Gala mentioned above. 

We were guests of our Des Moines neighbors and friends, the Drs. Randall Hamilton and Bruce Hughes, who have a real knack of putting a table of 10 together. Maybe they learn that in neurology.  We 10 were a gathering of medical, dental and marketing professionals – one originally from Ireland, one a native of South Africa and several us from small towns in Iowa.

It was fabulous, one of the finest evenings I’ve ever had in Des Moines. And that’s not hyperbole.

Opera stars Sydney Mancasola (left) and Sun-Ly Pierce serenade the Gala crowd with “The Flower Duet” from Delibes’s “Lakme.” (DMMO photo by Jen Golay)

The gala was held in a beautifully decorated, newly-available main lobby of the Ruan Center in the heart of downtown Des Moines. (Word is Bankers Trust has moved its financial operations upstairs.)

People were as stylish in their dress as you’ll ever see here.  Many women were in gorgeous floor-length gowns.  Some men wore “broaches” instead of neckties.  There were tuxedoes. There were a half-dozen men in seersucker suits.  I felt like an absolute stiff showing up in my best dark sportscoat, gray slacks, white shirt and dark tie.  You’d a thought I was a banker if I hadn’t also worn my black & white saddle shoes.

I complimented restaurateur Mike LaValle on a handsome, tweedy, almost carpet-like sportscoat he was wearing. “I got it for $49 from a tech billionaire who has a boatmaking business, and he created this clothing line as a side business he wanted to associate with his boats,” Mike told me.  “I bought the shirt and pants to go with it when I was on a family trip visiting an old friend in Slovakia last September. I think any of this clothing would fit you nicely when you want to borrow it.”

Mike and Lisa LaValle, of Des Moines, in the photo booth we all enjoyed using. (Photo provided by DMMO)

Ah, the stories around opera!

Stay with me here.  

We knew it was going to be an exceptional evening when the “dining experience,” as the printed program called it, began with a “1st Course” of “poached lobster tail, smoked salmon blini with caviar, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, lemon saffron aoli, fiddlehead fern and baby beet salad.”  The main course was “petite beef Wellington” with seared scallops, “potato puree” and more.  Dessert was a sinful “Neapolitan trifle,” that wasn’t trifling at all.

The entertainment was, as you can probably imagine, a grand finale.

Several of the professional stars of this season’s productions strolled among the tables, singing favorite arias that were breathtakingly good.  There were a few remarks by DMMO Board President Emily Pontius, also by director Egal and then an introduction en masse of the 35 young performers in the Apprentice Artist Program. The apprentices are here from 18 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and the countries of Canada, Colombia and Serbia.

And they closed with the happy, boisterious “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” which is a drinking song from Verdi’s “La Traviata.”  The translation, I’ve learned, is roughly: “Now let’s all drink from these goblets of joy!”

Opera pros Sara Gartland and Duke Kim lead the Apprentice Artists in a rousing presentation “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici.” (DMMO photo by Jen Golay)

There’s a reason I’ve emphasized the fanciness, sophistication, even elegance of the whole “Gala” evening.

All that reminded me of what I’ve always thought is one of the best things about opera.  Now, I’m certainly no authority on the genre, but I’ve been occasionally attending DMMO productions for all their 50-plus years. Plus I’ve enjoyed the Met in New York and professional productions in Cape Town and a few other venues around the world. I’ve written a ton about Iowa’s opera great Simon Estes during his career and learned a lot.

What opera has always done for me is to remind myself that there are art forms well above what I hear and see in my normal life.  The performers help me recognize and celebrate what extraordinary talent can do.   The shows challenge me to keep learning.  They demonstrate to me that newer is not always better, that there’s a reason many operas are considered “classics,” and yet there can real inspiration in the new telling of stories.

Opera, I’m saying, reminds us that we can be better than we normally are.  And that’s good for us all.

So, see you in Indianola, which, as Michael Egal said to me, “for a couple of months each summer becomes one of the world’s hotbeds of operatic creativity.”

We RicheBurgers at the Opera Gala. (Photo by Dr. Randall Hamilton)

The founder. (DMMO graphic)

You can comment on this column below or write the columnist directly by email at chuck@offenburger.com.

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