Robert L. Larsen – The Heart and Soul of the DMMO 1934-2021


One of my operatic “heroes” so to speak has passed to the other side of the veil this past Sunday in Indianola, Iowa. Founder (with Douglas Duncan) of the Des Moines Metro Opera and its Artistic Director from 1973 until 2009, he influenced a generation of singers, music students, production designers and yes, orchestra players as well. He was unusual also in the fact that he went his own way in the opera world, turning down an opportunity to work at the Metropolitan Opera in order to eventually bring opera to the people of Iowa and eventually to many more!
I was just thinking about him on the day he died. It’s funny how that seems to happen. I was thinking of my teacher, Dan Hinger on the day he died in 2001. I happened to be playing timpani in a DMMO winter production of “La Boheme” in January 2001 with Dr. Larsen conducting. I had been thinking of the manner in which Dan would have pedaled the opening to Act IV and that very evening I did it the way he would have done, and remarked to myself how easy it seemed. I found out right after the performance that Dan had passed away earlier that very day. Well, this past weekend, for some reason, Dr. Larsen was very much on my mind, and I remarked to my wife that I was wondering how he was faring in Indianola, especially since he had been living in a nursing home for some time. The next day, I read his memorial on Facebook. I can’t say I was surprised. His mobility had decreased even before he retired from active operations with the DMMO after the 2009 season. Everyone has their time, and March 21st, 2021 was Dr. Larsen’s time.
I have many memories of working with Dr. Larsen. I started with the Des Moines Metro Opera in the summer of 1998, just after my permanent return to the USA from Oslo, Norway, where I was the timpanist of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra. I had seen an ad in the International Musician for the timpanist’s position with the opera festival, so I made a tape of the excerpts and sent in to see what would happen. Lo and behold, I was selected to be the new timpanist of the Des Moines Metro Opera and started with them in June of 1998. This was to be the start of nineteen seasons with the company, with twelve of those working with Dr. Larsen. He was the heart and soul of the DMMO in an artistic sense – conductor, stage director, impresario, teacher, coach – he seemed to be everywhere.
When I started with the opera, he drove to rehearsals and performance sessions in a red Buick Roadmaster which was quite the car. ( He traded it in several years later, and he told me many times after he replaced it that he regretted doing so. He loved that car!) When you saw that car in the parking lot you knew that Robert was on the premises.
I played so many productions with him on the podium. My very first one was Lehar’s “The Merry Widow” in 1998, and the very last was Puccini’s “Tosca” in 2009. Every one of these was special. Robert threw himself heart and soul into each production, even when he was 64 years old in 1998. Telling the story of my years at the DMMO is a story for another day, but I will share selected memories of working with Dr. Larsen. He treated me with great respect, and since we shared a passion for opera, we hit it off right from the start. We had occasion to chat and talk opera on many occasions, especially right before each show when he would sit in the pit next to my timpani before mounting the podium to begin the show, or in the intermissions, or I would be out on the campus getting exercise and run into him. Most of the time, he would stop and chat and I just enjoyed listening him talk about opera, especially about the current production.
So many productions – so many memories. The ones that stand out are Gounod’s Faust of 2003 – La Boheme – winter 2001 – Gloriana -2005 – Carmen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Otello of 2007 – and Der Freischutz and Tosca of 2009.
The production of Faust in 2003 was special. There was a freshness to it and somehow, for me at least, it was just a joy to play and listen to. Dr. Larsen felt the same way. The Waltz in Act II was full of joie de vivre, and I could see it on Dr. Larsen’s face as he conducted it. His smile was as broad as Iowa. He confided to me that up to that season, that this Faust was one of his favorites. My first Britten opera was Albert Herring, which I played with the Bronx Opera in the late 70s, so it was interesting to play my second Britten opera, “Gloriana” during the 2005 season. The preparation that went into it, and the actual opera itself was just fantastic. I remember a moment in one of the final rehearsals where the offstage brass missed their cue. He stopped the music and yelled “Trumpets!!” so loud that even though they were in the lobby just outside the theater, you could be sure they heard him quite well. He didn’t need a loudspeaker or phone to convey what he wanted and you can bet they they were spot on their cue for the run of the show.
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say I learned a lot of opera at the hand of a master teacher, musician, impresario and one of the most knowledgeable men in the field of opera on the planet.
Many thanks for the memories and great performances. Rest in peace, and Godspeed, Robert. You will be missed.