The Des Moines Metro Opera Years – The 2000 Season
A Very Interesting Season
One fact about the Des Moines Metro Opera (hereafter referred to by its acronym DMMO) that has been constant over the years, is that its repertory has never been boring. Each season has always had something of interest, whether repertory, casting, performance standards, etc. There have been some seasons that to me were more interesting than others, but I have to say upon reflection, that there never were any boring seasons. Part of this was due to the leadership of the company’s Founding Artistic Director, Dr. Robert L. Larsen. His choice of operas for the season was inspiring and pragmatic, and he chose well. For the 2000 Summer Festival, he chose three operas for the main stage productions: Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma; Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Consul; and Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.
Of the three operas, I was familiar with only one: Bellini’s Norma. I had the good fortune to play two performances of a semi-staged version in Oslo, which was conducted by the veteran conductor Nello Santi. The Menotti and Offenbach operas were not familiar to me, although I had played excerpts from the Offenbach opera on several occasions.
And while I had played some of Menotti’s work before – most notably The Old Maid and the Thief and the ballet suite from Sebastian – I was not familiar with The Consul. Nonetheless, I was looking forward with my usual mixture of enthusiasm and curiosity to the season.
I had already played two summer seasons with the orchestra and received tenure at the end of the 1999 season, so the 2000 season was my first as a tenured player. While theoretically I could breathe a little easier now that I had passed my probationary period, that was never a real possibility as one always had to be at the top of one’s game, so to speak. The minute one relaxes too much, bad things usually happen, such as miscounting, and lack of concentration, and those land one in a world of hurt. No, I had to maintain my standards and if possible, exceed them.
I would again be housed at Simpson College’s Kresge Hall, which was a vast improvement over Barker Hall, where I was housed for my first season. The room was comfortable and was on the ground floor. There were rumors that Kresge would be closed for renovation in 2001, but that was in the future. Right now, I was happy where I was. Although it was still a bit of a hike to carry my” household” to the room, at least I didn’t have to climb stairs. My “household” included clothes, bedding, toiletries, books, (and later on my computer), as well as my mallets and equipment. The GMC Safari held all my items, plus the two Yamaha timpani and my timpani stool. (This was the second season for the Safari, and it performed its task superbly well.)
The routine for each season (and it was more or less the same for most of my tenure) was that I would arrive a day or two ahead of the first rehearsals, and the first stop was usually to drop the timpani off at the theater lobby. The first rehearsals were always held in the Pote Theater lobby. Once the two timpani and stool were off-loaded, a visit was made to the desk where Chari Kruse, the Administrative Assistant who had responsibility for housing and caring for all of the company’s artists and musicians presided, and where I received both my room assignment and keys. I then drove to Kresge and parked the van as close to the front door as possible. I then carried all of my “household” into the room, and after parking the van permanently in the school parking lot, it was back to the room where I spent the next couple of hours getting it organized. The rooms almost always had more than one bed in the room (after all it was a college dormitory and there were three beds in most of the rooms) which meant that I had to make bunk bed arrangements. The first was a normal arrangement – I slept in the lower bed and used the upper as storage for my musical and other items. The other bed was made into an upper, and my desk and storage cabinets went below. There was just enough headroom. The micro-fridge (which I rented each summer) had its spot, and once I was organized, I was happily ensconced for the season.
The Musical Aspect
The seasons for us orchestral musicians started about ten days or so after the artists and apprentices arrived. They started just after the Memorial Day holiday. Our first rehearsal usually was around June 11th, depending on the year. As I mentioned earlier, the first orchestral rehearsal was with singers and chorus in the theater lobby. The first three rehearsals took place there; we didn’t get down to the pit until at least the Friday or Saturday of that first week. Unlike the Lake George Opera, we didn’t have orchestra-only rehearsals until relatively late in my tenure, although we had touch-up orchestra rehearsals just before each performance.
We jumped right into a run-through of the first opera of the season, which in this case, was Bellini’s Norma. I mentioned earlier that I had played the opera before in Oslo in a semi-staged production under Nello Santis’s direction, and had fallen in love with it then. It was so good to hear it again, and as the singers and chorus were already more than half-prepared and singing in full voice, the effect was overwhelming.
No matter what the opera, these rehearsals were almost always exciting and almost overwhelming in their emotional impact. Dr. Larsen always expected one hundred percent effort, even from the first rehearsal. The second rehearsal, which in the early days of my tenure was usually on a Tuesday evening, was devoted to a run-through of the second opera of the season. In the case of the 2000 season, this would have been Menotti’s The Consul. Although I was familiar with Menotti’s musical style, I had not played this opera before. The music is accessible, but very aggressive as opposed to his other works such as The Old Maid and The Thief, and especially his Christmas opera, Amahl and The Night Visitors. It took a while for all of us to get used to the style and content of the opera, and this was definitely the most difficult opera of the season. While we eventually presented excellent performances of this opera, it was a bit of a struggle. I remember one rehearsal (we had moved to the pit by this time – it was most likely the first dress rehearsal, as the singers were in full costume) in which we
were kept at least an hour over the rehearsal’s designated end. Dr. Larsen was not satisfied with the way the rehearsal was going, and if memory serves, we repeated one of the scenes in its entirety. When we were finished, he explained why we repeated it. At this time, the opera was still working its way towards cooperating with the musician’s union, and there was still a way to go before that happened. This was one of the last instances of the “old-school” treatment, as this never happened again. Future contracts specified overtime and advance notice of such. While we were tired and maybe some of us were a little annoyed, we responded to his explanation, and at the next rehearsal, things went well.
The third rehearsal was devoted to our third mainstage production, Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. This was the comedic opera – or in this case, operetta, and Dr. Larsen was a past master at producing and staging comedic opera. The role of Jupiter was played and sung by Rich Richards, a character singer-actor whose day gig was that of an attorney. He was memorable as his acting and singing were first rate – especially his acting. This production was another opportunity for me to double on percussion. It wasn’t until the season of 2002 and later that a second percussionist was hired. I didn’t mind. I liked doubling – especially the extra pay!
As I had been doing since the previous season, I used my two Yanahas with two Ludwig Dresdens from the college as outside drums, and that worked pretty well. (I did wish in my heart of hearts that I had Yamahas for the outside drums as well, but I managed well enough. Little did I realize that this situation would change for the better in a couple of years.)
This season was most successful, with each production a great success. Audiences enjoyed themselves and gave each performance their due – plentiful applause. This was more than well-deserved, as each performance was not only well-staged and well-sung, but beautifully presented. The opera company’s reputation as Iowa’s best-kept secret was by now nation-wide, and was over the course of the following seasons,to become more than that.
Enjoy these videos of each of the operas. These videos are of necessity of performances by other organizations, but you’ll get the flavor of the season. We’ll start with Norma:
Now, Menotti’s The Consul:
And finally, Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld:
Of course, our productions were all sung in English at this time. We did not go over to original languages with supertitles until later, but you can sample these performances and get the flavor of the season. Enjoy!