My Musical Career| Part Sixty-Five

The Des Moines Metro Opera Years

The Eventful 2002 Season

The 2002 DMMO Summer Festival was one of those memorable seasons for more reasons than one. First, musically it was a blockbuster season. Three fantastic productions, all full of challenge. For this season, Dr. Larsen and the management decided to stage Puccini’s Turandot; Richard Strauss’s Salome; and Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Each of these is musically and emotionally challenging, and all three operas cover the gamut of emotions. From Turandot’s emotionally charged and passionate music, Salome’s colorful and almost depraved sensibilities (as well as powerful orchestration), and the comedic and philosophic aspects of Candide, there was something for everything in this season’s program.

A new set of instruments

Second, this would be the first season I would use a different set of timpani for the season. From my first season, I had been using either Simpson College’s Ludwig Dresdens or my two Yamaha 6000s with the 23- and 31-inch Dresden timpani as the outside drums. For the 2002 season, I was bringing a set of Light Mark Xi timpani which I had procured with the help of a friend of mine. How we procured these timpani is its own story, and since I did indeed write a blog post about them several years back, I am going to copy the essentials of how I came to have access to these fine instruments.

Prior to 1998, I was spoiled. I used the instruments owned by the orchestra in which I was employed – the Oslo Philharmonic. Other than maintaining them, ordering new heads, and in some cases new instruments, the orchestra was responsible for the storage and stage placement of the instruments.
When I returned to the USA, all that changed. I had come back to the freelance pool – and that meant hauling my own instruments.   After I had been back in the USA for a few years, and after I had procured a van and a pair of Yamaha timpani, my timpani stick manufacturer and friend, Ron Carlisle told me that he was selling a set of American Drum Company Mark XI Dresden-style timpani which he had had for several years but needed to sell.

I immediately expressed interest in them, and after consulting with my good friend and fellow percussionist Jim Holland, we decided to go down to Carnegie, PA, and meet with Ron and check out the drums.  This was in February 2002. While freelancing at this time, I was employed part-time as an IT specialist for Jim’s company, Moore-Addison Co. of Addison, IL. Jim and I took the company van and drove to Carnegie, PA. After settling in at our motel, we drove over to Ron’s home and checked out the instruments.
They were, as I have stated, a set of Mark XIs – sizes 23″, 26″, 29″ and 31″ and were in excellent shape. They were equipped with Remo Renaissance hazy heads (gold colored) and had the apple-shaped kettles which I prefer. The sound was warm and blended well. That evening, Jim and I tested the drums for several hours, then made our decision based on the condition of the instruments. Getting them back to Illinois in the van would not be a problem, as the company van was more than large enough to accommodate all four drums – and then some. What was to prove a challenge was to get the 31-inch drum out of the studio as the doors were too narrow for it to pass through.

The Move

Ron Carlisle was a resourceful chap and had the solution to hand. It was his practice to partially disassemble the 31-inch drum – take off the rods, counter hoop, and head, and pass the drum through the door opening sideways, then reassemble the instrument outside on the driveway/patio.
This was a relatively easy procedure, but we were hampered just a bit by the fact that it was a rather cool February morning with a bit of a breeze. Luckily, we were not hampered by any snow.
With Ron directing us, we accomplished the whole procedure – from disassembly, moving, reassembly, and loading into the van in about ten minutes. The other three drums were already sitting pretty in the van, and we were soon off on our merry way back to Illinois.

The Mark XIs

The Mark XI timpani – designed and built by the American Drum Manufacturing Company of Denver, Colorado – are what I call a mid-range Dresden-style set of timpani. The company (unfortunately forced out of business in 2015 due to issues with their location) manufactured three lines of Dresden timpani – the top-of-the-line Mark XIV; the mid-range Mark XI; and the tough and sturdy “economy” model – the Metropolitan B.  The Light timpani were as a rule excellent instruments. The drums we bought from Ron dated from the late 1970s and early 1980s. I believe the 26″ and 29″ timpani were built in the late 1970s – quite possibly by Walter Light, the founder of the company.  The outer drums – the 23″ and 31″ date from the early 1980s and were built by Walter’s son and successor, Marshall Light. Marshall had maintained the high standards set by his father and over the course of the last thirty-five years has built many excellent instruments and well as made many improvements of his own.

Our set had parabolic bowls – leaning to an apple shape – which is actually my favorite shape. They had an excellent tone and held the pitch extremely well. The heads that were originally on them when we bought them were, as I stated earlier, the hazy gold Remo Renaissance heads. Over the course of the years, we replaced them twice and continued the use of the hazy gold Renaissance head. For these drums, these work the best. The tone remained warm and round and blended well with the ensemble. The master tuning handles are on the side opposite the player, which is the traditional position (The Mark IVs, Hingers, Ringers, and more modern instruments have the tuning handle placed by the player for convenience). Over the years since we bought them in 2002, Jim and I have had to do relatively little maintenance on them, other than head changing and cleaning. We put Teflon tape around the rims of the bowls to replace the cork grease that was there originally. I personally prefer the Teflon tape as it is quieter and lasts a lot longer than the cork grease. As a matter of fact, I used to use cork grease on the Light Metropolitan Bs owned by the Oslo Philharmonic during my tenure and found that while it worked well, you had to use a very tiny bit of around the rim. If you overdid it by even the slightest bit, there was a lot of noise, and if you used too much, it would kill the tone. That disappeared when I went over to the use of Teflon on the rims of the bowls.
In the summer of 2014, Jim took the drums back to the factory in Denver, and other than putting new indicators on the tuning gauges, oiling, cleaning the mechanisms, and putting new heads on the drums, Marshall Light was amazed at how well the drums had held up over the years.
(Note: It was a good thing that Jim took them in for refurbishing when he did, as the company closed its doors forever due to issues with their location.

The Repertoire

As I mentioned earlier, the repertoire for this season was extremely interesting and very challenging. There was a lot of playing in all three operas. This season was one that would stretch my abilities to the utmost and then some. All three operas also called for extensive percussion, so this was the first season that the DMMO Festival Orchestra added an extra percussionist to assist principal percussionist Mark Dorr. In reality, they should have added several, but apparently, economics dictated that Mark make do with only one. I was too busy to assist Mark, which is why they even considered giving him a second player. From about 2010 or thereabouts, the second percussionist became a permanent part of the orchestra, and if extra percussion was required, extra players were hired.


Turandot was Puccini’s last opera, which he did not live to finish. He completed the opera only up until the scene of Liu’s death and was apparently stumped on a proper conclusion. He was mulling over how to finish the opera when he was overtaken by throat cancer, and he died before he could complete the opera in his own way. The opera was ultimately completed by Franco Alfano, although an alternative ending has been written by Anton Coppola, a noted opera conductor and expert on the music of Puccini. The Alfano ending is what is generally used nowadays, and it is what I played at DMMO in the 2002 festival season.
Puccini wrote very well for timpani in his operatic output. He used the instruments to underscore the emotional moments in his opera, and his parts were almost elegant at times. Turandot was an exception in that the scoring of the opera was necessarily extravagant, and the writing for timpani followed suit. The music is almost delightfully brutal at times, and on many occasions, it provides a workout for the timpanist. It was a pleasure to be performing this wonderful music on the Light timpani. The production was wonderful – the sets were great, and the artists, chorus, and orchestra surpassed themselves. Caroline Whisnat was an excellent Turandot. It was another of Dr. Larsen’s triumphs.


Salome is not only an opera; it is an event. It was not done very often in opera companies of the size of DMMO. The score calls for a large cast and an orchestra of one hundred musicians. Our pit could not accommodate that size orchestra, so we used the reduction made by the composer that would utilize an orchestra of about seventy. Even that was a stretch, but somehow, we made it work. Mark Dorr somehow made do with only one extra percussionist instead of the four that were required, and he and his assistant performed miracles that whole season.  Salome premiered in 1905, and it was a shocker at the time, even though over a century has passed, it still shocks. The music matches the plot, which involves the machinations of Salome, who was obsessed with John the Baptist, then imprisoned by her tetrarch stepfather, Herod. As the plot slithers, so does the music, which is colorful in the extreme, and even though it is a one-act opera, it lasts ninety minutes, and oh, what a jam-packed ninety minutes! One has to keep one’s attention fully engaged during every one of those minutes because orchestrally, it is one of Strauss’s most complicated and colorful scores. The timpani and percussion parts are particularly challenging. The timpani part has many challenges – the most obvious being Salome’s “Dance of the Seven Veils” and of course the whole of the Final Scene.
Add to that the condition of the parts – the ones I used at DMMO were, in my opinion, poorly engraved. They are hard to read due to the calligraphy used, and one has to go through the part thoroughly to make sure one understands the notes and when to prepare the drums for tuning changes, which are frequent. There is enough music in Salome for a three-act opera, and it is all packed into ninety minutes, and all without a break.
I found that hard to take at first, as normally, an act of an opera would take anywhere from thirty to forty-five minutes, depending on the opera, we’d play it through, rehearse a bit, and then take the first of two rehearsal breaks. Not so with Salome, and later, Elektra.
There were a lot of technical issues to be resolved. The biggest one for me at that time was the very end of the final scene, where Herod’s soldiers fall upon Salome and crush her with their shields. There is a passage for four timpani – sixteenth notes at quite a rapid pace. The notes are C, e flat, d, d flat, repeated.  I chose to do it with three drums: the C on the 29-inch; the e-flat on the 23-inch, and then pedal the d and d-flat on the 26-inch. Other players do it on four and adjust, but I felt that this would work out better. And for the most part, it did.
Notice that I said, “for the most part.” This opera stretched everyone’s talents to the utmost, including Dr. Larsen’s. He had an enormous responsibility as conductor/producer, and while most of the operatic repertoire was within his wheelhouse, this was a first for him as conductor. Salome requires a conductor who is comfortable with an orchestra and experienced in rehearsing and conducting them. Dr. Larsen was a pianist and quite an accomplished one, but this Strauss opera was a new experience for him as well. Overall, he came out successful, but as with all of us, there were some interesting moments. 

Dr. Larsen makes the right call.

That particular summer was a hot one, and if memory serves me, a somewhat wet one in that particular part of the country. Thunderstorms had caused some power outages as well as some localized flooding, which affected some of the local streets. Much of the weather happened just before the orchestra assembled for the season; however, the aftereffects were felt for a week or two into the rehearsal period. The way rehearsals were done at DMMO during that period (and largely at present) is that there were a pair of run-throughs with the cast in the lobby, followed by one pit rehearsal. These were followed by two dress rehearsals in the theater. The cast was in full costume, and the orchestra was in the pit. The second rehearsal was considered the final dress rehearsal and was generally the last chance to get things right before the run of the opera. The week of the dress rehearsals, the weather had acted up, and the theater was without power for several hours. Most of the power was restored, but it took a couple of days to restore it to the air conditioning in the auditorium. The pit was rather warm. It was about 82 degrees, which is above what was normally allowed. Usually, with the air conditioning functioning, the temperature was about 72 degrees. There was no way that the rehearsals could be canceled, so two very large fans were installed in the pit – one on either side of the pit, and that helped somewhat. The fact that the pit was filled with nearly seventy musicians didn’t help the situation. I remember that Dr. Larsen decided to run straight through the opera, rather than do it in scenes, which was normal for the first pit rehearsal. It was a good decision, because by the time we finished the run-through, the pit was very warm, and Dr. Larsen dismissed us. He figured there was no point risking someone’s health, and the run-through was not bad, despite the conditions, though we could have used some rehearsal to fill the rest of the three hours assigned. As it is, we played the ninety-minute score, and then were dismissed. The pit was just too hot, and everybody was just drenched. As warm as it was in the pit, it must have been excruciating on the stage. Dr. Larsen made the right call.
The dress rehearsals themselves went much better, as the air conditioning was restored, and they were also much healthier. Most of us in the orchestra had the chance to view the production in its final piano-dress rehearsal and were impressed by the staging and sets, and by the singing and acting of the artists.

The Most Controversial Scene – and an Appendage

The most controversial scene in the opera is the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils”. The artist portraying Salome would normally perform this dressed in veils, with a body suit underneath, so that when the last veil dropped, she would appear unclothed, but not be so. In this production, our soloist chose to wear veils, but have a pair of dark purple briefs underneath, instead of a body suit. She would lose most of the veils during the dance and lose the underpants (but not the last veil), and the scene was so staged that as she got rid of the underpants in one quick motion, the lights would go out simultaneously. It was quite effective – the shock effect was maintained, but there was no actual nudity. Her motion and the dousing of the lights were simultaneous. All of us who witnessed the staged piano dress rehearsal were properly shocked. Since the opera is in one act with no break, the artist had to finish the performance wearing just the dark veil, and she admitted to being just a little cold for the last scene.
Scenically and artistically, it was a great success. The artist cast as Princess Salome, Deborah Raymond, was fantastic in that role, and Gwendolyn Jones was a fantastic Herodias. All the other artists were superb, and the orchestra acquitted itself quite well. Any issues during rehearsals were part of the learning experience for all of us, from the conductor to the extra supernumerary, and we were all the better for It. Another facet of this production that was interesting was what we did after the so-called intermission. Salome is a one-act opera and nowadays is performed as such. Some opera companies in the “golden days of opera” usually followed it with a ballet. I cannot imagine that happening today. What we in the DMMO did was after intermission, the audience was invited back into the theater to hear the orchestra perform the “Dance of The Seven Veils” as a purely orchestral piece. I am wondering to this day why we did this – I suspect it was to conform as close to possible to the normal service length. I am not sure that it did, as the dance is only ten minutes in length. Our principal oboe at the time, Ed Benyas (who succeeded Jon Hancock as personnel manager in 2000) conducted this. He did a pretty good job, but after ninety-plus minutes of high concentration, we were pretty much exhausted, and I had to struggle a bit to concentrate. Nonetheless, we made it through, and another successful production was in DMMO’s history books.


The third and final production of this blockbuster season was Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Technically speaking, this an operetta, with music by Leonard Bernstein, and based on the Voltaire novella of 1759. Originally produced in 1956 with a libretto by Lillian Hellman, it is usually produced nowadays with a libretto by one Hugh Wheeler, which is considered more faithful to Voltaire’s work.
The music is witty and beautiful in parts, and it is a comic operetta, as the composer intended.
After the intense rehearsals and performances of Turandot and Salome, Candide was almost a lark. Notice I said “almost”. Witty and light-hearted as the music is, there is nothing super-easy about it, and like the other two operas, requires great concentration.
I guess that after Salome’s ninety-plus minute slog, almost anything would seem easier. The operetta is in two acts, and the version we performed is the one that was the final revision of 1989, issued the year before Bernstein passed away. The cast included the inventive Rich Richards as Dr. Pangloss, with the excellent Jane Redding as Cunegonde, Gwendolyn Jones as the Old Woman, and Lee Gregory as Maximilian.
It was an excellent cast, and as Dr. Larsen was superb at staging comic opera and operetta, this was “right in his wheelhouse”, so to speak.
Musically, the parts to Candide were much easier to read than those of Salome, which made for easier reading. While the timpani part is not as complicated as Salome, it has its moments. The end of the overture is a spot to watch out for, but if one is in synch with the orchestra, it goes naturally.
This was a fun production from first to last. The audience loved it, I loved it, the orchestra loved it – what more is there to say?

No Apprentice Concert

The summer festival usually includes the Artist Apprentice Concert (now known as the “Stars of Tomorrow Concert”) during the last week of the season, usually the last Thursday evening of the final week. It is a culmination of the apprentice’s hard work. In addition to working with the artistic staff and coaches, they participated in weekly concerts featuring scenes from the operatic repertory, and this final concert is the culmination of their season. (They also serve as the chorus in mainstage productions.) Held in the Sheslow Auditorium on the campus of Drake University since the summer of 1998, they are something the artist apprentices understandably looked forward to, and this would have been the fifth such event. However, the 2002 summer season would be the only season not to have the event. Not having access to the decision-making process, I can only surmise that it was due to the complexity of the season’s productions. The 2002 festival season was exceedingly complex. Everybody’s energies and concentration were taxed to the limit. Just from that perspective alone, I can understand the decision. It may have also been due to funding. These productions were expensive. Or a combination of both – the demands of programming and funding. Whatever the reasons, the decision was taken to eliminate it in 2002. I personally missed it and hoped it would be reinstated in 2003.

As usual, I am including links to performances of the seasons’ repertoire. Here is the famous Metropolitan Opera performance of Turandot from 1961, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Following that, is a performance of Salome from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1997. The final video link is of Candide in a concert version conducted by the composer in London in 1989. Enjoy!!