A Revolutionary Theatre Turns 50

In 1970 America’s heartland created one of the country’s most radically designed theaters.

-by Mark Tiarks

The Blank Performing Arts Center’s mainstage, called Pote Theatre, successfully incorporated both a traditional proscenium design and a thrust-stage auditorium. This unique configuration, which put the orchestra and conductor in the center of the action for opera productions, reflected a wave of “prairie populism” that was revolutionizing opera in America and was centered in the Midwest.

Des Moines Metro Opera was at the epicenter of the seismic shift, along with three other companies that were also born in the 1970s and were all within a 350-mile radius of Indianola—the Minnesota Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. They all shared a belief that theatrical values were just as important as musical ones in opera production, that high-quality performances didn’t require importing European singers, that their repertories should include a commitment to American works, that performing in smaller venues would enhance dramatic impact, and that a larger, more diverse audience could be generated through affordable ticket prices and a more informal attendance atmosphere.

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The Blank Performing Arts Center’s unique thrust-stage configuration, placing the orchestra in the center of the stage and bringing the singers within arm’s reach of the audience.

While the Blank Performing Arts Center opened in 1970, work on the project actually began in the mid-1960s. The original concept was for a three-building arts center which would provide a theater with an orchestra pit for Simpson College’s rapidly growing opera student program as well as a home for the theater arts and fine arts departments and one day, an independent professional opera company.

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The Blank Performing Arts Center while under construction in 1969.

As reported in Beneath the Whispering Maples, a 1995 history of Simpson College, “Enamored of the style employed by Charles Herbert & Associates in their design of the Brenton Student Center, the Simpson people asked that firm to draw up plans for the new theater.” The Herbert firm had already designed dormitories for the college, as well as the student center, and work on the project proceeded rapidly at first. By April of 1967, revised designs were being fine-tuned; notes from a planning meeting indicated that the music department’s Robert Larsen and the theater program’s Richard J. De Laubenfels were caroling in unison about the need to keep the audience-performer relationship as intimate as possible.

The latter part of the process wasn’t as fast or as harmonious. Scott Stouffer, lead architect on the project, recalls, “There was a great deal of federal government money available at that time for new college facilities, but it came with lots of strings attached and a slow review and approval process.” (Federal funding for the $1.25M project eventually totaled $350,000.)

“We also ran into a number of problems during construction itself, especially with the concrete work, much of which had to be redone,” Stouffer says. The design style with which the Simpson officials were enamored is now known as Brutalism, and exposed concrete is one of its defining characteristics, so this was an aesthetic issue as well as a structural one. As a result, almost three years elapsed from groundbreaking to the building’s completion, with the grand opening taking place in the spring of 1970.

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The Blank Performing Arts Center today in 2020.

The launching of Des Moines Metro Opera was just three years later, in 1973, with a programming strategy that included American operas and 20th century European works. The unparalleled intimacy of a 467-seat theater meant that the Company was poised to play a major role in creating a truly American identity for opera in the U.S.

 

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