The Beginnings of the Des Moines Metro Opera Company
by Robert L. Larsen
It always seems to begin with the story of me and opera. As a boy I was interested in great art, music and theatre. I began taking piano lessons when I was 10—but even before that I developed a passion for opera. I may have been 8 or 9. My parents had no background or interest particularly nor did we have scores or recordings in the home—although my grandfather had operatic recordings of Enrico Caruso and Galli-Cursi, in Edison recordings of course.
I discovered opera quite on my own in Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera. Saturday afternoons became sacred to me, and nobody much bothered me as I huddled in the corner of the kitchen with Carmen, Lucia, Louise, or Walküre. The music cast a mesmeric spell, but I was equally enamored by the creation of the scenes as they evolved in my mind. I dreamed of seeing it all on the stage.
When I was 10, I became keenly aware of the fact that an Italian touring company was going to bring opera to Omaha to the Technical High School auditorium. It was an annual event, and I had tried the year before to get my parents to go— but now my campaign was more ardent than ever. The tour was doing several scenes in repertory, but it was Carmen I wanted to see most. There would be a matinee of Carmen and I begged Dad to take me.
He finally relented and on a spring afternoon Mom, Dad and I went. Well, from the downbeat of the overture I was enthralled. It was, of course, in French but there was no language barrier because I knew it all by heart.
In my young impressionable mind, the sets were magnificent and the costumes splendid. I remember being critical of the tenor who didn’t seem up to the task, but I thought that the Carmen had to be the greatest the world had ever seen. It was Coe Glade, who, I found out years later, was thought to be one of this country’s finest Carmens. Mother said the hems of the costumes were dirty, but nothing could dim the wonder of it for me.
There were often visits to the San Carlo in Omaha over the years and even to a Met On Tour production of Die Fledermaus in Des Moines in my high school years. But nothing could equal that first magnificent contact with real opera.
Opera was all just an avocational interest at first, of course, and so I went on to be a dedicated piano major at Simpson College. Even then, though, there were special forages into opera making. I sang the lead in Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley my freshman year and offered some dramatic touches to the production. In my sophomore year Mu Phi Epsilon wanted to produce the brand new one-act Amahl and the Night Visitors and they chose me to direct it, which I did with great enthusiasm, designing the set, searching out the costumes and giving both musical and stage direction. It was so popular that we repeated it at Christmas the next two years.
I completed my masters at the University of Michigan in piano and then returned to teach at Simpson—piano and music history, directing a group of Madrigal Singers and, of course, beginning a real opera program for student singers at the college. I worked closely with a remarkably gifted soprano, Carol Stuart, who was in my class in college but remained in the area following school, and she was featured in productions.
Another very special moment was the appearance of Robert Goodloe, who took a job in marketing and publications at Simpson College. He told me he liked to sing and asked if I would work with him. It was an easy choice because he had a magnificent baritone voice. In the early ‘60s I coached him and prepared him to compete in and ultimately win the national finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in 1965.
In my early days of teaching at Simpson in 1957 and 1958, I watched with interest as a few other companies emerged that served as models to me. Around that time Russell Patterson organized the Kansas City Lyric Opera that featured young artists who auditioned for the repertory format—some local and some from out of town. The result was sometimes exciting and sometimes less so, but the model was an admirable one. They did a wide variety of repertory—and certainly some of their approach appealed to me and was, in a sense, an inspiration to me, mostly because they created a festival concept, clustering performances in the autumn.
And so it was that I was becoming interested in beginning a regional opera company. I organized a Des Moines board, and we launched a Des Moines Civic Opera that produced La Traviata in Hoyt Sherman Place Theatre in June of 1964 with Carol Stuart and Robert Goodloe the summer after they both had won the Met auditions. It was with piano but was eminently successful.
Both singers were still available and on board for a La Bohème the next summer of 1965 at North High School auditorium. Traviata had broken even but Bohème lost $500, and the board was discouraged. I wasn’t discouraged, but it did seem like it was time for me to make some important decisions.
By this time, I had already been named as Chair of the Music Department at Simpson so this meant I needed to complete a doctorate. I chose Indiana University and a program in conducting and opera. I took a sabbatical from teaching at Simpson and did a year of residence in Bloomington, finishing the degree in summers for the following several years.
Those years at Indiana and the experiment with a Des Moines Civic Company prepared me for another attempt at a regional opera
company. I felt I had learned everything not to do and a good deal about what might work.
It was then that the Metropolitan Opera contacted me to audition for them as an associate conductor, which I did, and won the audition and was awarded a contract. Then it was a moment of truth. Did I want to leave teaching and the Midwest behind in favor of a full-time coaching position with America’s greatest opera company? I thought long and hard and eventually decided that teaching and the challenge of making opera happen in the Midwest meant too much to me, and I turned down the contract.
The late ‘60s and early ‘70s added another commodity to the mix—a young and enthusiastic student who was a tenor but also interested in all facets of the opera world, Douglas Duncan. He became a great sounding board for ideas about a company. He graduated and went to the Philadelphia Music Academy.
That year of 1972-73 we talked on the phone every night about details of this prospective company and when he came home for the holidays we began in earnest some serious work towards the idea. We visited with a friend and father of a student who had been the lighting designer for the college opera program, Dr. Larry Ely. He was excited about the proposal and volunteered to organize a board for the project—a board which turned out to be dynamic in every way.
Our first fundraising call to Hy-Vee yielded absolutely nothing, and funding in general remained very much a mystery to us. It wasn’t until early spring when Doug was home again that we drove to Clear Lake to visit Doris and John Salsbury. I had
met the Salsburys when the Madrigal Singers presented a concert in the auditorium of their business and laboratory for poultry medication. Doris (pictured above) fell in love with the Madrigal Singers and Doug himself, who was in the group and had been their meat market boy in Charles City when he was in high school.
We presented our idea for an opera company with great enthusiasm to them both. John said that it sounded pretty crazy to him, but he left it up to Doris and promptly left the room to read the evening paper on the porch. Doris asserted that it sounded like a wild idea, but she gave us $5,000 towards the project! That might not seem very much by today’s standards, but at that time we thought we’d hung the moon. We drove home on that spring night on a two-lane highway through Dows, Iowa, with a grain elevator on one side of the road and a tavern on the other. We stopped at the tavern and bought a round for all the farmers there. With them, we toasted the new Des Moines Metro Opera Company. Those farmers had no idea what we were babbling about, but they enjoyed the beer.
That first board included Dr. Ely, Don Easter, who was elected vice-president and who remained with the board and a principal contributor for decades, Al Rockwell of The Des Moines Register, and Doyle Woods, Simpson College financial officer, worked hard to raise a $22,000 budget. We didn’t have to worry about a performing venue because in 1971 Simpson had completed the Blank Performing Arts Center which had as part of its fundraising suggested that this could be a home for a regional opera company if such an organization was formed.
Audaciously, we mounted our first season in June and July of 1973, one carefully chosen to introduce interesting repertory, thus attracting critics and audiences from beyond Des Moines proper. It was a stunning effort with Simpson College students building sets and even board members pitching in. College students and community members filled the chorus and comprimario roles. Des Moines Symphony members, very minimally salaried, filled orchestra ranks.
Principal roles were sung by former students and available visiting artists. The repertory was carefully chosen—Puccini’s La Rondine, which was seldom heard in those days and was a glorious vehicle for Carol Stuart; a double bill of Arthur Benjamin’s Prima Donna, a North American professional premiere, with Menotti’s The Medium featuring a magnificent mezzo graduate of Simpson Anne Larson as Baba, and Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring featuring Doug Duncan in the title role.
It was a superhuman effort, and from the beginning there was an overwhelming effort to balance all of the crucial dimensions of opera making—the scenic, the theatrical, the musical, and the vocal. It paid off in a wildly enthusiastic audience response. Probably as the result of the repertory and the intense promotion, the critics came—from Opera News, Musical America, the Kansas City and Minneapolis newspapers—and reviews were the kind of which you dream. Basing comments on La Rondine (The Swallow) the Opera News reviews spoke of the fledgling opera company that soared to unbelievable heights. Eight performances played the operas in repertory over two weekends, allowing a patron to come for the weekend and see all three operas.
And so the pattern was set for subsequent seasons. Of course, in just a few years we had increased the number of performances to 16. We’ve tried always to create a balance of productions to include a work with audience recognition, a comedy or ensemble piece, and a relatively newer or American work. The 1974 season featured Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Verdi’s Falstaff, and Robert Ward’s The Crucible. The budget more than doubled to about $74,000 for the second season. We auditioned for singers in New York and Philadelphia. We gained several principal artists who knew Doug from his work in Philadelphia, including Ed Bogusz as Falstaff who worked with the company for 10 seasons, mezzo Victoria Villamil, a fine young baritone Robert Benton, and tenor Bill Austin.
We also brought in an actual set designer, Dean Tschetter, who worked at the University of Nebraska. Not only was Dean highly gifted, he bought into our philosophy and unique brand of opera making, and for nine seasons his magnificent visions graced our space. A technical director accompanied the designers, but college students remained responsible for set construction with all of its challenges. Shirlie Katzenberger, a visual artist with The Des Moines Register, joined the board, and for well over a decade her stunning designs adorned our posters and programs.
The third season we began an Apprentice Artist Program in earnest, including a staff of coaches and stage directors that made a quality program of training for the operatic stage possible. It was enlarged and strengthened in the fourth season and has, since that time, developed into one of the premiere apprentice programs in the nation.
In 1987 we launched OPERA Iowa—a program with young artists in residence in winter and spring touring schools and communities in the state with performances of opera and workshops. Sets and lighting accompanied the venture, so audiences had a complete theatrical experience. Appearances in surrounding states and a tour to Japan have been part of the schedule.
Corporate and private donors have been generous, but there’s always the ongoing challenge of funding because opera is an
expensive undertaking. Sets, lighting, orchestra, artist salaries, the apprentice program all adds up very quickly. The $22,000 budget of 1973 has mushroomed to over $3,000,000 in 2021.
From the first program of that first season, our mission with the Des Moines Metro Summer Festival of Opera has been dedicated to furthering the cause of opera in America by bringing repertory performances to opera lovers in the Middle West and to new audiences for opera as well, and to provide performing experiences for young and gifted American-trained singers.
When we began the company, there was virtually no place for young American singers to go. The opportunities were miniscule. I wanted to create a stage where young American singers could be heard. Since that time there have been many such stages open to young talent. We were definitely in the vanguard of regional companies with this new philosophy.
Our goals have remained steadfast throughout our history, and this consistency has added to our strength and longevity. The creativity and talent of Douglas Duncan was evidenced by his managerial leadership and performing capabilities. He was a very important part of DMMO. He performed nearly 10 years into the venture—but then he was just too busy investing his gifts in organization, fundraising, and promotion. Doug died suddenly in January of 1988 and Jerilee Mace, who had worked alongside him in the office, took over for 17 years and did incredible work as executive director. She so ably and capably took the helm of the organization at a critical juncture, nurtured its continued growth and really made it her own during her remarkable tenure through 2006. I admired her work so much.
More recent developments have led to Michael Egel acting as General and Artistic Director. Following my retirement in 2010, he has done remarkable things working in artistic planning and development and making the Company function very well. Michael is expert at what he does, and the current success of the Company rests heavily on his shoulders.