An epic anniversary, with music off the chain5/31/2017
Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) may be nearing the half-century mark, but it’s still open to fresh thinking. One of its three major productions this summer — “Billy Budd,” a masterwork from Benjamin Britten — will premiere an orchestration no one has used before.
For the 1951 original, Britten let his musical imagination off the chain. His score called for such extras as nine players on percussion, and, as a result, the opera has only played vast houses like the New York Met. A space like the one at Simpson College couldn’t handle the demand.
But Michael Egel, Artistic Director of DMMO, had long wanted to tackle “Budd,” which he calls an “epic piece.” This year, at last, after preparations that included consultations with the Britten estate, central Iowa will host the first trimmed-down version.
“We’ve eliminated something like half the spectrum of Britten’s sound, and we’ve turned our stage into a whaling ship,” Egel claims.
The result will soon turn up at other more modest stages, but Indianola gets first crack — in a venue with nary a bad seat. Benefits of the location go both ways, too, as the company has nearly completed fundraising for an “Opera Center” downtown, sure to boost local revenues.
The excitement is impossible to miss, on a night at Blank Center. The lobby crowd is all dolled up, and DMMO offers theme dinners, with menus matched to the show. As for the artists, they recognize a plum assignment when they see one. The three major productions this year all feature happy returnees, among them Alexandra LoBianco, who came off a tour of Japan to handle the lead in “Turandot.” This Verdi heavyweight vies with “Budd” as an epic, with 80 players in its ensemble (at DMMO, these include local children) and the song that may be Opera’s Greatest Hit, “Nessun’ Dorma.” A favorite for Pavorotti, the number has lately turned up in a number of Super Bowl ads.
For the third piece at Simpson, not surprisingly Egel and his advisors went with something lighter. This was “A Little Night Music,” by Stephen Sondheim, only the second Broadway musical DMMO has mounted in 45 years.
“Few American musicals are suited to an operatic treatment, but Sondheim has the touch,” Egel explains. “He makes the music carry the show.”
Among the songs, too, is another much-loved number, “Send in the Clowns.” Then, too, this production claims a star designer on set and costumes, namely the fashionista Isaac Mizrahi.
A marquee name like that fits with DMMO’s growing effort to reach new audiences. Thus this summer will see another 2nd Stages show in Des Moines: “Maria de Buenos Aires,” a “tango opera” with surreal elements.
“Every time I take on a show, it surprises me,” Egel says. “It’s always got something fresh for me. And I can’t help wanting to share that excitement.”
Overheard in the Lobby: June 15-18, Repertory Theater of Iowa presents its annual Shakespeare On the Lawn at Salisbury House, “Taming of the Shrew.” ♦