Wednesday, June 19, 2024

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Center Stage

From opera to chamber to children’s, stage music beckons


Baritone Justin Austin (who debuts the role of Thomas McKeller in “American Apollo” in this world premiere) posing with the original John Singer Sargent sketches in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Photo credit: Ben Easter

Let the month of June be proclaimed as Cultural Adventurer Month for those seeking new works, spine-tingling performances and a diverse and immersive offering of stage works. The venerable Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), with its world-renowned Summer Festival, has the opera world chattering about their boldly seductive season. Iowa Stage Theatre Company brings a new musical experience to its stage. And Pyramid Theatre Company returns with an irresistibly soul-searching world premiere. Fill your calendar with these and other productions that await.

The Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) has established an international reputation that few peer companies can match. National critics from publications like The Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times frequently travel to DMMO to review the lineup of operas for every summer festival season. 

“Des Moines Metro Opera has earned a reputation for ‘shrewd programming’ in curating fascinating combinations of works,” DMMO general and artistic director Michael Egel said. “For summer 2024, we’ve assembled an expanded, four-opera season in which a world premiere, ‘American Apollo,’ complements a fresh take on a classic comedy, ‘The Barber of Seville,’ to bookend the programming. In between are two new productions of towering 20th century masterworks, ‘Salome’ and ‘Pelléas & Mélisande,’ which originally premiered just three years apart and blew the door open to a new musical century in very different ways. It will be a rare opportunity to experience both in back-to-back repertory performances.”

Presenting its operas in rotating repertory, where guests can see three or four operas in a single weekend, has allowed Des Moines Metro Opera to attract national and international audiences to its summer festival. In 2023, Des Moines Metro Opera welcomed ticket buyers from 40 states and five countries to Indianola. Approximately 40-45% of its audiences came from outside the Des Moines metro area. According to Opera America, Des Moines Metro Opera is second in the nation among summer opera festivals in the number of visitors attracted to performances from outside its home state.

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With a pedigree like this, it’s little wonder that The Wall Street Journal stated this about DMMO, “Such high production values and careful casting make Des Moines Metro Opera a find.”

Three other shows this month include “Melancholy Play: A Chamber Musical” at Iowa Stage Theatre Company, Tallgrass’ annual “instant tradition” of the full musical, this year “Camelot,” performed at West Des Moines’ Jamie Hurd Amphitheatre, and “The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body” by Pyramid Theatre Company. 

Iowa Stage’s production features a musical adaptation of Sarah Ruhl’s “Melancholy Play.” Ruhl is a prolific, successful playwright, author, essayist and professor who has said that she tries to interpret how people subjectively experience life.

“Everyone has a great, horrible opera inside him,” she said. “I feel that my plays, in a way, are very old-fashioned. They’re pre-Freudian in the sense that the Greeks and Shakespeare worked with similar assumptions. Catharsis isn’t a wound being excavated from childhood.” 

This chamber music version of her play was created in collaboration with Todd Almond, a composer, lyricist and playwright. For The Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park, Almond wrote the music and lyrics for the Public Works production of “The Tempest” at the Delacorte Theater. 

Tallgrass makes the West Des Moines City Campus resonate with great musical theatre each summer, and this year pulls one of Broadway’s greatest shows onto their stage. “Camelot” has proven to be one of America’s most revered musicals with a score filled with unforgettable songs. 

Pyramid Theatre Company has been quietly and energetically working behind the scenes, strengthening its national network and reputation as Iowa’s only Black theatre. Pyramid highlights the presence of Black artists in theatre and provides a means of artistic expression to emerging Black voices. 

Lisa B. Thompson’s “The Black Feminist Guide to the Human Body” “meditates on Black women’s experiences from the perspectives of mind, body and spirit. What makes the piece unique is its focus on middle-aged and older Black women, an often invisible and neglected group, especially by the medical establishment. Thompson also celebrates Black feminist pioneers and icons whose contributions to the arts, culture, politics, and academia transformed the world. 

Pyramid continues to engage a much larger audience into a deeper understanding of the complexities of being Black, being a woman, and being older. 

Add a bold choice for the all-volunteer Ankeny Community Theatre of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and June promises a range of theatrical fare that will entertain, inform, challenge and much more. Add a dash of the rhythmic phenomena, “STOMP,” at Des Moines Performing Arts, and this month proves to be a smorgasbord for the theater patron to feast.

John Busbee is a creative project developer, critic, playwright, author, producer and media professional. He has produced his weekly show, The Culture Buzz, on KFMG since 2007.

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