Des Moines Metro Opera

I did something on Friday night that I haven’t done in many years: I went to the opera.

Although I am a huge follower of musical theatre, I’ve never considered myself an opera fan. It’s one of those things that you probably just love or you don’t. But I appreciate the art form, and I would like to become more knowledgeable about it. And here in central Iowa, we have access to nationally recognized talent during the Des Moines Metro Opera’s summer season.

The Des Moines Metro Opera has been in existence for 40 years, making it the sixth oldest U.S. professional opera company. Does this surprise you? It surprises me. The company is not a touring company, nor is it made up of local talent. Its home is the Simpson College campus in Indianola, just south of Des Moines.

We attended the performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on Friday night. The opera is one of three performed in repertory this summer; the other two are La Rondine by Puccini and Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. Principal artists in Don Giovanni came from as far away as San Juan, Puerto Rico; Lindenhurst, N.Y.; and Portsmouth, Va. Each of the three operas performed this summer has its own stage director, orchestra conductor, and cast.

An opera in two acts, Don Giovanni was first performed in 1787 by the Prague Italian Opera. The Italian libretto was written by Lorenzo da Ponte, and it was billed as a drama giocoso, meaning a mix of dramatic and comic action.

In a nutshell, the plot involves Don Giovanni, a villainous character who rapes women and kills anyone who stands in his way. (In the setting of this 1700s opera, his is a comic character. Today, we’d call him a sexual predator. We might even do a “Law and Order: SVU” episode about him. And it wouldn’t be fun.) In the opening of the first act, a shirtless Don Giovanni has just had his way with an unwilling woman and is being pursued by her father, whom Giovanni kills. The rest of the opera centers around more of Giovanni’s bad behavior — we meet a number of his former, current, and potential conquests – and the push by several characters urging him to reform and repent. In the end, it’s a tale of morality. But not without mistaken identities, heaving bosoms, and lots and lots of singing in Italian.

That’s one problem with opera: the language barrier. Most famous operas are not written in English. Some companies translate the operas into English, but that sort of ruins it, right? Des Moines Metro Opera performs its operas in the native language (in this case, Italian) as they were meant to be sung, and it offers supertitles above the stage so the English-speaking audience is not completely in the dark. I have a love-hate relationship with supertitles; they do obviously let you understand what the characters are saying (and even thinking) but it’s hard to watch the action on the stage and read the supertitles at the same time. Add to that the responsibility of watching to make sure the actors don’t fall into the orchestra pit (located smack dab in the center of the stage) and you have an exhausting job as an opera-goer.

Nonetheless, Des Moines Metro Opera is a cool deal and we should be proud to support it. Next time I go, I will probably take advantage of the pre-opera dining (the brunch prior to matinee performances sounds especially delightful) and have a glass of wine.

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