Jane Smiley’s Iowa-set classic ‘A Thousand Acres’ is adapted to the stage for Des Moines Metro Opera’s 50th

Elise Quagliata as Ginny in DMMO’s ‘A Thousand Acres’ — photo by Kyle Starcevich

When an arts organization celebrates 50 years of sharing wonderful work with enraptured audiences, the time is right to do something exceptional. The question, of course, is what that something should be.

For the Des Moines Metro Opera, the answer in part turned out to be adapting Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Thousand Acres, for the stage. The novel is both a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear and a quintessentially Iowa story about an aging father attempting to entrust the future of the family farm to his three daughters.

The initial seed of the project was planted by Kristine McIntyre, who is both director and dramaturg of the new opera that opens July 9 at the Blank Performing Arts Center in Indianola.

“I first read A Thousand Acres back when it was published [in 1991], and it was a book that made a huge impression on me,” McIntyre said in a phone interview. “Flash forward many decades and [Des Moines Metro Opera General and Artistic Director] Michael Egel was looking for a book or something to turn into this world premiere to celebrate the 50th anniversary. This was three and half or four years ago now. Because I’m somebody who directs at the festival a lot and we’re friends, he asked me if I had any theories. And I said A Thousand Acres. I’m not the only person who suggested the book to him, but I might have been the first person to suggest it, and I pushed it quite heavily.”

Egel read the novel and agreed that it was an excellent choice. With sign-on from the board of directors, which was eager to have McIntyre helm the project, work got underway.

“Having me be both dramaturg and director means I was involved in the decisions about scenes from the book to put in the opera,” McIntyre explained. “And then I would put my director hat on and advocate for certain things that I wanted or talk with Mark [Campbell, librettist] about logistics … I think it made for a very holistic process in that sense. And it means that as the director I had a lot of information going in when we started actually physically designing the opera in terms of what we would need and how we might move from place to place, and we have orchestra interludes between the scenes, so how we might use those, and all of that.”

McIntyre is pleased with the ways in which the opera brings out the connection to Lear, but also delighted that the opera pushes the artform forward in important ways.

Elise Quagliata as Ginny in DMMO’s ‘A Thousand Acres’ — photo by Kyle Starcevich

“Something that Jane does in the book that I think we’ve brought out in the opera is the connection psychologically between the landscape and the characters … Obviously in Lear, the storm on the heath is about his psychology as much as it is about the collapse of nature. And I think we’ve carried that element through — that somehow the destruction of the land is tied to the destruction of the family … We get these echoes of Lear, but then we go somewhere else entirely. There’s no other opera in which two women sit on the stage together and have so many scenes as Ginny and Rose do in this opera. It’s a really spectacular thing.”

For her part, Smiley was more than happy to sign off on the project.

“Oh, I felt great,” Smiley, who lives in California, said in a phone interview. “I’m quite fond of opera … and so I thought it would really be interesting to see what they would come up with. A Thousand Acres was made into a movie, which I thought was quite interesting also. So, why not? Why not add music? … I’m interested in what other genres or what other art forms want to do with each other. And obviously, I already did the same thing by turning King Lear into a novel.”

The author took a hands-off approach.

“I don’t know anything about doing operas or plays … It was never a question in my mind that they might do something wrong or not get it right or something like that. I was just more curious about what they would come up with.”

What they came up with, McIntyre believes, is something that honors the book while perhaps delivering a more hopeful ending than the novel. That was important to the director.

“We have to believe in the future in some way to make theater,” she said.

Both McIntyre and Smiley hope the opera may have a future beyond these premiere performances. Smiley put it this way:

“First of all, obviously, we want it to be enjoyable, and we want the music [by composer Kristin Kuster] to be really stunning and melodious and all that stuff. But, you know, the next thing we want is for it to be successful. I don’t know what that means in the world of opera, but if everybody likes it and it can go to, say, Chicago or New York, well, go for it.”

But before addressing the question of whether everybody likes it, the director, the creative team and the cast have high hopes that one particular individual will be pleased.

“All of us deeply want Jane to love it,” McIntyre said.

Watch: DMMO visits Jane Smiley at her home in northern California

Rob Cline is a writer and reader who lives in Cedar Rapids and works in Iowa City. He is eagerly awaiting Jane Smiley’s next novel — her first mystery since ‘Duplicate Keys’ — due out late this year. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 004.

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