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Something to sing about: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre receives NEA grant

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Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre Presents:
The Grant Wood Operas: Strokes of Genius

Theatre Cedar Rapids — April 12-14, 2019 (tickets on sale starting in January)

Jessica Pray Patel sings an aria from ‘The Grant Wood Operas’ at a season preview in October at the History Center in Cedar Rapids. — courtesy Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre

Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre announced earlier this month that it had received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The $15,000 grant supports the company’s April world premiere of a commissioned work titled The Grant Wood Operas: Strokes of Genius. The piece consists of three 30-minute operas each inspired by the work of Cedar Rapids artist Grant Wood.

“I don’t know of another opera in existence, or one being commissioned by any company today, that is taking this approach to new opera,” CROT Founder and Artistic Director Daniel Kleinknecht said in a press release. “It has exciting possibilities … it will become its own work of art — entertaining, engaging, and heartfelt.”

The pieces were commissioned by CROT from three Iowa composers: Jean-François Charles, Michael Ching and Rob Lindsey-Nassif (each of whom wrote the librettos for their piece as well). Eastern Iowa’s Nassif, known for his musicals Flight of the Lawnchair Man and Opal (both produced locally, in 2010 at Theatre Cedar Rapids and 2014 at CSPS Hall, respectively), offers American Gothical, a humorous take on the inspirations behind Wood’s best known work.

Ching, who lives in Ames (where his wife is on the English faculty at Iowa State University), recently completed two commissions for the Savannah Voice Festival in Georgia, where he is composer-in-residence. His contribution is Seven Woods and a Van, which he describes in press materials for the premiere as including nods to composer Kurt Weill and Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. Charles, a member of the music faculty at the University of Iowa, wrote Grant Wood in Paris, inspired by Wood’s Coil Welder and Spotted Man.

CROT has commissioned other work in the past, including from Nassif. In 2000, the company commissioned UI alum Edwin Penhorwood for the comic piece Too Many Sopranos. And in 2012, the worked with Nassif to create Frankenboy, an anti-bullying “monsteropera” for children that premiered at CSPS Hall.

In addition to the work itself, the premiere performances will be preceded each night by talks from R. Tripp Evans, an art history professor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts and author of the 2010 biography Grant Wood: A Life.

The National Endowment for the Arts supports organizations across the country like CROT with a total of around $70 million in direct grants annually. A proposal by the current administration to reduce funding to the NEA and other cultural organizations was defeated in the U.S. House of Representatives in July of this year.

Grant Wood, born in Anamosa, is arguably Iowa’s most famous artist. He is woven inexorably into state and local history. Wood graduated from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids and, after studying at the Handicraft Guild in Minneapolis and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, taught at the UI School of Art from 1934-41. His home and later studio in a carriage house at what he called 5 Turner Alley in Cedar Rapids was gifted to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 2002.

Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre celebrated its 20th season in 2017-18. The company’s next production, ahead of The Grant Wood Operas, will be January’s presentation of The Threepenny Opera (Bertholt Brecht/Kurt Weill). The show will run Jan. 10-13 at CSPS Hall; tickets $35-40.

The rest of the 2018-19 season includes Cedar Rapids Community School District performances of The Ugly Duckling (Andrew Duncan) in April and The Desert Song (Romburg, Hammerstein II, Harback and Mandel) at Brucemore. CROT returns to its primary home at the Paramount Theatre in 2020.

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