Cedar Rapids Opera Theater : Ten Years of Bringing Professional Opera to Eastern Iowa

On Jan. 11, the curtain will rise on the tenth anniversary season of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre
(www.cr-opera.org). This once fledgling company has more than established itself over its brief history with productions from the traditional repertoire, new commissions, and a pairing of professional singers and artistic staff with accomplished young artists. It is appropriate therefore that founder and executive director Daniel Kleinknecht will once again take the podium for the company’s first production of The Magic Flute. Like Mozart’s Tamino, Kleinknecht has led the CROT safely through the trials of its early years into its current success as a significant, regional opera house that consistently brings world-class talent to eastern Iowa.

With a background that includes piano and acting as well as conducting, Kleinknecht is a natural fit for the demands of an operatic conducting career.

“I’ve always liked the theater,” he says. “I like to keep my hands busy and I’ve always liked putting things together. I was drawn to those parts of opera that are both theatrical and musically challenging.”

His time as a student at Indiana University’s Opera Theatre and his experience as the assistant conductor of Opera Illinois in Peoria further instilled a passion for the art form and a desire to advocate professional-level opera in his community.

Kleinknecht first moved to the Hawkeye state to pursue a doctoral degree at the University of Iowa. He realized during his time there that Cedar Rapids was approximately the same size as Peoria. He also witnessed firsthand the strong following of the music programs at the university, as well as the success of such arts organizations as the Cedar Rapids Symphony. “There was a vacuum in the area that could be and needed to be filled, and I felt the city could support it.” He decided to pursue a local outlet for his love of opera.

Realities called for significant fund-raising efforts to get the project up and running. Kleinknecht calls raising money and attracting initial donors “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” though he is quick to acknowledge that the communities of Cedar Rapids and nearby Iowa City have been “very generous.”

Besides the financial hurdle, the other great challenge was locating enough manpower to put on the productions. In lieu of a paid staff Kleinknecht made use of a strong board of volunteers who did everything from locating props and acquiring costumes to unloading trucks.

The first few productions of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre consisted mostly of one-act operas such as Debussy’s The Prodigal Son and Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. These early performances, though small, had strong, experienced casts. Thankfully, as Kleinknecht puts it, “the audience seemed to come.”

The goals of establishing professional standards and operating under professional guidelines and expectations were in place from the start.

“We very much wanted to be a professional company,” Kleinknecht says, “so from the beginning we always paid those on stage.” This early commitment to its artists have garnered loyalty to the company’s mission and operatic pursuits.

Mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner (CROT’s Carmen in 2005) has performed to critical acclaim on such grand stages as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Real in Madrid, and Opéra National de Lyon.

“I’m always happy to add Cedar Rapids to my schedule,” she says. “Daniel Kleinknecht has done a wonderful job of creating a viable opera company in eastern Iowa. He attracts excellent singers because it’s fun to work there. It’s a great working atmosphere and they take such good care of their singers.”

Goeldner feels audiences recognize this and enjoy it as well. “I always say that as a performer, you will never be as appreciated as you are when you perform in Iowa. The audiences are so enthusiastic. There’s no judgment, no sense of having to prove yourself–they just want to have a good time.”

As the CROT’s resources and reputation continued to grow beyond those of its inaugural years, the company was able to program operas with increasingly larger performance demands. A 2003 production of Verdi’s Otello unintentionally led to the advent of the company’s Young Artist Program. For the first time in CROT’s history, representatives from the National Endowment for the Arts had scheduled a visit to Cedar Rapids to see the production. With such high-profile guests, Kleinknecht knew “we had to do the piece very well.”

Gerald Dolter, director of music theatre at Texas Tech University, was on the creative staff for Otello. He recruited a number of his university students to spend part of their summer in Iowa as a supplement to the CROT adult chorus. CROT added students from several local college voice departments as well. The incorporation of young singers in the company’s professional atmosphere boosted the number of singers involved and strengthened the production. The adults enjoyed the energetic spark the young artists provided and the young artists learned by watching and interacting with professionals in their field.

The CROT artistic staff was quickly convinced that this relationship was valuable for the company and could help foster the future of opera.

“Though the Young Artist Program began out of the increased needs of the repertoire,” Kleinknecht says, “it has now become an important part of our mission, which has grown to encompass the training of young singers.”

Today the CROT’s Young Artist Program provides singers with important career building opportunities. It follows Kleinknecht’s founding commitment to professionalism—all young artists receive a monetary stipend and housing during the run of each production. CROT produces its operas in January and in June/July. In each of these productions “YAs” understudy leading roles, sing comprimario roles, and sing in the chorus of the mainstage productions.

Each January, the company cast YAs in small, educational outreach productions, and in June/July CROT produces a full-scale show cast entirely with young artists. YAs also perform in area promotional concerts and enjoy the opportunity to participate in masterclasses with guest clinicians who in the past have included Karen Brunssen (professor of voice at Northwestern University), Jon Spong (opera coach and accompanist for Sherrill Milnes), and Costanza Cuccaro (professor of voice at Indiana University).

“I hope we can offer people a way to put their academic experience into a professional setting—to work alongside professionals and just to see ‘how it works’ in a regional opera house,” Kleinknecht says of the Young Artist Program. “Students need to know how to do these productions in a shorter period of time—how things work in a professional versus an academic program.”

To best accommodate young artists, CROT largely schedules its productions to coincide with the winter and summer breaks of most university programs. These performances allow students the opportunity not only to build their skills but also their résumés—an important career step, says Goeldner. “The opera world, as we all know, is very small,” she says. “so once you’ve gotten someone’s ‘stamp of approval,’ once you’ve been accepted as a young artist somewhere, maybe it’s a little easier to get to the next step on the career ladder. Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre gives young singers a boost onto that ladder.”

Former young artist Meredith Taylor agrees. “Having the opportunity to prepare roles in a professional manner at my age is extremely important to building my operatic résumé. For that, I am seriously in debt to CROT,” she says. “The opportunity to work alongside professionals is the most valuable part. If you are willing to listen and learn, they can provide some wonderful vocal, dramatic and professional advice.

“In my experiences with CROT, the professionals really just want to see the young artists succeed, and they will help you however they can. The advice Caroline Worra (Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera) gave was extremely helpful—not to mention the insight I gained by just watching her sing everyday.”

Based on the success he has already seen in his Young Artist Program, Kleinknecht has hopes to expand the program even further.

“I would like to increase the specific educational component to include dance, movement, stage fighting, and language classes, as well as more performance opportunities. I do see the program growing in ways that really promote the education of the singer-actor.”

CROT holds auditions regularly in the Midwest and Kleinknecht travels to New York a couple of times a year to hear singers. Like many directors, his casting decisions are based on what he hears at the auditions, as well as the singers’ previous experience.

“I first consider how they sing the repertoire and what they sound like. Then I ask: Is it a beautiful voice? Have they done the role before? Where have they sung? What is their demeanor? How is their delivery? Are they convincing?”

He also relies on the opinions and recommendations of other professional contacts. “If a singer has worked with certain stage directors, I call them.” Throughout the auditions, however, he looks to provide a balance in his casts, with more experienced singers in the leading roles who are able to provide a positive example for the young artists.

Kleinknecht’s vision for the future of the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is both practical and far-reaching. He understands that he must continue to program “what the community will buy and support,” though in 10 seasons he has only repeated one opera (Madama Butterfly) and can readily list a number of “favorites” that have yet to be programmed. At the same time, he believes “you have to encourage the community to go beyond what they already like. You have to step as daringly as you can outside of the established repertoire.”

One such daring step was the 2000 premiere of Edwin Penhorwood’s Too Many Sopranos. “Allowing a composer’s work to come alive like that is phenomenal,” Kleinknecht says, especially knowing that “a composer could change his mind based on what he hears.” This production was also memorable and significant because it marked the company debut of “wonderful singers like Caroline Worra and Kyle Ketelsen.”

Upon reflection, Kleinknecht easily recognizes the benefit of professional opera in Cedar Rapids. “Opera forces you–it compels you–to be better than you are. From every level it challenges you. It challenges the community, it challenges you as a singer and as a player, and it brings people to a new level–both from a participant’s standpoint and from a performer’s standpoint.”

Ten years after its inception, the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre continues to meet and exceed these challenges as it seeks new and better ways to serve its professional artists, its young singers, and its audience.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. brianmanternach.comdrbrianmanternach.blogspot.com / bmantern@gmail.com