“‘American Gothic’ would not have happened if Grant (Wood) had brushed his teeth,” Robert Lindsey-Nassif mused.
During Wood’s many trips to the dentist, he became so familiar with Dr. Byron McKeeby and so fascinated by the doctor’s strong hands, that he asked McKeeby to pose with Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham, for the iconic portrait recognized the world over, Nassif explained.
And now Nassif, a Cedar Rapids resident with a long string of theatrical composition credits, has drilled that observation, along with a dose of humor, into his “American Gothical” one-act opera. It will premiere Friday (4/12) to Sunday (4/14) at Theatre Cedar Rapids as part of the “Grant Wood: Strokes of Genius” trilogy commissioned by the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.
The other two works on the program are “Grant Wood in Paris,” by Jean-Francois Charles of Iowa City, and “Eight Woods and a Van,” by Michael Ching of Ames. (See more information here)
Nassif is quick to add: “Make no mistake — I love the painting. I am not making fun of it, I’m having fun with it, and I think Grant Wood would appreciate it. I truly think it’s one of the great masterpieces of all time, and it was painted right here in Cedar Rapids.”
Nassif took his musical cues from the humorous visual cues Wood wove not only into “American Gothic,” but also such paintings as “Daughters of Revolution,” which Nassif noted is “making fun of snobs,” and “Victorian Survival,” where Wood gave the austere woman in the portrait, based on a tintype photo of his great-aunt, an elongated neck mirroring the old-fashioned telephone to her right.
“He had a lot of humor, and I think sometimes actually that’s worked against him, as far as his reputation,” Nassif said. “People think if it’s funny, it can’t be serious art, perhaps, and it undercuts his artistry. But I think he’s funny and profound at the same time.
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“And really, we forget, he was only just getting started,” Nassif said of Wood, who died on the eve of his 51st birthday. “When you think of the works someone like Picasso was painting into his 90s, who knows where Grant Wood would have gone.
“I see humor and warmth in his work and I also see poignancy as he struggled for identity in that era.”
Using “American Gothic” as the inspiration for his opera, then digging into his research, “the story almost wrote itself,” he said. “I knew from early on that it would begin in the dentist’s office, with Grant Wood sitting in the dentist’s chair with his mouth full of cotton, and that his first aria would be called ‘MMMMMM!’ He’s waiting for his dentist to come back with X-rays.”
Wood, himself, was seeking inspiration for a painting to enter into the Chicago Art Institute’s quickly-approaching competition. The first piece of the puzzle came when a young art student he was visiting drove him around Eldon, and he saw the now-iconic farmhouse sporting a prefab Gothic window ordered from Sears and Roebuck.
“The dichotomy of this Gothic window in this little farmhouse just lit his imagination,” Nassif said, which plays out in a flashback aria.
Two weeks later, as Wood sat in the dentist’s chair, he noticed the strength of McKeeby’s muscular hands. “He said, ‘Those hands go with that house,’” Nassif noted. “As you can imagine, his dentist, who was not a laugh riot, was quite flummoxed. In the opera, I have a whole frenetic waltz called ‘those Hands,’ and Grant is waxing poetic about the beauty of his dentist’s hands.”
That translates directly to the painting, he said.
“If you look at the picture, one thing we all take for granted is that hand holding pitchfork, is front and center and in your face. It’s quite aggressive, and it gives a tremendous sense of perspective and almost gravitas to the picture. If that were not there, the picture could be thought to be merely kind of comic,” Nassif said. “But that fist in your face gives it the ambiguity that I think has led it to be, in my mind, this greatest masterpiece and most beloved painting in the world. I think it’s easily more recognizable than ‘Mona Lisa,’ and as testament to that are all the wonderful, affectionate parodies that to this day are being made.”
Five singers are in the piece, with each getting a turn in the solo spotlight to explain their role as the painting comes to life onstage.
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“It’s quite reverential,” Nassif said, adding that “the singing is absolutely exquisite. It’s a composer’s dream come true to hear these astonishing voices that Daniel (Kleinknecht) has assembled.”
Watching the work come to life after “gestating for two years,” he hopes his opera will help reinvent the painting for the audiences, “that they truly come to understand it as I have come to understand it, and fall in love with it again,” he said.
“I hope they see it with fresh eyes, and I hope they’re very entertained. I hope they laugh and I hope they’re moved.”
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