CEDAR RAPIDS — Nicholas Nestorak and Jhe Russell knew Grant Wood painted “American Gothic,” and that’s about it. Until now.
Both performers have been plunging into the life and works of the late Eastern Iowa artist, as they prepare to embody different facets of Wood’s enigmatic life, cut short by pancreatic cancer in 1942 on the eve of his 51st birthday.
Nestorak, 29, of Hillsdale, Mich., will portray Wood in the premiere of three 30-minutes operas collectively titled “Strokes of Genius: The Grant Wood Operas,” onstage Friday (4/12) to Sunday (4/14) at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
Russell, 42, of Iowa City, a spoken word artist and professional ballet dancer, will rap in French and English through a look at Wood’s life abroad. He will share the stage and persona with Nestorak in the second work, “Grant Wood in Paris.”
The project is the brainchild of Daniel Kleinknecht, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre’s founder and artistic director, who began cultivating the idea of an opera about Wood’s life 10 years ago. The timing and the financing began their parallel paths, intersecting two years ago, and three Iowa-based composers were commissioned to each create a 30-minute, one-act opera informed by Wood’s artwork.
After a trip to through the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art’s Grant Wood Gallery and the lower level storage space composers Robert Lindsey-Nassif of Cedar Rapids, Jean-Francois Charles of Iowa City and Michael Ching of Ames chose different pieces as the inspiration for their musical explorations.
“The composers were thrilled to have the ability to see the works that were not on view,” Sean Ulmer, the museum’s executive director, said. “It was a revelation for some of them. Certainly, many people know Grant Wood’s most famous works, and they’re spread throughout the country. Our holdings have some of those, but we have a lot more of the lesser well-known works, and the composers were very excited to see them.
“Seeing paintings that he did in France; how he began his painting career more as an Impressionist; seeing his metalwork; seeing other works that they were less familiar with at that point in the process, really made him a multidimensional artist to them and gave them a lot of visual material to work with,” Ulmer said.
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Nassif chose the most recognizable work as the starting point for his “American Gothical.” Charles, a native of France, gravitated toward pieces reflecting the artist’s time abroad for “Grant Wood in Paris,” and incorporating unusual instrumentation replicating farm and tool sounds.
Ching explores the interplay of several pieces for “Eight Woods and a Van,” superimposing “American Gothic” over Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Wedding,” also known as “Arnolfini Portrait.”
Additionally, Ching drew inspiration from Wood’s controversial lithograph, “Sultry Night,” depicting a nude farmhand bathing outdoors next to a water trough, and Ching’s opera, staged after intermission, will include brief full-frontal nudity.
Kleinknecht has no qualms about that aspect of the production.
“Grant Wood painted it, and we’re bringing his art to life,” Kleinknecht said. “ ... It’s a farmhand who’s been out in the hot sun all day ... and they took a bath with water out in the fields. I think it’s just entirely appropriate. It’s funny — we’re used to looking at nude women through the ages, but men, no. We still seem to have an interesting problem with that. I think as a society, we’re finally moving beyond that.”
Stage director and Cedar Rapids native Haley Stamats added that the nudity “is for a couple of seconds.”
“It’s going to be tasteful,” she said. “ ... It’s an important aspect in the storytelling. I don’t like to do nudity unless it’s necessary, and in this (piece), it is necessary to tell the story.”
The three operas have their own musical identities, as well.
In Nassif’s composition, audiences will “hear vivacious ensembles, some beautiful arias, and some just really funny, humorous looks into how ‘American Gothic’ could have come about,” Kleinknecht said. “Rob has a style that is very easily acceptable to the ear. It has a beauty that is inherent.
“Michael Ching’s piece also is very tonal. His melodies soar in a really special way. His approach has been a little bit more like taking the audience through a trip to the museum itself, with some interesting stop-off points,” Kleinknecht noted.
“Jean-Francois Charles’ piece is avant-garde in the most interesting of ways. His approach to the sounds in his palette are each used to express something about the psychology of the characters, the psychology of the situation. For instance, we know that Grant Wood would draw under the table, so as part of Jean-Francois’ soundscape, he’s amplified the sound of Grant Wood’s pencil as it touches paper,” Kleinknecht said.
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“In one aria, we have the mezzo-soprano who is both Nan and Hattie (Wood’s sister and mother), and sometimes she is a composite thought-product of Grant himself, because they all three lived together so closely, and their roles within one another were psychologically embedded with one another in some ways. So he’s created one character that is all of those people, in the way all of us are the product of our parents and the people around us.”
Charles, an assistant professor of digital arts and composition at the University of Iowa, also is an accomplished clarinetist and live electronics designer with advanced degrees in electrical engineering, and a Ph.D. from Harvard in music and composition. All of those interests are reflected in his opera, including the prominent use of the clarinet.
“He has also created a piece that uses unusual instruments like a serpent,” Kleinknecht said. “He makes reference to a snake in the early part of the opera, with that snake being the insidious sexuality question that (Wood) faced: ‘Am I gay, am I not gay, how do I fight that,’ which is something he probably had to do, living in Iowa and living in the early 20th century. That serpent comes back as an instrument used on stage, both in the orchestra and as this character.”
In contemplating the creation of an opera about Wood, Kleinknecht was intrigued by the artist’s use of humor in his work.
“He’s playing with art — he’s not always serious,” Kleinknecht said. “So I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting, composers, if one of your pieces just used instruments made of wood, as a play on Grant Wood’s name.’ The only one who sort of bit on that is Jean-Francois. I don’t know if anybody will get that, but it’s just part of the humor of art.
“In great art, you can look deeper and deeper and find more subtle shadings and more subtle meanings,” Kleinknecht said, “and I think Jean-Francois’ piece is full of things that are deeply rooted in Grant Wood’s personality and in the art.”
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WHAT: “The Grant Wood Operas: Strokes of Genius” world premiere
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday (4/12) and Saturday (4/13); 2 p.m. Sunday (4/14)
TICKETS: $40; Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
PROGRAM: “American Gothical” by Robert Lindsey-Nassif of Cedar Rapids; “Grant Wood in Paris” by Jean-Francois Charles of Iowa City; “Eight Woods and a Van” by Michael Ching of Ames
WARNING: Brief full-frontal male nudity in “Eight Woods and a Van”
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DISCUSSION: Free curtain talk one hour before showtime with R. Tripp Evans, art historian and author of “Grant Wood: A Life”