116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The curtain is rising on Cedar Rapids Opera’s 25th anniversary season by honoring its core mission of showcasing local talent and rising stars — on the stage where it all began.
“Norman & Abigail” will launch the celebration in style, with sparkling voices and sparkling toasts to the past present and future. Festivities begin at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 in CSPS Hall, 1103 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids, the site of the opera company’s first production.
In the Curtains Up! gala spotlight are baritone Norman Garrett, who has performed with Cedar Rapids Opera several times, soprano Abigail Rethwisch, an Iowa City native who has recently moved to Cedar Rapids, and pianist Minji Kwon.
Both vocalists have performed at New York’s hallowed Metropolitan Opera, as well as other prestigious stages coast to coast. Daniel Kleinknecht, founder and artistic director for Cedar Rapids Opera, is thrilled to present them in an hourlong concert of works ranging from familiar arias to a spiritual and the lesser-known “Joey, Joey, Joey” from Broadway’s “The Most Happy Fella.”
What: Cedar Rapids Opera presents Curtains Up! “Norman & Abigail”
Where: CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids, and broadcast live by Iowa Public Radio
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 28, 2022
Tickets: $50, (319) 364-1580 or cropera.org/norman-abigail
25th anniversary season: Continues with “Cosi fan tutte,” Jan. 20 and 23, Paramount Theatre, Cedar Rapids; “Charlie and the Wolf” in January at Cedar Rapids schools, with a public premiere during the Juneteenth concert, details TBA; “Wistful Melodies of Dvorak,” March 23, National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, Cedar Rapids; “Gianni Schicchi” and “American Gothical,” June 22 to 24, details TBA; The Three Tenors: A Gala Celebration, Aug. 26, The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, Cedar Rapids; details and tickets at cropera.org/
“They're going to be really fantastic together in this small space,” Kleinknecht said of the vocalists, noting that the intimate CSPS experience reminds him of the audition tours he does around the Midwest.
"I sit in these small rooms, with big voices, and it's so exciting. This concert will, I think, allow our audience to just get to do what I do a little bit of the time, which is hear great voices in smaller spaces.
“It's just so impressive to be able to be in the presence of these glorious sounds — and sometimes just a beautiful wall of sound. That's what I look forward to presenting to our Cedar Rapids audiences.”
It also marks a return to the stage where Cedar Rapids Opera began, when it presented three one-act operas at CSPS in May 1998: Kim Sherman's "Long Island Dreamer" and "Red Tide," and Philip Hagemann's "The Music Cure."
Fast-forward a few years, and Garrett, a Lubbock, Texas, native, made his professional debut with the Cedar Rapids company in 2003, portraying the Herald in “Otello.” The following year, he swashbuckled his way as the Pirate King in the Young Artist production of “Pirates of Penzance.”
“Norman Garrett is just a tremendous artist,” Kleinknecht said. “ … I feel very proud of where he's been, and what he's become. … The first time we did ‘Pirates’ outside at Brucemore, we all knew that this man had a prodigious talent. …
“And just to see his remarkable progress, and for our company to have been a small part of that, it makes me feel good about what we can do for artists — to give them an opportunity to do what they do in a professional setting.
“And Abigail is someone that I've been trying to bring in for several years,” he added, and now that her home base is Cedar Rapids, he hopes to continue having her perform here, as her schedule allows.
“Abigail is a tremendous artist, as well,” he said. “I'm really happy to welcome her to our company. It's always been great to be able to recognize and help local singers.”
Reaching the silver milestone is a “pinch me” moment for Kleinknecht, who in addition to all the work he does with the opera company, divides his time between homes in New York City and Coralville, and has been teaching at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids since 1993, as well as creating online Cedar Rapids Opera programs during the pandemic.
“You know, it's so funny. It is celebration, isn't it,” he said of reaching the 25-year mark. “Sometimes I just get so bogged down with the challenges — I don't look at the bright spots enough.
"I had no idea the company would last this long. I had no idea that we had an idea that would resonate. Here we are, 25 years later. We've been through floods; went through recessions; we've been through all kinds of political upheavals. I'm really honored to be a part of this community that takes art seriously. That is Cedar Rapids.”
So why did he choose to base the new company in this part of the Corridor, since he was living in Coralville?
“We talked about this with people from Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and it just seemed that the (University of Iowa) at that time really had a substantial opera company. Beaumont Glass was the opera director at the University of Iowa, and had created quite a great program. It felt like Iowa City had what it needed, in the university,” Kleinknecht said.
“Cedar Rapids seemed more like an open book.”
From working at Mount Mercy, he met the people who helped him get the opera company off the ground — Dyan Smith, the late Judith O'Donnell and Karla Goettel, all of Cedar Rapids — and he started putting the company together in September 1997.
"Cedar Rapids might have been a more welcoming community in a way,” he said, “because … they were happy to have something new. And I got a sense that the support would be there, although we still have board members from Iowa City, and we still get support, we still get audience from Iowa City. I've always kind of thought of it as one community, but it's really not. I mean, we are two different cities.”
He “didn’t really have a template” for what the company could become, but he had worked with the Peoria Civic Opera for 10 years before founding the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, which recently shortened its name to simply Cedar Rapids Opera.
“The operas, themselves, sort of tell you what to do,” he said, noting that the Young Artist Program grew out the need for a large chorus for the 2003 production of “Otello.”
“I gathered as many people as I could from Cedar Rapids, and I just felt like we needed more in numbers. That's when Gerald Dolter brought up carload of a dozen singers from Texas Tech University.
“We didn't call it the Young Artist Program for several years after that, but the opera said, ‘You need to have more choral people,’ and this was the way we solved it, by listening to what (composer) Verdi told us — ‘You've got to have a big, brilliant chorus.’
“So we kind of grew just by learning and experimenting,” Kleinknecht said.
“We're still learning and growing,” he added. “For years and years, we struggled with how to keep present in people's minds, because we only did January and June” productions, working around Kleinknecht’s teaching schedule.
“We felt like we couldn't quite get the ball rolling, because we did so few performances.”
The company now stages two or three operas each year for about 7,000 audience members and students, and collaborates with Orchestra Iowa to provide the large-scale instrumental music.
Also, “we have in the last couple of years added book readings, smaller concerts … and last year, we gave them a Schubert song cycle concert,” Kleinknecht said.
“We're really trying to be a more season-round year, and we'll see how well the audiences and the finances can sustain that.”
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