CEDAR RAPIDS — Just as Grant Wood’s seminal paintings are full of layers and open to interpretation, so are three one-act operas commissioned by the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre and inspired by his enigmatic works.
“The Grant Wood Operas: Strokes of Genius” showcases not only the genius of the Eastern Iowa artist but also the genius of three Iowa-based composers, the cast, the orchestra and the production team premiering the trilogy today through Sunday on the Theatre Cedar Rapids stage. A few guests were treated to a sneak peek at Wednesday’s final dress rehearsal.
The composers’ diverse styles dovetail into fascinating, enlightening entertainment, stretching the boundaries of opera and imagination. They beckon you to set aside any preconceived notions and step into their mind-expanding realms where words, music, humor, poignancy and visual cues roll through the hills and valleys of Wood’s personality and portraits.
Wood was born Feb. 13, 1891, on a farm near Anamosa and died of pancreatic cancer Feb. 12, 1942, in Iowa City. The operas, however, span his humble beginnings of drawing under the kitchen table, to his years in Cedar Rapids where the family moved after his father’s death in 1901, through his years studying art in Paris, teaching at McKinley Junior High in Cedar Rapids and on through his strokes of genius that continue to captivate scholars and casual viewers alike.
The three-part production opens with the whimsical “American Gothical” by Robert Lindsey-Nassif of Cedar Rapids. Nassif is a brilliant lyricist and an award-winning off-Broadway musical theater composer — and all of his artistic gifts merge to paint vivid pictures in dialogue and music.
Laced with humor and based in history with a touch of mystery, Nassif takes the audience through the weeks leading up to creating the painting that would change Wood’s life.
The curtain opens with Wood in the dentist’s chair, awaiting the verdict from his X-rays. You know you’re in the presence of greatness when tenor Nicholas Nestorak manages to create a thing of beauty by singing “Mmmmmm!” with his mouth stuffed full of cotton.
Nestorak’s tenor soars through all the vocal colors of Wood’s rainbow in all three operas. And he blends perfectly with soprano Jessica Pray, portraying Wood’s sister, Nan Wood Graham. Her solo moments are glorious, as well, especially in the hilarious aria, “My Brother is Very Strange.”
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Baritone Thaddeus Ennen brings the right touch of pomposity to dentist Byron McKeeby, who would eventually step out of his stuffy comfort zone and into the role of the pitchfork-wielding farmer.
Among the lighthearted banter and vehement resistance from the would-be models, Nassif has given Nestorak a heart-melting poignancy with “You Look Like Him,” as Wood explains his obsession for envisioning the dour duo in “American Gothic,” which then takes shape onstage.
In the final chorus, the opera’s five characters sing in a unison tone as plain and sturdy as the pioneers in the painting, before swelling into gorgeous harmonies layered over the old hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
The mood then shifts with the broadest strokes in the avant-garde imaginings of “Grant Wood in Paris,” by Jean-Francois Charles of Iowa City. This work dives deeply into Wood’s psyche, imagining the artist finally finding the freedom in Paris to explore the homosexuality hinted at throughout his life, but not discussed or lived openly in his beloved Iowa.
Jhe Russell of Iowa City, who has danced with major ballet companies at home and abroad, weds his spoken word artistry in French and English with his long and fluid lines as he personifies the sexual snake that hisses in Wood’s ear, from his father’s tauntings to his coming of age abroad.
Despite this imagined lifelong inner turmoil, the piece turns into a delightful pop celebration of the temptations flung at Wood’s feet by the Parisian burlesque dancers, before he tangos with his alter ego. This scene contains designer Kathryn Huang’s most wildly wonderful costumes.
The action comes to a head in “Flip the Page.” Wood sadly returns to his repressed life at home, where we see his mother, Hattie, morph with his sister, Nan, into a rather creepy “Nattie.” Mezzo soprano Melanie Long embodies this Freudian composite flawlessly, performing nose-to-nose with another side of Wood, portrayed by bass clarinetist Mauricio Da Silva.
The band, full of instruments made of wood, is seated onstage, where the audience can clearly see the farm tools used to create various percussion, as well as Josh Calkin on the Serpent, a centuries-old, double-S-shaped bass wind instrument.
The final work, “Eight Woods and a Van,” by Michael Ching of Ames, begins at McKinley, where Wood beckons students and adults to shake off their inhibitions and join in the calypso jaunt, “Imagination Isles.”
This beautifully sonorous opera takes viewers through the creation of various touchstone works. Ennen, so impressive as the uptight dentist in “American Gothical,” is absolutely hilarious as John B. Turner, trying to convince everyone that he really is a fun guy, contrary to popular belief about undertakers and the staid portrait Wood painted.
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After seeing a series of paintings come to life, Ching then delves into the controversy that would haunt Wood when his lithograph “Sultry Night,” depicting a nude farmhand bathing beside a livestock trough, was deemed pornographic. This scene contains a brief moment of full-frontal male nudity, handled with artistry and sensitivity by director Haley Stamats and actor Alex Soare.
As befitting three operas inspired by artwork, pieces of Wood’s paintings and life are projected onto 11 panels mounted as a backdrop, allowing the audience to walk through his gallery of genius.
If You Go
• 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 and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
• Tickets: $40; TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591, or Theatrecr.org
• Warning: Brief full-frontal male nudity in “Eight Woods and a Van”
• Discussion: Free curtain talk one hour before showtime with R. Tripp Evans, art historian and author of “Grant Wood: A Life”