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Des Moines Metro Opera Founder Robert Larsen Dies

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Photo Courtesy of the Des Moines Metro Opera
Des Moines Metro Opera Founder Robert Larsen died in Indianola on March 21, 2021.

When it's safe to do so, the Des Moines Metro Opera will host a memorial concert to celebrate this extraordinary life.

Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus Robert L. Larsen of the Des Moines Metro Opera died Monday.

In a media release, the DMMO wrote that their hearts go out to his family, friends and former students.

“Today the world lost a visionary and an artist, and our Company has lost a guiding light,” said DMMO Executive Director Michael Egel. “The thousands of musicians, friends and colleagues who knew, learned from and interacted with this singular and remarkable man over his 50+ years were forever changed. We are all richer for the experience of having learned, worked and performed alongside him. His legacy is immense. Nothing will quite be the same again.”

Known in music circles as the “Wizard of Iowa,” Larsen was born into a farming family just outside the tiny town of Walnut on November 28, 1934. By age 10, he was immersed in rigorous piano instruction and had become obsessed with the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts from The Metropolitan Opera. The young musician entered Simpson College to study piano with Sven Lekberg. He subsequently attended the University of Michigan for graduate study, returned to join the music faculty at Simpson, and completed his doctorate in opera coaching and conducting at the famed Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University.

Along the way he received what might have been considered an irresistible offer to join the conducting staff of The Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Larsen, however, had a different ambition – a resolve to bring professionally produced opera to a middle-American audience who had limited opportunity to experience the art form. Larsen’s first efforts resulted in Des Moines Civic Opera, which mounted two productions before he conceded that the experience taught him “everything about how not to organize a company and board.”

In 1973, he formed the Des Moines Metro Opera with his co-founder and friend Douglas Duncan, utilizing the summer festival format and intimate performance space within Blank Performing Arts Center at Simpson College. His first season included Puccini’s La Rondine (a virtual rarity at that time), Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, and a double bill of Menotti’s The Medium paired with the North American premiere of Arthur Benjamin’s Prima Donna. His later seasons brought the world premiere of Lee Hoiby’s The Tempest and a rare American mounting of Weber’s Der Freischütz.

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Larsen was also a remarkable solo and collaborative pianist, and he was well known for his performances with students, faculty and major performing artists.

Opera News magazine showed up that first year, followed by Opera Now and a host of major market newspapers, all of which helped to establish DMMO as one of America’s leading regional performing arts entities. Throughout the organization’s first 37 seasons, Larsen mounted some 120 productions, functioning as both conductor and stage director. This dual role resulted in an unusually cohesive fusion of musical and dramatic values. Although his command over a vast range of repertory was formidable, he displayed particular affinity for American works at a time when many companies were ignoring them.

Larsen served as Chair of the Department of Music at Simpson College for 33 years, where he taught from 1957 until 2017. A consummate educator, he began an undergraduate opera program there, taught pianists, and lectured extensively on music history and theory, notably in a specialty course on Medieval and Renaissance literature. He coached and accompanied vocalists and founded a beloved chorus of Madrigal singers, whose concerts, European tours, and Christmas dinner performances became college and Midwestern traditions. Music lovers and artists frequently gathered at his Indianola home for DMMO and college events and to marvel at his remarkable collection of European antiques (some of which found their way onto the DMMO stage as props) and a basement styled à la La Bohème’s Café Momus.

Larsen was also a remarkable solo and collaborative pianist, and he was well known for his performances with students, faculty and major performing artists including bass-baritone Simon Estes. Whether as professor or impresario, he nurtured the careers of countless musicians, many of whom enjoy international careers. He was selected as a recipient of the first Governor’s Award in Music in 1973 and the 1990 Iowa Arts Award presented by the Iowa Arts Council.

Visitations will be held on Friday, March 26, from 3-8 p.m. at the Overton Funeral Home in Indianola and on Saturday, March 27, from 9:00-10:30am at the First Presbyterian Church in Walnut. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, no public graveside service is planned.

When it is safe to do so, Des Moines Metro Opera will host a memorial concert to celebrate this extraordinary life. Further details will be available at a later date. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be directed to the Robert L. Larsen Scenic Fund at the Des Moines Metro Opera Foundation, which provides annual funding to support the design and construction of new scenery and original productions each season.