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Des Moines Metro Opera Celebrates Founder With Tribute Concert

Join the DMMO for a free concert on July 25 at 7:30 p.m. celebrating the life and legacy of founder Dr. Robert Larsen.
Des Moines Metro Opera
Join the DMMO for a free concert on July 25 at 7:30 p.m. celebrating the life and legacy of founder Dr. Robert Larsen.

Saturday, July 25, the DMMO is honoring the life of founder and longtime director Robert Larsen with a free concert at 7:30 p.m. at the Des Moines Civic Center.

The fearless trailblazer of the Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), Robert Larsen, died peacefully in his sleep earlier this year in Indianola. Known in artistic crowds as the “Wizard of Iowa,” he passed away on Sunday, March 21, at the age of 86.

This weekend, the DMMO is presenting a tribute concert in his honor.
The concert will include the DMMO Festival Orchestra, principal soloists, and a full chorus presenting some of Larsen’s most beloved works from the opera repertory. Reserve your tickets by going to the DMMO’s website.

“The world lost a visionary and an artist, and our company has lost a guiding light. The thousands of musicians, friends, and colleagues who knew, learned from and interacted with this singular and remarkable man over his fifty-plus years were forever changed,” Des Moines Metro Opera’s current General Manager and Artistic Director Michael Egel said in a release when the news was first announced.

Opera aficionado and Iowan at heart

While most musicians would jump at the chance to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Larsen had a different vision for his life and for Iowa. His ambitious goal involved bringing high-caliber opera performances to the Midwest by establishing a professional-first-rate opera company in America’s heartland.

Des Moines Metro Opera

He laid the groundwork for the DMMO with his establishment of the Des Moines Civic Opera. After only a couple of productions, he was quoted as saying that experience amounted to: “everything about how not to organize a company and board.”

In 1973, he launched and led the DMMO with his friend and co-founder Douglas Duncan. Larsen tactically chose the summer festival format and programmed uncommon and rarely performed operas, as well as operas by American composers. His aim was to grab the attention of national and local audiences, and he did. Critics from “Opera News”, “Opera Now”, and other major reviewers showed up, propelling the DMMO as a leading outstanding regional performing opera company.

During his 38-season tenure at the DMMO, Larsen conducted and directed around 120 productions integrating his successful “musical formula.” In 1973, he was presented with the first Governor’s Award in Music and in 1990, he received the Iowa Arts Award from the Iowa Arts Council.

More than a teacher

Larsen’s former student Rick Walters says that Larsen was more than just a teacher, creative and director.

“Robert Larsen simply changed my life. – Meeting and working with a master musician obsessed with music was a game changer. My deep and wide love of music bloomed in my Simpson years. I certainly became a better pianist studying with him,” he said.

“I discovered a love of vocal music and vocal literature—mostly because of Robert. With his guidance, I learned how to coach and accompany singers. There have been three men in my life who shaped me into the person I became, and Robert is one of them. His influences on me, and the fruits of them, unfolded in my life in ways I could never imagined. I miss him,” Walters continued.

Gayletha Nichols, a student of Dr. Larsens, and Dr. Larsen.
Photo Courtesy of Gayletha Nichols
Gayletha Nichols, a student of Dr. Larsens, and Dr. Larsen.

Another student, Gayletha Nichols, who is now Director of the Apprentice Program at the Santa Fe Opera, first met Dr. Larsen at the suggestion of her teacher, Carol Stuart. Stuart had asked Nichols if she wanted to sing in the chorus for the first 1973 season of the DMMO opera.

“I was 16, living with my family in rural Iowa, our home surrounded by cornfields, and the answer was immediately ‘YES’ even before I knew what it actually meant.” Nichols said. “I admired Robert’s directing and his way of teaching stage craft served me well in my singing career. He was a gifted pianist and played opera scores like he was an orchestra. I enjoyed making music with him. The thing I admired most about Robert was his daily renewable energy, which he brought to every rehearsal, every meeting, every classroom. This was never more clearly on parade than the first day of classes each and every fall at Simpson. Perhaps more than any other single attribute, I consciously adopted his zestful attitude about sharing musical experiences with colleagues and now with the young artists with whom I work.”

About Dr. Robert Larsen

Larsen was born and grew up on a farm near Walnut, Iowa, on November 28, 1934. Even from a young age, he was hooked on music. He tackled piano lessons with zest and panache. Unlike most ten-year-olds, he would often tune in for public radio’s Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.

Larsen studied piano at Simpson College with composer Sven Lekberg. He received his master’s at the University of Michigan, before joining the music faculty at Simpson College. He obtained his doctorate in opera conducting and coaching at Indiana University. Larsen studied piano with Lekberg, Joseph Brinkman, Rudolf Ganz, and Walter Bricht. Tibor Kozma and Wolfgang Vocano were his conducting mentors, while he worked on stage direction with Boris Godovsky.

His flair at the keyboard kept him busy throughout his life, performing as a soloist and collaborative pianist with students, colleagues, and guest performing artists.

“Dr. Robert Larsen was the icon for promoting opera in Iowa for many years. Without him, I don’t know if we would have opera today here in Iowa. He was really dedicated to the company. Many decades ago, I was scheduled to sing a concert here in Iowa, and my accompanist suddenly became ill. I was told Dr. Larsen was a great pianist, so I contacted him. He was available and agreed to play the piano and played wonderfully. He was a wonderful musician. He will be missed,” said internationally acclaimed bass-baritone Simon Estes.

Larsen served as a professor of music at Simpson from 1957 to 2017 and chaired the music department from 1965 to 1999. While at the helm of the music department, he inaugurated Simpson’s opera program, continued to teach pianists, music history and theory, (including his favorite course in Medieval and Renaissance literature), as well as formed Simpson’s well-known chorus of Madrigal singers. Simpson’s Madrigal Singers are now touted for their European tours, Christmas-banquet-performances, and impressive concerts. Larsen was additionally known for his music parties including musicians and guest artists. His home was a shrine for his curated collection of European antiques, which often landed on the DMMO stage as production props. The lower level was fashioned after the famous Café Momus in “La Bohème.”

Larsen’s influence didn’t stop with his students. The Des Moines Symphony’s Music Director and Conductor, Maestro Joseph Giunta, said Larsen made a quick impression on him upon his move to Iowa.

“I first met Bob Larsen in 1976, one year after I moved to Iowa. I was preparing to conduct Robert Ward’s opera, “The Crucible” with the UNI Theatre and Opera Department. Bob had written a very detailed paper on the piece. I called him and he was quick to offer a meeting. Several weeks later I met him face-to-face and was very impressed with his knowledge and willingness to share all he knew,” Guinta says.

“As the years went by, I watched from afar his vision of an opera company in Iowa growing in stature and reputation. Opera fans are more passionate than any other art fans and are willing to travel across borders and oceans to see good productions. Bob proved that. If the production was excellent, people would support it, even in Iowa.”

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Jacqueline Halbloom is a Sr. Music Producer and Classical Music Host