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Putting the 'culture' in agriculture

The 50th anniversary performance by the Des Moines Metro Opera tells the tragic tale of an Iowa farm family.

It's not every day that you get to attend the world premiere of an opera without having to leave your small Iowa hometown, but that's exactly what I did last weekend.

The Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) makes its home in Indianola, and we are so lucky to have this gem in our backyard. I have had the pleasure of attending several world-class operas without having to leave Warren County. My sons even developed a taste for the genre when they attended DMMO's "Peanut Butter and Puccini" day camp as youngsters.

This year is DMMO's 50th anniversary, and to commemorate this milestone, they commissioned a brand new opera based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. I was at the fundraising brunch a few years ago as a guest of Successful Farming editor emeritus and DMMO Board of Directors member Betsy Freese when the commission was announced, and have been looking forward to it ever since. Leading up to the premiere, DMMO hosted discussion panels, agriculture-themed art exhibits, and other events to celebrate the new opera.

A Thousand Acres is a retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, but set in Iowa in the 1970s. The short version of the timeless tale goes like this: King Lear gives his three daughters a test, asking them to describe how much they love him. He divides his kingdom between the two who made flattering comments and banishes the third and favorite daughter after she couldn't come up with the words to express her love. The two heirs go on to reject King Lear and he basically loses his mind. Death and destruction ensue.

A night at the opera

I was excited to attend with two of my best friends from high school. One had read the novel and warned us that it was pretty heavy. An announcement prior the show listed several trigger warnings and offered the services of mental health professionals in the lobby. We braced ourselves.

Lisa, Jessica & Stacie at the opera

The opera began with Ginny, the oldest sister in the Cook family, saying an emotional goodbye to what had been her family's Iowa farm and home. A very relatable story so far.

Through a series of flashbacks, we witnessed her father gifting the farm to his three daughters by putting it in a corporation. The elder two daughters, who were involved in the farm along with their husbands, instantly signed the paperwork, excited about the chance to take the reins. The youngest daughter, a lawyer in Des Moines, hesitated to sign before ensuring the legality of the property transfer. She was quickly disinherited by her father.

Later, as alcoholism and dementia took their toll, the father accused his daughters of trying to steal the farm from him and even took them to court to try and regain ownership.

At this point, I was thinking to myself, "This is a case for the 'Can their problem be solved?' column in Successful Farming magazine. I'm sure Jolene, Mark, and Myron would have sage farm succession advice for this family."

A dark turn

However, it wasn't long before things took a very dark turn. The middle daughter, Rose, revealed that their father had sexually abused her for years. Ginny eventually remembered her own abuse as well. Only the youngest sister escaped their father's wrath. 

As the actors relived their horrible abuse, pouring their hearts out just a few feet from our seats, we forgot we were watching a work of fiction. The air left the room. The discomfort among our fellow audience members was palpable.

Believe it or not, things went even further downhill from there for the Cook family. Marriages were destroyed, loved (and not so loved) ones died, and after everything they went through, they lost the farm anyway. 

In the end, Ginny walked away from all of her family's possessions and left the farm forever, Rose's orphaned daughters in tow.

Reflecting on A Thousand Acres

When my friends and I made our way out the doors and into the humid Iowa night, we said, "That was a lot to unpack." We talked about the themes that were familiar to us — farm succession issues and the mixed emotions of leaving home — and were grateful that's where the similarities to our own stories ended.

Once we were able to catch our breath, we couldn't stop talking about how the writers, vocalists, orchestra, designers, and crew did such a magnificent job bringing this difficult story to life. There are no words to describe the amount of talent in that room.

When you read a book then watch the movie, there are so many details that have to be left out of the on-screen version. It must be twice as difficult to turn a complex novel into an opera, where everything is sung and often repeated. Every word had to have been deliberately and meticulously selected. Author Jane Smiley was at the performance, and I can't imagine what a thrill it must have been for her.

At first, I thought I might have chosen something lighter to celebrate 50 years of DMMO — an opera that would leave the audience smiling. Something with lyrics that I'd want to listen to over and over, like my Pavarotti playlist. 

But that's the thing about art: its job isn't to make us comfortable or give us a happy ending. It forces us to think about difficult things. It lets us experience different lives, and they aren't always pretty.

You may not have an opera in your hometown, but chances are good there's a community theatre, an exhibit of local artists, a public library, or even a high school musical. Go. Soak it in. You don't have to be in New York or Los Angeles or Indianola to expand your horizons through art.

A few days have passed since the performance, but I continue to be haunted by A Thousand Acres. I can't get the Cook family out of my thoughts. When DMMO chose this particular piece to commemorate their anniversary, that's no doubt exactly what they had in mind.


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