The award-winning novel “A Thousand Acres” turned into a new opera

As the show’s director, Kristine McIntyre, observed, “It’s not every day that a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist hands you her book and lets you do whatever you want with it.”

McIntyre and his collaborators wanted to create a new opera, adapted from Jane Smiley’s book, “A Thousand Acres”. The results speak for themselves.

The show is in the midst of its debut at Indianola’s Blank Performing Arts Center as part of Des Moines Metro Opera’s 50th anniversary season. The new opera opened on July 9 and has three more performances until July 22.

DMMO decided to commission the novel in 2018 as it planned to celebrate the opera company’s 50th anniversary, said Michael Egel, the opera’s general and artistic director.

“We knew we wanted to write a new play for the 50th anniversary,” he said. “We wanted to choose a story that would be our story to tell, but also have some recognizability.”

Thus, “A Thousand Acres” became DMMO’s first new opera since 1986, when the company commissioned an adaptation of “The Tempest.”

Elise Quagliata plays Ginny in "Thousand Acres," a new opera in the 2022 season of Des Moines Metro Opera.

What is “Thousand Acres?”

Smiley’s original work from 1991 is a female retelling of Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. The novel tells the story of the Cook family, whose patriarch, Larry, decides to give up his farm to his three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline.

Similar to Shakespeare’s play that inspired it, the decision unleashes a cavalcade of tragedy. But unlike The Bard’s Tale, Smiley’s tale doesn’t focus on the youngest child, but on the two older siblings, especially the eldest, Ginny, played by Elise Quagliata.

McIntyre brought Smiley’s text to the table when she heard the opera wanted to do something special for the anniversary celebration.

“I thought it would be awesome,” Smiley said in a video chat with McIntyre regarding the adaptation. “The plot is there, the characters are there, you need the singers and the music and that’s it – it somehow elevates it.”

In addition to serving as director, McIntyre took on the role of playwright early on, helping to adapt and put together the show. Egel approached Quagliata in late 2019 to take on the lead role.

Following Quagliata’s acceptance, Egel presented her with a copy of the novel.

“I remember starting the book and reading it in 24 hours,” Quagliata said. “It was the fastest book I had read in a long time. I was so captivated by the storytelling and by Ginny.

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Author Jane Smiley, who studied at the University of Iowa in the 1970s, holds a copy of her book "Golden age."

“It verifies one of the most important criteria of American opera”

McIntyre began working with Des Moines Metro Opera in 2011, and her commitment to performing American operas has kept her coming back.

“What immediately interested me (in DMMO) was what Michael was trying to do with the company, the direction he was trying to go,” McIntyre said. “He’s really interested in doing American opera… (and) I’m really interested in where the opera is going rather than where the opera has been.”

The adaptation is unmistakably a work of contemporary opera, from the fragmented and dreamlike structure of the decor, to the implementation of the video projected in the performance, to the very assembly of the music.

The production opens with a man playing guitar and singing on a porch set in a relatively modern setting for Central America. For many, this may seem a far cry from the melodramatic imagery often associated with opera.

Roger Honeywell as Larry and Grace Kahl as Caroline in the Des Moines Metro Opera production "Thousand Acres."

“I think it checks out one of the most important criteria of American opera,” McIntyre said, regarding the show’s setting and subject matter. “It shows the struggles of everyday people…and it’s set on a farm. There’s nothing more American I can do unless I have a cowboy on stage.

Although the topics covered may seem mundane to a modern viewer, they achieve the same elevated drama that one would expect from opera.

“It’s very relatable and no more traumatic than any of our great operas,” Quagliata said. “People say it’s a tough story, but I think it’s tough because she sounds like your mom or your sister.”

“A Thousand Acres” also features two female leads – Ginny, played by Quagliata, and Cook’s middle sister Rose, played by Sara Gartland.

McIntyre describes as “remarkable” that the main relationship in this opera is between Ginny and Rose.

“Scenes between two women in the opera, where they don’t try to kill each other, are rare,” she said.

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“The landscape is one of the most important things in the book”

Sara Gartland as Rose and Elise Quagliata as Ginny in the Des Moines Metro Opera production "Thousand Acres."

Quagliata finds the ending of the opera happier than that presented in the novel.

She remembers reading the music for those final moments of the show after reading the novel and being struck with hope for the finale.

“Finally Ginny got something beautiful. It was like she had a present she had to unwrap,” she said. “The book is quite ambiguous at the end, and it’s one of the changes from start to finish, it’s more uplifting.”

As you’d expect from any adaptation, this isn’t the only alteration from page to page. McIntyre noted that many scenes that did not previously take place on the family farm were moved there as a practical directing decision.

Another part of turning prose into opera is finding ways to capture the size and grandeur of Iowa’s fields.

McIntyre said it was decided early on to use video projection.

“The landscape is one of the most important things in the book…to give a sense of Iowa, to give a sense of the farm is key,” McIntyre said.

This breadth is also communicated in the music. As composer Kristin Kuster recalled, something in the air of Iowa struck her and influenced the process of musically invoking this rural setting.

Elise Quagliata stars as Ginny in

“There’s just a damp smell there,” she said, recounting a trip to Iowa in the July heat. “I think it’s the corn starting to sweat.”

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When Kuster began working on the music and collaborating with librettist Mark Campbell, she kept warmth and smell in mind. As she imagined scenes of the family drama unfolding, it was against that sweaty summer heat.

“Although there is a lot of dissonance in this music, it is a beautiful dissonance. It’s not super crisp,” she said. “It’s a really dysfunctional family. It’s a seriously dysfunctional family, but they love each other too. But trying to capture that feeling is very different from trying to capture an opera that’s about war or combat.”

Beyond creating work that can engage opera fans, book fans, and those new to both, the creators of the opera hope to help advance modern American opera using this story. acclaimed Iowa.

“It’s always a pleasure to be able to create something new and put a distinct stamp on it,” Egel said.

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Contact him at ihamlet@gannett.com or 319-600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.

Tickets available

Tickets for “A Thousand Acres” are still available for the Tuesday, July 19 performance and can be purchased through desmoinesmetroopera.org. Ticket prices that day range from $20 to $119. Blank Performing Arts Center is located at 513 ND St. in Indianola.

Those interested in attending a sold-out show can add their name to a waiting list on the opera’s website to be notified if seats become available for the desired show time.

Irene B. Bowles