The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic, Michael Egel, General and Artistic Director of Des Moines Metro Opera, joined me for a conversation that preceded the cancellation of all live shows for the 2020 season. Yet, the most striking thing that comes through our conversation is the firm belief that the Des Moines Metro Opera is a family and that because of that fact, they will overcome this crisis.
Michael Egel, General and Artistic Director of Des Moines Metro Opera
Interviewed March 24, 2020
TB: So Michael, I’d like to start off this interview with some of the good things that have been happening in our community. So, could you tell me the best thing that’s happened to you in the last week?
ME: That’s a good way to begin. You know, I’ve been really encouraged by how people and organizations have come together. I’ve had the chance to participate in probably a half dozen conference calls over the last couple of days with colleagues from across the industry, through Opera America, and how people are sharing resources. Coming up with ways to help one another and really thinking about alternate ways to deliver planned or unplanned content. Maybe things that we weren’t thinking about a month ago, but the necessary quarantines and self-distancing that we’re undergoing now have brought out the creativity in people. The way in which, not just organizations, but individual artists and entities across our sector, have come up with ingenious ways to support one another. That’s really excellent and speaks to the longevity of our field and the strength of our colleagues.
TB: That is one of the best things that I’ve seen as well. Could you talk a little bit about your background and how you have ended up as the General and Artistic Director of Des Moines Metro Opera?
ME: I began as a singer and always intended to be a Broadway star—when I was in high school— but got introduced to opera through the course of college. During the course of my undergraduate and graduate school, I began to cultivate other skills and feed other curiosities that I had about how this ecosystem works. I began to weave that into my experience as a graduate student, and on the other side of graduation, was in a position to pursue administration.
I came back to Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO), where I’d been spending a lot of summers as an intern. [During my internship,] I started out at this company sweeping carpets, cleaning bathrooms during intermission, and learned everything from the ground up. In 1999, I came back as a full-time staff member, doing artistic administration and running the education program, and made the commitment to stay here for the foreseeable future. In 2010, I became the Artistic Director, and in 2013, the General and Artistic Director. This coming 2020 season would have been the 11th season that I’ve planned, since taking the Artistic Director role.
TB: Obviously, Des Moines Metro Opera has been a cornerstone of the young artist’s world. Over the years, I have also noticed the incredible success with main stage productions as well. Could you talk to me about how you’ve been developing that side as well?
ME: Well, the raw materials at this company—including the summer festival timeframe for performance the intimate venue but full chorus and orchestra forces, a strong young artist program, and all the right ingredients—were there and had been built upon on for many decades by my predecessor. But I also saw that there were opportunities to bring the company into the next generation by reinvesting in what was working and also investing in new and different things.
One of the very first things I did was to look at a company that was forty years old when I took the helm. We were at the point in that lifecycle where we needed to new productions of type of repertory we’d never done before; that needed to become part of our performing pattern, whether that be time periods, styles, or different national schools of composition. So, we’ve really taken that as a guiding point over these last ten years, and introduced a lot of new repertory adventure and programming to the season. Perhaps, things that a lot of companies wouldn’t dare do, but that we could do. Pieces like Wozzeck, Flight, Jenufa, and Billy Budd. [Des Moines Metro Opera presents Billy Budd]
Also, I saw that there was potential to capitalize on cultural tourists—people who come from outside our golden circle area—by presenting important emerging singers. [So we are] really doubling down on our focus to identify rapidly emerging American singers, who are ready for the opportunity to take on new roles, by attending competitions and increasing our footprint in the talent scouting marketplace (which we’ve done very successfully). Then that in turn increases the number of people who are interested in making the trek to Indianola to check out a weekend of performances. That being said, we felt that Des Moines was a growing city, and a place where we needed to have an increasing presence.
About six years ago, we launched the 2nd Stages Series, that would include one production in our offseason and one production in the Summer festival season. In meeting a variety of needs, it would be collaborative or would address contemporary subjects and allow us to present newer works in a lower-risk scenario. It also allowed us to change the definition about what opera is, and to reconsider and reframe opera in people’s minds. That’s been very successful, and is at almost twelve productions in that series. That’s been a way to reframe people’s thinking about the company, the organization, what the art form can do, and what the arts can do.
Those are just a few of the initiatives that we’ve undertaken to refresh the company, grow, and innovate. It’s infused our organization, donor base, and artist base with energy, and that’s helpful. It’s propelled us to attention. Over these last ten years, we’re in an organization that has been growing, refreshing, and evolving. And I’ve been the lucky beneficiary of a lot of that energy.
TB: To follow that up, one of the things that I have always admired about Des Moines Metro Opera is the engagement with the community. One of the 2nd Stages productions was with Michael Mayes, working with Camp Dodge.
ME: Yes, we’ve done two productions at Camp Dodge in the offseason: Soldier Songs in 2017, and Glory Denied in the Fall of 2018. And both were well received. As it turns out, the day before this pandemic really burst forward, I had been meeting with Camp Dodge personnel about returning there for a third installment, which we still intend to find a way to do. It’s really interesting to me, the trajectory [from] the first phone call in the Spring of 2016 to Camp Dodge, asking if they would host an opera, to looking at the reaction now. Fast forward to three years later, they understand what we do, we have a trust relationship built up, and they are eager to have [us] back. They recognize the value of what that [opera] does for their constituency. We recognize that it’s important for an opera company not just to think about how we provide main stage performances to the community, but thinking further about how we look at the resources that we have, and where can those be best applied in our community.
Clearly, that partnership is one way that we’ve seen some important return on investment and what we can do to work with that community. The same thing happened with As One, which we did in 2017, in partnership with Transformations Iowa and One Iowa. Now, we are planning for Fellow Travelers coming up this summer with Capital City Pride and One Iowa (again as partners in that effort). So, I think the best thing we can do is articulate the value of what the human voice singing stories today can mean in the community. I think that’s a core component of our mission and what every opera company’s mission should be.
TB: So in turning to the pandemic, could you talk to me—though you alluded to this before—about where you were and how you first realized that you and your company were going to be affected by this pandemic?
ME: Well, I think we’re still figuring out exactly what the full implications will be. Fortunately for us, the middle of the month of March was when we had the least amount of public events scheduled; [compared to] either in the two months previous or the five to six months coming up. So, we weren’t faced with that immediate decision that some of our colleagues had, where we had large-scale public performances coming up in the next three days or the next weekend. My heart just broke for all those people that were faced with having to make those determinations and in real-time as the scope of this pandemic was coming into full focus. That was really heartbreaking to watch. It looks now like most companies, orchestras, and arts organizations have cancelled performances through [about] mid-May, some have gone even further. I think the summer performing season is the next wave that’s in the wait-and-see mode.
For us, we have given ourselves the widest margin possible to make any decisions. It became important to me to continually motivate our artists and designers, in particular, who are in the midst of creating for the season right now. To motivate them, to assure them, and to keep that work going, as the totality of the heartbreak of even those two or three weeks of cancellations started to come into focus in the spring months.
Right now as an organization, you’re balancing your decisions between doing what’s in the best public interest for health and safety of the artists and those coming versus not wanting to jump the gun [and cancel]. So, you carve out as much possible space for your organization to make those decisions with both of those things in mind. Cancelling now would be cancelling preemptively. We want to be as nimble and flexible for as long as possible.
TB: Let’s talk about OPERA Iowa, which is where the Des Moines Metro Opera employs several young artists from February to April. These young artists travel in and out of schools, and they perform shorter operas to engage the community and help educate children in music and opera. So, I know that one of the questions that you first had, as you were dealing with this was what the effect was going to be on OPERA Iowa. Could you talk a little bit about that and your decisions?
ME: Sure, OPERA Iowa is one of our flagship programs, and it’s a program we’ve been operating for better than 35 years now. We like to say that it’s our state’s most expansive arts education program, in terms of distance covered. We appear in anywhere between fifty to sixty communities across the state, both in the urban centers of Des Moines, Sioux City, and Iowa City to some of the most rural districts in all corners of the state. We do that every year.
It’s a group of six young singers, a music director/pianist, and a technical director. They book elementary school performances, which are a bulk of our business. But there are also classroom residencies in advance of that performance, where the singers appear in the classrooms to prepare the students. We also pair that with some other things, like masterclasses for high school students [as they are] preparing for solo contests. We do some aria concerts for our guild chapters, which are spread out across the state, as well as other communities. In the community concert series, we do evening performances of an abridged version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute with six singers. That’s fully produced in the sense that there are sets, costumes, and lighting equipment, as is the elementary school show as well.
We were able to get the rehearsal period finished in February and had been on the road for about two weeks. We still had roughly six or seven weeks left to go on the tour and it was very full with the usual amount of school bookings and interest. It was Friday the 13th, when it came increasingly into focus that [it] was best to pull out of the schools for a hiatus. We had just finished performances in Muscatine the night before, and we were scheduled in Kalona that day. We did the school performances that day, and were in constant communication with each of the districts, tracking the health situation. But, we made the decision on Friday the 13th to finish those productions and take at least a week’s hiatus to assess the situation.
Governor Reynolds then made the recommendation to close the schools for at least four weeks or more. At that point, we decided that even if we could have gotten in another week of touring when schools were scheduled to reopen in late April, it just didn’t feel like it was going to make sense for the schools to allow us that time. [Additionally,] we wanted the singers to get home. We recognized they wanted to be able to look after their health and wellness, and what made sense for them emotionally. Also, there really wasn’t any point in keeping them here if they didn’t want to stay to wait this out.
Before everyone left we agreed—the troop was unanimous—that we would try to recapture their performances. They wanted one last chance to do it again, for one another and with one another. So, we were able to record the arias program and Little Red Riding Hood’s Most Unusual Day, to say farewell to everybody. [This also gave them] a second to breathe and plan how they would return home and if it was safe to do so. We did have one singer who was from Seattle, who really felt that it was in his best interest not to go out there. So, we’ve kept him housed here in Indianola. He’ll remain here through the end of the contract. We rented a car for him and are just checking in with him on a day-to-day basis to see how he’s doing. Everyone else was able to safely get back home by the middle to end of last week.
TB: There are just a couple of points that I want to clarify. First, you ended up recording the show and Aria’s programs, but you did so with the unanimous support of your artists, so were they included in this decision?
ME: They were and for a lot of reasons they wanted to do that. In fact, some of them volunteered that we might record the classroom workshops that they had done so that could be offered as well. In the end, looking at it logistically, the interactive nature of those sessions really made it impractical to try to recapture quickly. They were very generous and offered to do as much as they could, to see that the aims that they had set out to do could be somewhat fulfilled.
TB: The second point that I want to make sure that I understand is that although you released the artists to return home, one singer—who was from an area that was highly impacted from this pandemic—is being housed and additionally has a car rental [through Des Moines Metro Opera]?
TB: That’s wonderful. Could you talk about how you’re noticing this pandemic impacting the creative process?
ME: Well, I can only speak anecdotally, but my fear is that this will impact companies, organizations, and peoples’ ability to even create the new in a sense. But on the other side of that, is a greater focus on different ways to be creative. I always like to be optimistic and think that this will force people to think outside the box. There are a lot of contractual, cost, and other things that have prevented the arts from being able to embrace producing content digitally. I think all of those things now come under greater examination. We may develop more fluid and easier ways to develop that content and share it. I think that everyone is coming to the table with a different set of expectations about how we can still deliver and keep creative artists at work, [though] maybe in a different way.
TB: So in following up on that, DMMO made the commitment to fulfill their contracts for the summer. Could you talk about how that goes into impacting the creative process for DMMO?
ME: Well, it’s the right decision, and it was the right decision for a number of reasons. In particular because of where we were at [in] the creative process at that moment. I alluded to it earlier, but as notices of productions being cancelled and being altered by companies up and down the organizational scale and across the nation began to come in; it began to formulate in my mind that this commitment was the right thing to do early on. We believe in creating and fostering an environment where artists can do their best work and we understand that this is going to be a very challenging time for those artists. All of us need those artists to be there for us at the end of this. People need to be able to stay creative and have their voices heard. Regardless of whatever happens going forward, we want to make sure that we are investing in the people that we’ve agreed [contractually] to invest in and that we’re working with. We felt that was the right thing to do, so that then, those members of our family are still with us when we come out of this on the other side.
Also, over the course of that weekend when cancellations began to happen, was the time when costumes and sets were being sent out to be fabricated. Material was being bought for this costume or that. All sorts of things were on the cusp of getting started, scenery was beginning to be built, all that sort of thing. I started to sense that perhaps, designers would become uncertain or that the work would falter, just at the time we really needed to be going full-speed ahead if we were intending to have a season this coming summer. I was getting questions from designers about, “Should we go forward with this? Are we holding off that design? Should we buy this fabric?” It became very clear to me that I needed to send a very strong message, on behalf of the company—not only to the designers but to all festival members—that we are continuing to move forward. We wanted to have a season. Our ultimate goal is that we will produce these productions and I felt that message was needed. Our commitment and current planning, is that all productions will go forward. Right now, we’re planning full steam ahead. I just felt that... that making that announcement would ensure that we could continue with forward movement of the season and that we could still have productions in the Summer.
TB: Backing up to the recent past, how different was your life six weeks ago?
ME: I think maybe for everybody, it’s safe to say that everything that has happening in the last two weeks has really put a finer lens—a greater focus—on the things that we’re thinking about and worrying about planning for. I am still thinking about those same things because I’m hopeful that the season will still go. We’re still thinking about all of the details of a summer season. I think that’s the thing that we have to do: continue to focus on that creative process. We’re going to worry about the color of that dress; the choice of that fabric; how that piece of scenery is built; what that mezzo is singing in her scene assignments for the year. Those are the things that we would normally be thinking about and right now to be think of those things is refreshing. It takes your mind off of [other] things.
We continue to develop contingency plans. But it’s hard to develop contingency plans when the news changes from day to day. You write a set of scenarios or a set of plans and suddenly on Tuesday, Monday’s plans are a little bit different. We just continue to focus on the importance of what we’re doing; the approach we’re taking; and getting those things done and built. It is still there. It’s just a little bit different.
TB: So what’s one thing that you’re most grateful for throughout this crisis?
ME: I’m grateful that over these years—not just in my tenure, but throughout the history of this company—that the idea of this organization was built on family; the idea of everyone investing in something bigger than oneself, of coming together to create productions. That was my background in community theater. That’s what drew me to the performing arts as an awkward eighth grade middle school student participating in summer community theater. After the show had ended, going through the pangs of mourning for losing that coming together everyday to create a show, and not knowing what to do with myself those last few weeks of August before school started. It was that feeling of belonging that got me into this business and that’s what has guided my career.
That’s why I stay here, because I saw an organization that really valued and really believed in the repertory; the power of the human voice; that sense of family; and all the things that we do to be something bigger than ourselves. It’s been why I stay and what I’ve tried to cultivate. Taking care of the organization and the people who come here, it permeates everything about our organization—not just the artistic side, but the staff, the board, our community of donors, our guilds, and our network of supporters. I think this company has always dreamed bigger than we look like we ought to on paper.
That is the thing that I’m the most grateful for. We’ve cultivated that sense of family and belonging. In times of trouble, people are here for us and we, in turn, are here for them. I think that’s the best of what we can do. I’m grateful that we’re in a position right now that we can extend that ability to take care of our artists. I understand that not everybody is in the same boat, but I am grateful to work for an organization that values that when the chips are down, we’re able to put our money where our mouth is and move forward. We don’t know what the future will be, but right now, that’s where we are.
TB: One of the things that you’ve talked about several times is the idea that DMMO is a family, that they work for the community, and they are an integral part of Iowa. Drawing on that experience, would you be willing to give some advice to the musical community right now?
ME: Oh, that’s such a good question. I never fancy myself as a person who should be dispensing advice to people. But—especially to artists, to creative artists, to musicians, and to singers in the field—my message is that we see you and we value you. You are what will be needed during this and when we come out on the other side. I hope we can all find ways to stay strong because the thing that is going to put this world back together again is going to be their voices and what they do; what the arts do. This is the role that we play. This is why we have the arts. This is it.
My job is to do what I can to make sure that artists have places to perform and to create and hopefully the resources to stay lively. When I talked to our board about this decision, I said that it was mission driven. A portion of our mission is to invest and create space where artists can do their best work. In the best of times, that’s on our stage where we can all buy a ticket, and sit in the audience, and be the lucky beneficiaries of what they do. But in times like this, it may mean that we’re investing in vitality and livelihood. That’s still mission centric for us. It’s just a little bit different way of looking at it.
TB: First, thank you so much for your time. In closing up, I like to end on a positive note, so what is your video binge recommendation?
ME: Well, I have cable TV, which I leave on news channels, pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I don’t have [a] program schedule to sit down and watch. [But] two years ago for a Christmas gift, my staff gave me a Roku—which they actually came over and hooked up—so that I could figure out how to connect to the internet television and watch things other than whatever is on channel eight or thirteen or HGTV. So, that first weekend that this happened, when we started staying at home, I was like, “Alright, I’m finally going to do this.” So, I figured out how to turn on Netflix, through my computer. Now, I’m just a week into having figured out how to do Netflix and I’ve watched the first season of Grace and Frankie. I’ve really enjoyed that.
TB: So any final thoughts before we close our interview?
ME: Well, I just want to make sure that I’m articulating that as of this point—as we’re doing this interview—that all information for us is that we are proceeding as planned with our season, in the hopes that we’ll be able to gather together and produce this summer. But of course, our eyes re wide open on what safety and health recommendations there are and we will make the best decisions we can. But currently, we’re full steam ahead.
*As of April 27, 2020, Des Moines Metro Opera cancelled all live performances. They joined forces with Iowa PBS to broadcast several productions for a totally virtual festival. In addition, they honored every contract that was made. The Des Moines Metro Opera Board of Directors made a donation challenge for ticket donations to offset this cost. Des Moines Metro Opera - Virtual Festival
About Michael Egel
Michael Egel of Indianola, Iowa, was appointed General and Artistic Director of Des Moines Metro Opera in 2013 and Artistic Director in September of 2010. He previously served the company as the Artistic Administrator/Director of Education from 1999-2010. He joined the Summer Festival staff in 1994 and marks 27 consecutive seasons with the organization in 2020.Egel’s responsibilities include both artistic direction and overall management—specifically, the areas of strategic planning, opera production, fiscal stewardship and community, donor and board relations. He works closely with the year-round staff in the day-to-day operation of the organization and with the festival production and artistic teams on the creation of the Summer Festival Season. During his tenure, the company launched the 2nd Stages Series, a new performance initiative designed to engage new audiences, promote strategic collaborations, increase revenue and create a platform for innovation by focusing on new works and contemporary subject matter. Partnerships within this initiative have included One Iowa, Transformations Iowa, Camp Dodge, Science Center of Iowa, Greater Des Moines Botancial Garden, Des Moines Art Center and the Iowa Culinary Institute.
Egel is responsible for repertory selection, casting of singers, selecting conductors and stage directors for mainstage productions and oversight of the company’s collaborations with creative and design teams for new productions - duties he has held since the 2010 season. During the summer festival season, he oversees the activities of more than 200 company members. A focus on new productions and expanding the repertory have been hallmarks of his tenure. In 2012 he launched an initiative to present opera titles new to the company and that has since introduced critically acclaimed new productions of Eugene Onegin, Elektra, Dead Man Walking, Le Comte Ory, Jenůfa, Orphèe et Eurydice, A Little Night Music,Billy Budd, Flight and Wozzeck to Summer Festival Season audiences. This season, Platée and The Queen of Spades will be added to the list.
Egel has also been responsible for a renewing the Company’s relationships with broadcast partners such as Iowa Public Radio and Iowa Public Television. With the latter, four of seven broadcasts since 2013 have received Regional Emmy Award nominations, with 2016’s Manon and 2017's Billy Budd recognized with Emmy wins for Regional Arts and Entertainment Programming.
His education credentials include a Bachelor of Music in Performance and Education from Simpson College and a Master of Music from the University of Memphis. From 1996-1999 he served on the staff at Opera Memphis. In March 2011 he was named to the Des Moines Business Record “Forty under 40” which serves to identify young leaders making an impact in the Greater Des Moines Area. He was recently selected as a member of the Greater Des Moines Committee, which is comprised of Central Iowa’s highest ranking business leaders. Under his leadership, Des Moines Metro Opera received the 2015 Bravo Greater Des Moines Encore Award for Organizational Excellence. He has served frequently as an adjudicator for the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions and was elected by his peers to serve on the Board of Directors for Opera America in 2016, the national service organization for the field of opera.