At Drake, opera fans choose their own adventure

A rehearsal for “The Cadence of Life” at Drake University’s Anderson Gallery involved, from right to left: Cadence Lowry-Hart, Sarah Hymes, clarinetist Dana Sloter, and Kaitlyn Wood and Sarah Hymes, hiding the table. Photo: Nathan Felix 

Writer: Michael Morain

Depending how you feel about opera, the phrase “immersive opera” may excite or alarm you. So the composer of a new show that premieres Thursday at Drake University wants you to know you can immerse yourself as much – or as little – as you’d like.

“Come in with an open mind,” said Nathan Felix, in town from his home in New York. “It’s OK to take risks. You can decide where you want to stand, where you want to listen and see the action.”

Tickets for the opera, “The Cadence of Life,” are already sold out. But those who attend will gather at 7 p.m. at Drake’s Anderson Gallery before the hourlong drama spills into the lobby of the Harmon Fine Arts Center, at 1310 25th St., and possibly even outside. Audience members can follow along or linger in the gallery with “Freehand,” a freewheeling exhibition of multimedia prints and drawings by the upstate New York artist Judy Pfaff, which remains through Oct. 15.

Felix is known for what he calls a “guerilla style” approach to classical music. He’s presented chamber concerts and operas worldwide – in Bulgaria, China, Denmark, Japan, Mongolia, Portugal, Spain and Sweden – often in unconventional spaces. In his native Texas, he premiered both “Headphone Opera” and “Opera on a Bus,” where audiences jumped aboard two buses, each with its own storyline, and had to decide halfway through whether to stay on their original bus or transfer to the other one.

“I like to stage these types of events because, personally, I don’t want to sit and watch anything for three hours,” he said. “I love experiences where I’m close to the actors or singers or musicians. I love the aural perspective that’s really activated by the space.”

This spring Felix premiered an immersive opera, aptly named “The Great Flood,” at the University of Iowa’s Stanley Art Museum. It was built to replace the university’s earlier art museum, which flooded in 2008.

The Iowa City performance prompted Felix to reach out to Drake, where Anderson Gallery Director Lilah Anderson (no relation) invited him to make use of its cozy 1,800 square feet. Isaiah Feken, who leads Drake’s opera program, enlisted nine singers and seven instrumentalists.

The story centers on the teenage daughter of a wealthy political family who secretly falls in love with the oldest of three siblings in an orphanage. The twist: The orphans are suing the girl’s family for allegedly stealing land years ago from their late father.

So how does it end? You’ll have to ask someone who’s fully immersed.

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