New AGPAF offices

The former B'nai Jacob Synagogue on East Main Street is now the headquarters for the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival. The 2019 festival runs June 7-21 and includes an open house of the space June 15.

OTTUMWA — There’s more going on behind the scenes for the American Gothic Performing Arts Festival than simply preparing for June’s performances. The organization is also in the process of remodeling its new space.

“We were gifted this space in March,” said Dennis Willhoit of the B’nai Jacob Synagogue on East Main Street. “We want to transition it so we’re able to do performances here.”

In fact part of the 2019 festival will be an open house of the new space, said Willhoit, AGPAF executive artistic director. The seventh season will include a June 15 open house of the building, which the organization plans to rename Temple of the Creative Arts.

“It’s a good space to rehearse in as well as for smaller performances,” he said. The building will hold 100-125 people in the former worship area of the building, and he said the space will allow for flexible seating, a flexible stage and to incorporate appropriate lighting.

“We think it’s going to fulfill a special niche of performances with regards to audience size,” Willhoit said.

However, before the open house arrives, the festival has plenty in store for the community.

The festival will open with an operatic performance with a unique venue for its stage: the American Gothic House porch and lawn.

Willhoit has been working with Susan Bender, a Keokuk County native and current professor of music at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point, on a production of Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land.”

“There’s been a movement to bring opera outside of the theater and into the community,” Willhoit said. “This is very organic. We’re not only going outside the theater. We’re going outside. The stage is the Gothic House.”

The setting is fitting for both the festival and the artist that was inspired by the house. Willhoit said Grant Wood was on an outreach mission of bringing art to the communities when he stopped in Eldon and saw the house that inspired one of the world’s most famous paintings. That’s part of the mission of AGPAF as well.

This year’s festival takes the outreach to a different audience than normal. In the past, the organization has taken pieces of children’s operas to elementary-aged students. In 2019, however, with more mature themes and storytelling in “The Tender Land,” the outreach will be going toward middle and high school students as well as those in retirement homes.

“It tells a familiar story. It is in English and is very accessible,” Willhoit said of the opera. “It has a very American sound, whatever that is. We know it when we hear it.”

“This is a relatable, sweet story with beautiful chourses,” said Bender.

The production, written in 1954, is set in a small Iowa town after World War II. It focuses on Laurie, a young farm girl yearning for a way out. When traveling workers are hired to help with the spring harvest, one of them and Laurie fall in love, setting off rumors and trouble in the tightly knit town.

“Audiences may find they are reminded of the Golden Age of Rodgers and Hammerstein when they hear the music, but the ranges are broader. It’s opera. The drama is always big,” said Bender.

The transition to the more mature storyline from children’s opera adds to the festival as well, Willhoit said. “It takes it one step further and adds to the variety of productions we choose to do.”

The cast will feature student singers from UWSP and the University of Iowa, and faculty mezzo soprano Ann Cravero of Drake University in addition to local singers from southeast Iowa.

The festival closes out with a performance of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Willhoit classifies it as a story of the classic struggle between parents and teens. Guest performer Eric Fredrickson, originally from Minnesota and current Drake University student, will take on the role of Albert; Fairfield native Tyler Breeding returns to the area in the role of Conrad Birdie.

That’s part of the appeal of the festival, according to Willhoit.

“We work on a professional timeline. Singers come prepared to perform so that we can focus on telling the story, not learning the parts,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for undergraduate students to perform outside of their institutions and just be performers.”

Features Editor Tracy Goldizen can be reached via email at tgoldizen@ottumwacourier.com or followed on Twitter @CourierTracy.

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Tracy Goldizen is the Courier's features and magazine editor, leading production of the award-winning "Ottumwa Life" and the Courier's other magazine offerings. She began work with the Courier on the copy desk.