As each and every one of us know, in agriculture there are tough issues that arise. Especially when it comes to farm families. Art is often used as a gateway for exploring those difficult issues within the family. And is the avenue to have these conversations. Art isn’t always about entertainment; it has the power to educate, move us, and prompt deeper reflection about who and why we are.
Whether that’s music, movies, or pieces of art, you name it, it has and always will be a great outlet and place to discuss not-so-comfortable issues.
However, access to the arts can be difficult for people living in rural communities. And depictions of rural life in art can too often be a caricature.
Art Meets Agriculture
That’s why I was so excited to meet with a knowledgeable group of people who are bringing those two worlds of art and agriculture together. I hope to engage both artistic and agricultural leaders in exploring a world-premiere work. Where they’re hoping to spark conversation around difficult issues for farm families in Iowa – and beyond.
I’m talking about The Des Moines Metro Opera and their premiere of A Thousand Acres.
I first had the chance to talk to Michael Egel, General and Artistic Director, Des Moines Metro Opera. We talked about his role at the opera, the tough subjects covered, his focus on female creators, and the WHY behind A Thousand Acres.
Then, I chatted with two ladies: Liz Garst who joins us from Whiterock Conservancy. Along with Mary Swander, whose play Map of My Kingdom was part of the event held there in partnership with the Opera.
Bringing two of my favorite worlds together for a podcast brings me so much joy. In fact, FarmHer started the exact same way: with art! It all started as a photography project and has turned into so much more.
Meet Michael, Art, and General Director
When I started my conversation with Michael, I learned he has two titles at the Des Moines Metro Opera. This makes him in charge of the artistic product and the overall management. He’s like the ring leader of the circus and deals with all kinds of people day in and day out. From marketing, wig directors, opera singers, and everything in between, Michael is your go-to. It reminded me of the many roles FarmHers play.
Michael grew up in an agricultural community and never would’ve guessed he would land at the opera. But like many of us, the path of life is not straight. And he is where he is meant to be.
A Thousand Acres
I was thrilled when Michael explained that on July 9, 2022, Des Moines Metro Opera will add a new American work to the operatic canon with its world premiere of A Thousand Acres with music by Kristin Kuster and libretto by Mark Campbell. With the Des Moines Metro Opera being in Iowa, it comes as no surprise that the opera commissioned a piece like A Thousand Acres. Really, it is the perfect fit.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear. The performance is set on a farm in Iowa in the late 1970s. And is told from the point of view of Ginny, the oldest of three daughters. (We love seeing a female protagonist!)
Larry Cook, a prominent farmer, announces at a family gathering that he is dividing his thousand acres between his three daughters. While Ginny and Rose acquiesce to their father’s wishes, Caroline demurs and enrages her father. Ginny tries to hold the family together. But Rose, recovering from cancer treatment and fearful for the fate of her two daughters, is unrepentant in her criticism of both Caroline’s selfishness and Larry’s bullying nature. As Larry descends into rage and dementia, all the buried family secrets are finally laid bare.
It’s a story that is known well beyond the state of Iowa and explores issues and themes that are still contemporary to us today. It is perfectly placed in history to see the impact this book has had on its audiences 30 years later.
Like modern agriculture, the piece covers challenging themes like land transition, cancer, miscarriage, mental health, and many others.
A Thousand Acres is a part of their new series: Acres Unearthed.
Inspired by the world premiere of A Thousand Acres, artists, scholars, and authors will create a series of events that will explore the themes and connections presented by the novel. One of these events has already happened at the Whiterock Conservancy. That’s where my next guest came in.
White Rock Conservancy
Just like Michael, Liz Garst, who is the founder of Whiterock Conservancy, grew up in agriculture. She is the granddaughter of a very famous farm family and is now a board member and volunteer for Whiterock Conservancy.
Whiterock Conservancy is a 5,500-acre non-profit land trust that balances sustainable agriculture, natural resource protection, and public recreation on the landscape. Located near Coon Rapids, Iowa, along seven miles of the Middle Raccoon River valley, they are open to the public every day for recreation and exploration.
They abide by a three-part mission: improve the condition of our conservation land through appropriate land management, demonstrate sustainable farming methods, and provide educational and recreational opportunities for our visitors.
Whiterock Conservancy hosted The Land in Transition: Hills & Valleys event to prepare for the premiere of A Thousand Acres in May. It was the perfect natural backdrop for an exploration of the subject of land transition and its many outcomes. One of the programs featured Mary Swander’s one-woman play Map of My Kingdom.
Map of My Kingdom
Mary is no stranger to writing plays on agricultural issues but one that really resonates with her is land transition. Because her family went through a period of land transition, she knew it was a topic she wanted to tackle.
That’s what Map of My Kingdom is all about. She has performed her play hundreds of times across the country but this specific time was the first performance post COVID.
Art + Agriculture = Enrichment in Your Life
We hear the word “art” and don’t take into consideration how broad it is. From the FarmHer beginnings of photography to the Des Moines Metro Opera, it is all art. And it shows us the world through a different lens. Just like in agriculture, you may not think you are a part of it but you are. And it enriches your everyday life.
So if you are wanting more, join the Des Moines Metro Opera for one of their five (or all five) performances of A Thousand Acres starting on July 9, 2022. Other performances will take place on July 13, July 17, July 19, and July 22. Purchase your tickets here: https://desmoinesmetroopera.org/productions/acres/