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Fate played role in Mace landing job as opera’s first employee


Des Moines Metro Opera Executive Director Jerilee Mace didn’t have much knowledge of that art form when she was hired as the company’s first staff member, by working with its productions, she quickly learned that opera was the “missing link” she had been waiting for. Mace studied speech communications and marketing at Simpson College and was hired by the DMMO’s founders, Robert Larsen and Doug Duncan, in 1976. On June 23, the Greater Des Moines Leadership Institute recognized Mace with the Outstanding Business Leader award. The company’s current festival season, which Mace calls its largest yet, includes “The Tales of Hoffmann,” “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Gloriana,” began June 24 and continues through July 17.

How did you get this job?

We had just moved in to town in July of 1976, and a friend of mine had told me that there was a position available in the theater department at Simpson College. When I called the college and asked for the theater department, I was accidentally transferred to Doug Duncan in the music department, and lo and behold, he told me that he and Dr. Larsen had decided that day that the opera company needed to hire a staff member. A little bit of fate had its hand in that story. I went in and interviewed and took the position and here I am. I worked in all areas of the company for many years as Doug’s assistant, and as the company grew, so did my responsibilities. I became executive director in 1988.

What experience did you have with opera when you took the position?

My interest in all this came from my interest in live theater. When I was in high school, I performed with a summer theater company, and was just always fascinated by both the process of putting it together and the end product. When I came to the Des Moines Opera, I had very limited knowledge of opera, but as soon as I discovered what it was all about, it seems that all the tumblers fell into place. All of a sudden, it was the missing link that maybe I didn’t even know I was looking for. It combined all the elements of theater with great music and the added artistic punch of delivering lines with a singing voice instead of only using a speaking voice. I was hooked that first year.

What role do you play in putting the shows together with your eight staff members, Artistic Director Robert Larsen and the 175 seasonal employees you have?

I’m a visual person, so I like to give a visual example. What I do and what my staff does here is assemble throughout the year all the pieces of the puzzle that that it takes to create an opera season. We take those pieces and we put a frame around it and we put all the pieces in the middle of the puzzle and we step back and let the artists make the beautiful pictures.

Were you panicked on June 21 when you found out two of the main singers would be leaving – one for medical reasons and one for personal reasons?

Personnel challenges are unusual for our company, but are not unusual in the opera industry as a whole. While it was a challenge for us to make those switches and bring those artists in and get them involved in the rehearsal process, the opera industry itself is really geared to handling situations like that. Singers are used to being called upon on short notice to step in for a colleague. We were fortunate that we had enough time in the rehearsal process, even though it was compressed, to be able to bring those changes in. The Los Angeles Opera just had to replace a major singer on 11 hours’ notice. We had days to deal with the situation versus something that happens the day of the show.

How expensive is it to put on operas?

We have about a $2 million budget this year, and during the festival season in May, June and July, we probably spend about $1.4 to $1.6 million of that. It takes all year to assemble the resources, and then it goes pretty fast once we actually get in to production time. Opera is very personnel-oriented in that a lot of your expense goes to singers, musicians, designers – it’s not just the physical productions themselves. But without the voices and the musicians, obviously you cannot produce the operas.

What is unique about this season?

This is our largest season collectively. We’ve built new sets for all three productions and we’ve doubled the number of costumes you’ll see on stage. Opera is always bigger than life, no matter what opera you choose. This particular year, these operas have a lot of different elements. It runs the gamut from something that seems as relatively simple as finding two gorgeous Irish wolfhounds for to ”Lucia” to having these large choruses and large casts.

Who comes to the performances?

Last year it was 23 states and 66 Iowa counties. This year we’re already up to 33 states. It’s a pretty broad reach in Iowa and well known nationally. Probably about 25 percent of our audiences come from out of state. Each of our 16 shows sold out last year, with about 500 people at each performance. This year will be sold out as well.

Do you still attend all the performances?

People are surprised that I go to all the shows, but I tell them, “It’s my payoff.” When you’ve invested your time, energy and resources, to sit there and be there as part of the audience and share that experience with others is really very gratifying.

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