[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ntoxicating music, vivid scenery and passionate performers: These three engaging components spark the ovations earned by the Opera Iowa Educational Touring Troupe. And, for singers who manage to look beyond days in weighty satin and nights in cramped quarters, this same trio of charms can spark on-the-road romance as well.
As soprano Ashley Cutright testifies, “He was Papageno and I was Papagena in ‘The Magic Flute.’ We played bird catchers together.” The “he” in Cutright’s showmance is Andrew Wannigman, a baritone who became her boyfriend, thanks to Opera Iowa’s eye for stage chemistry when casting last year’s troupe.
“It’s not the first time people have fallen in love on the Opera Iowa tour,” Cutright declares. She and Wannigman cite several past instances of cast mates coupling up, then getting engaged and married—long after taking final bows on the rural school stages where Opera Iowa troupes traditionally appear.
Of her 10 weeks crisscrossing the state in a loaded-down van, logging roughly 100 performances with her colleagues, Cutright says, “It’s like MTV’s Real World for opera singers. We get close immediately.”
From late January to mid-April, during stop-offs along two-lane highways, the eight-person cast and crew strive to deliver high-quality shows twice a day. Since 1987, the troupe has performed for more than 700,000 people—not only across Iowa, but in nine other states and as far away as China and Japan.
The singers appreciate (even revel in) the chance to share their enthusiasm for their art with youngsters in their audiences. “I like the fact that kids don’t have preconceived notions about what opera is,” Wannigman says. “They’re willing to think of it as another cool means of expression. They don’t automatically dismiss it as elitist or boring.”
Bringing open minds to the performances becomes vital for the itinerant troupe, too. For example, their lunches are often served by school cafeterias, and may involve close encounters with mystery meats. Still, cast members are consistently delighted by the hospitality their venues offer. “Small towns roll out the red carpet for you,” Cutright says. “After 26 years of touring, Opera Iowa has built a reputation. Some schools put banners out. We get fan mail. It’s really heartwarming.”