Iowa Opera House Project visits Englert


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Around 1,500 opera houses dotted small towns around Iowa in the late-19th century.

Now, some 300 remain and native Iowan Sam Knutson wants to keep that tradition alive with the help of local musicians.

"My goal is to take great acoustic shows to places that were built for that sound," he said. "They are acoustically awesome, because [they were built] before the invention of sound systems."

Knutson, the founder of the Iowa Opera House Project, will bring his vision to Iowa City's own opera house, the Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., at 8 p.m. today. Admission is $10.

In the summer of 2011, Knutson was invited to see a country-folk band perform at an opera house in What Cheer, Iowa. He was immediately struck by the strength of the acoustic sound at the venue. So he created a project in which local musicians could play at venues similar to it.

He began searching the state for the remaining opera houses. To his surprise, he found that there was even one in his hometown of Decorah.

"[In the past] these theaters acted as a gathering place for a community," Knutson said. "People came in from out of town, and it didn't matter what the show was, that's what they doing for entertainment."

He has traveled to approximately 40 of the 300 opera houses that still remain in Iowa. Many of them are being renovated for performances or are used for storage.

One of his long-term goals with the project is to demonstrate that the opera houses exist. He hopes to raise funds from Iowans to renovate them.

While the old-time mystique of the opera houses is part of their appeal, the sound that the venues have catches the interest of local musicians.

"The room is built to make sound audible everywhere in the room, so the focus of attention is right there on stage," Knutson said. "Every little sound is forced to come back out into the audience."

In upcoming years, he plans to widen the variety of musicians who will play in the opera houses. Currently, acoustic folk musicians most commonly take the stage.

Jordan Sellergren of Cedar Rapids-based Milk & Eggs, a songwriter who has played several shows with Knutson, decided to be a part of the September 2011 show.

"The sound projects off the stage in an ideal way — where, as in a bar, there are so many obstacles," she said. "There is an air of vulnerability when you play that is really satisfying."

Sellergren said she thinks this project is a great idea to enhance Iowa's artistic culture.

"I'm on board 100 percent," she said. "This project is quite visionary in its history, and it incorporates local artists who are trying to express themselves to the public."

Dustin Busch, who also supports the concept, has performed at two of the project's shows, and he said he hopes to continue working with Knutson and the rest of the musicians.

For him, the important part of playing at the opera houses is the audience. People come to the show intrigued not only because is it a new project, he said, but also because it is not a typical opera-house event.

"We are putting unique music into these opera houses, making it curious for the listener," he said. "In a way, it's dry, because we just kind of get up there and do our thing, but it's very exciting and keeps people on their toes."

The performance spaces are located in such towns as What Cheer, Clermont, Coggon, Cedar Bluff, and Brooklyn. The small-town atmospheres produces a variety of crowds, Busch said.

"I think that's what makes the show more colorful, because it's cross-generational," he said. "It adds a spice to the show when you're playing in a really cool space with people of all different ages."

While Iowa City may not be as small as the other towns, the musicians still look forward to playing at the Englert.

Newcomer to the project John Waite has seen many shows at the Englert, and he said he is "stoked" to play on stage.

"I'm really excited to play at the Englert, because I love that venue," he said. "But I'm a little nervous, too."

The traditional roots and bluegrass musician will play a solo set for the performance, something that is unfamiliar territory for him.

He doesn't usually get the chance to play his own songs, because he is part of the Mount Vernon-based Kodiak Flats.

"It's definitely been a motivation to come up with something," Waite said. "It's a really good chance to go in and showcase original material."

Knutson and a potential surprise guest will join Waite on stage for the Iowa City performance.

He doesn't believe that he will play at every venue because he'd rather showcase the space than his music. But at this performance, the Iowa native will play from his new solo album, Reinventing the Wheel.

The record focuses on American folk music and pays close attention to country blues, a sound that originated during the time the opera houses was built.

"I look at it as a synchronicity," Knutson said. "I planned to do the Iowa Opera House Project without a connection to the music, but it just sort of happened that the theaters were built at the same time."

The musician hopes to host shows at as many opera houses as possible in Iowa and spread the word about the importance of the project to Iowa's musical culture.

"There are people interested in even making a documentary about the performances and the spaces," Knutson said. "It's one of those things that once you get the ball rolling, people want to become a part of it."

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