Knoxville Opera allowed me to view their final dress rehearsal in the Tennessee Theatre Wednesday night. I wasn’t alone, as I was joined by several hundred students from surrounding schools and many of their parents. The final dress rehearsals are used as part of Knoxville Opera’s education and outreach program and all students, as well as ticket holders for the upcoming performances are admitted free of charge, while accompanying adults pay $5.
It’s an example, though certainly not the only one, of Knoxville Opera’s attempts to expose new audiences to the joys of the music, the stories, the sets, costumes and production involved in the art. Opera, for many of us, is not a part of our daily life or upbringing, so educational efforts are needed to expand the audience beyond those traditionally connected to the art form.
Over the past two years they performed three different operas to over 28,000 students. This year they took Carmen (an English version) to 35 different Knox County schools, providing free performances at each. Prior to this year’s free dress-rehearsal performances, 3,000 students had witnessed the rehearsals in the Tennessee Theatre. This season they have given free performances at the Blount County Library and the Knoxville Cancer Support Community. Recently they performed a free concert at the Greater Warner Tabernacle Church, merging gospel and opera. I would have loved to see that.
The thrust of all of the above is that they are trying to expose more people to opera and, hopefully attract new fans. It’s a part of what the Rossini Festival is all about. I wish I’d been exposed to opera as a child. It simply wasn’t a part of my world and perhaps I would have been a fan from the outset if I’d had the opportunity. I attended Die Fledermaus just over two years ago and enjoyed it greatly, who knows if I’d had that experience as a younger person? It’s why the outreach program is so important.
Knoxville’s modern opera company was founded in 1978 as the Knoxville Civic Opera with Artistic Director Edward Zambara. Performances were held in the Bijou Theatre. Five years later, the company became fully professional, changing its name to the Knoxville Opera Company. Brian Salesky has served as General Director and Principal Conductor since 2005 and performances are now held in the Civic Auditorium and the Tennessee Theatre. I haven’t seen a performance in the Civic Auditorium, but the Tennessee Theatre seems perfectly suited to the experience.
And an experience is what you’ll find at the opera. I’m (obviously) not a music critic of any sort, let alone an opera critic – but I do know an excellent one. I’d encourage you to follow Alan Sherrod’s excellent blog Classical Journal for everything classical, and his Arts Knoxville for everything classical and local. Alan formerly wrote for Metro Pulse and is set to work for the Knoxville Mercury.
I can say a few words about my experience at Carmen on Wednesday. The key word is “experience.” So much is going on at an opera that patrons could easily pick one component on which to focus and leave having had a wonderful evening. The sets for starters fascinated me. I think there were only four sets, but all visually appealing and they surprised me. Particularly the first and last. They were beautiful, but they also allowed for mobility by the performers I didn’t expect. What appeared to be flat surfaces often weren’t and what appeared to be three dimensional often wasn’t.
The vocal performances were often beautiful. Bizet may just have a future in the music business. Not only did the vocals seem well done, very impressive to me was the difficulty of the physical actions required while singing sometimes complex vocals, whether dancing, sitting or sometimes lying down. The costumes made each scene a feast for the eyes.
I can’t comparatively evaluate performances, so I won’t try, but stage director Chuck Hudson seems to have accomplished quite a feat with such an expansive work and the performances by each of the lead actors seemed to be as good as I could have imagined. Carmen, the lead character played by award-winning mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock was captivating. Brian Cheney as Don Jose, Ryan Kuster as Escamillo, Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez as Micaela, Peter Johnson as Zuniga and Briana Hunter as Mercedes all turned in excellent performances.
I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy simply listening to other languages and this entire opera is performed in French. While a pleasure to hear, unless one speaks the language, you have to watch a small screen above the stage to know what’s being said or sung. It’s sometimes hard for me to remember to look up when I’m captivated by what’s happening on stage. It’s helpful to know the general plot before attending the opera.
Its another of our cultural treasures in Knoxville, each of which need to be supported to survive. We are fortunate to have a professional opera company and symphony orchestra as well as a jazz orchestra. If you haven’t given the opera a try, I’d encourage you to do so. This particular opera would be a great place to start. Tonight’s performance is close to sold out, but you may be able to get a ticket. Tickets are available for the Sunday afternoon performance which is where you’ll find Urban Woman and me. I’ll watch for you.