Community singers make ‘Turandot’ work

Harold DuckettArts 865

The first of this season’s Knoxville Opera two mega-productions celebrating KO’s 40th anniversary season, Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” opens at 7:30 Friday, Feb. 23, at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium.

Othalie Graham sings the title role of Princess Turandot. Jonathan Burton sings the role of Calaf, the exiled Prince of Tartary who wants to marry her.

Local singers Michael Rodgers, Andrew Skoog and Harry House also have roles.

There’s a lot to like about “Turandot.” It features, perhaps, the most famous aria in all of opera, “nessun dorma,” sung in the final act by Calaf, a prince who wants to marry Princess Turandot, although in television talent shows young women often sing it without knowing what it means, to say nothing of the celebrity judges who hear it.

Princess Turandot isn’t the easiest person to romance. She sets up conditions that anyone wanting to marry her must first correctly answer three riddles. The penalty for wrong answers is death.

Director John Hoomes, who is director and CEO of Nashville Opera, see parallels between “Turandot” and the “Hunger Games” movies.

“It’s ‘Wheel of Fortune’ with high stakes. It’s a life and death game show,” he said, during a conversation about the opera.

As impressed as Hoomes is with the singers who star in “Turandot,” it’s the Knoxville Opera Chorus that has made the biggest impression. “I’ve directed operas all over the country. This is the best chorus I have ever worked with. It’s as good as any professional chorus I’ve seen, even at the big opera companies. They know their music and they show up to rehearsals ready and eager to be more than just singers in the background who wear costumes but don’t do much else.”

The KO chorus is made up of singers in the community who have gone through the audition process. Several are former professional singers with opera training. Others teach music in the school system. Rodgers works for Knox County Schools. Skoog teaches voice at UT’s school of music.

“When I have a chorus like this one, I count my blessings,” Hoomes said. “In many operas, the chorus just kind of stands around and sings. But in ‘Turandot,’ the chorus is kind of like the crowd in the ‘Hunger Games.’ Each time something happens, they have the opportunity to react, to emphasize the drama of the story.”

KO chorus master and production manager Don Townsend has spent months working to prepare the chorus for this opera and for KO’s production of “Aida” coming in early May. In addition to his work with the chorus, Townsend is responsible for getting all of the costumes, set elements and props in place.

“I’ve never seen a chorus director who works as hard as Don does,” Hoomes said. “He puts in a full day in the office. Then when rehearsals begin in the evening, he’s right there in the chorus emoting just as effectively as any of his singers.”

A second performance of “Turandot” will be Sunday, Feb. 25, at 2:30 p.m. For tickets call the Knoxville Opera Office at 865-524-0795.


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