The floor of Ravenswood Castle in 17th-century Lammermoor, Scotland, had a basketball mid-court line running right through the central staircase. The instruments of the orchestra had been abandoned in favor of an electronic piano. The conductor and only musician had also been consolidated into a single person, but he had managed to hold on to his plush executive’s chair.
The set was limited to roll-up fake tapestries, a fake suit of armor, a couple of plastic trees and minimal furniture. The only lighting was mounted on movable tripods held steady by Knoxville Opera’s do-everything opera chorus director and stage manager Don
Townsend and his assistant stage-crewman, Geoffrey Greene. The fake tapestries and some exhibit-booth curtains provided privacy for costume changes in the dark space behind them.
But the more than 350 students at Eagleton Middle School in Maryville who filled the gym-bleacher seats to watch Knoxville Opera present abbreviated scenes from KO’s upcoming opera “Lucia di Lammermoor” didn’t notice the shortcomings. This was the first opera they had ever seen. They were captivated.
Unlike many administrators of the schools at which Knoxville Opera introduces opera, principal Summer Russell and assistant principal Mark Ballard distributed to their teaching staff the advance packet of materials KO sends each school.
Lucia’s story is about a beautiful young woman forced by her brother into a disastrous arranged marriage in order to save the family from financial and political ruin. Distraught, Lucia murders her husband on their wedding night, then kills herself.
Each teacher took class time last Wednesday, before KO arrived on Thursday, to explain to their students what an opera is and something about the story of Lucia and her family. The student-teacher ratio at Eagleton is 12 to 1.
Due to the economic strata of Eagleton’s district, the entire student body qualifies for the free lunch program. So it wasn’t likely that any of the students had ever been exposed to opera, or much of anything in the arts.
None of that mattered when KO executive director and conductor Brian Salesky began to play the electronic piano, Townsend and Greene turned on the lights and Lucia, sung by Brittney Robinson, and Enrico, sung by Erik McKeever, walked on stage and began to sing. Every eye in the room was glued to the makeshift stage. Russell, Ballard and their staff of dedicated teachers had done their job well.
They may have never seen, or even heard, opera before. But they were into it – for almost all of the 35 minutes of the performance, plus short talks by Salesky between scenes explaining that when singers’ voices go really high it becomes increasingly difficult to understand the words they sing, along with other details.
In the last five minutes, a little swaying back and forth and some shuffling of feet began. But there was no misbehavior. And the moment the students realized something important was about to happen, every eye flashed back to Lucia dressed in her white nightgown.
But instead of the bloody, suicidal mad scene in which Lucia kills herself – one of the most famous and most demanding scenes in all of opera – Robinson simply crumpled to the floor. Dead.
The kids didn’t need the trauma, nor the aftermath it might have caused, to understand what had happened.
In the question-and-answer period after the performance, in which dozens of hands went up, eager to ask a question, Salesky, Robinson, McKeever and Brandon Russell (who sang the role of Edgardo), patiently, even enthusiastically, responded to every one of them.
Earlier in the day, KO had performed at Seymour High School, where seven other schools from well into Sevier County bused their students to attend the performance. From Jan. 8 to 24, the abbreviated performance of “Lucia” will be presented at 25 schools and one senior center.
Knoxville Opera’s production of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1838 “Lucia di Lammermoor” will be performed at the Tennessee Theatre Friday, Feb. 22, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 24, at 2:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased by calling 865-524-0795 or online.