Opera on the verge

Harold DuckettOur Town Arts

Could it be possible for Knoxville to have its own contemporary opera festival, say along the lines of Big Ears, the internationally known contemporary music festival created by Knoxville’s own creative genius, Ashley Capps?

With the support of contributors and foundations like the Aslan Foundation it could. We already have the creative opera minds to make it happen in the amazing and lovely couple: James Marvel, director of UT’s Opera Theatre, and Kathryn Frady Marvel, founder and executive artistic director of Marble City Opera, not to mention a stunning soprano with a developing international singing career.

When Capps first put on Big Ears, people everywhere wondered why it was in a nowhere place like Knoxville, Tenn. They didn’t know that there was a real “there” here.

Once they came, according to Capps, almost no one asks that question any more. They have seen that we have the multiple venues, close enough to walk from one to the other, and restaurants good enough to please the tastes of people who eat in lot of foodie cities, and plenty of places to stay a few days.

All of that could apply to a contemporary festival as well, because Frady stages her Marble City Opera productions in pretty much the same type places that make Big Ears work.

Last season, MCO staged one of the best performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the historic Westwood, the marvelous house on Kingston Pike that’s now home to Knox Heritage, thanks to generous support from the Aslan Foundation.


It was an intimate setting with the very lucky audience moving from room to room as the scenes of the opera took place. It was a very special emotional experience to be close enough to Frady as she sang to feel the air move. To hear an opera is one thing. To be in the room with it and feel it is on another level altogether.

It was the kind of venue that MCO searches out for its productions, not only because it makes operas a lot less costly to produce, but also because it makes experiencing one of her MCO’s operas an intimate, very personal, experience.

Friday and Saturday evenings at The Square Room, MCO will stage two short operas, Gian Carlo Menotti’s humorous “The Telephone,” and Francis Poulenc’s equally interesting “La Voix Humaine,” “The Human Voice.”

“The Telephone” is about a young man who has come to propose to his girlfriend, but she keeps getting phone calls that keep her distracted. Finally, he runs out of time and has to leave. But he proposes after all. By calling her on the phone.

“La Voix Humaine,” is a one-woman opera, sung by Frady, that is the perfect complement to “The Telephone.”

On Dec. 8 and 10, MCO will present Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at St. John’s Cathedral.

March 9 and 10, MCO will present the world premiere of “Follow Suit,” commissioned by MCO, at Windows on the Park Lounge, the bar in the Holiday Inn World’s Fair Park.

In June, MCO will present “Postcard from Morocco.” As of the time of this story, the exact dates and location are still being worked out.

At UT Opera Theatre, James Marvel is doing work that is equally impressive, especially since he is pretty much a one-man show. He does all of the work that many university opera companies have a staff of four-to-five to do.

From my experience, Marvel’s productions rival many European state opera productions and are far better than a lot of them.  I know his shows will be an exhilarating, stimulating experience on multiple levels.

The world of opera is moving away from the expensive, quasi-realist stage sets that characterized 19th century opera.

To shift the time period and place of operas in order to engage modern audiences is a common practice even in the major opera houses, these days. For instance, Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” premiered by Dallas Opera in 2010, relied heavily on projected images to create the setting.

Marvel is a master of minimal stage sets, using projections and other minimal set techniques. He has a team of high-tech consultants to produce the images when he has the budget to utilize them.

Otherwise he gets his young singers involved in creating costumes and stage elements for themselves that express the character they are playing. It’s training that serve his program graduates well. One recent, hilarious and enormously succession production presented Mozart’s rakish lover in “Don Giovanni” reset as a hip-swaying Elvis.

Dec. 10-12, Marvel and UT Opera Theatre will be presenting his inventive mind’s production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”

My bet is that it will be must see.

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