Opera in the New South: An American Renaissance
by James Marvel
While much of the mainstream media has been focusing on company closings and labor troubles on the east and west coasts, it is a pleasure to report that there is a major artistic Renaissance happening in the South. The natural geographical beauty of the region, coupled with the outstanding quality of work that has been on display since the economic downturn, truly makes this destination a culture vulture’s paradise.
Compared with the rest of the country, the South has fared well in the new economy, yielding an artistic vortex that has attracted some of the country’s most visionary artists. I have encountered more and more people who travel extensively throughout the region to take advantage of its vast array of operatic offerings, which have been quite successful in reaching local, national, and international audiences.
Using Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky as examples of this vibrant arts corridor, I intend to highlight the companies, universities, and artists who are creating world-class productions throughout the region.
I moved to Knoxville three years ago to take over the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre. I was drawn to the program because of the artistic freedom that is encouraged at the school. Productions have included a post-apocalyptic La Boheme, a Martha Graham / Butoh influenced Rape of Lucretia, and a production of The Medium that was deeply steeped in Expressionist gesture and movement.
Meanwhile, the Knoxville Opera ambitiously produces traditional operatic works that are rarely produced on the regional circuit, and the newly formed Marble City Opera produces contemporary works in interesting and unusual venues.
Knoxville Opera is run by Executive and Artistic Director Brian Salesky, who has recently produced the Knoxville premieres of I Puritani, Norma, and Fanciulla del West. Upcoming ventures include the Knoxville premiere of Boito’s Mefistofele. In April, Knoxville Opera produced the 13th Annual Rossini Festival International Street Fair, attended by as many as 85,000 people and featuring 800 performers on five outdoor stages, one of which is entirely devoted to opera and musical theatre repertoire. Notable guest directors who have also had success in other parts of the region include Keturah Stickann and Brian Deedrick, who has worked extensively at Opera Carolina in Charlotte.
Marble City Opera (Knoxville) was founded in 2013 by Artistic Director Kathryn Frady and General Director Kevin Doherty. The company’s productions are already making waves in the local press by presenting emerging artists with fresh perspectives and maintaining a keen awareness of social issues. Female directors and conductors are often underrepresented in the industry, and MCO’s recent production of David Conte’s Gift of the Magi featured the dynamic pairing of director Corinne Hayes and conductor Rachel Grubb. In the opera, the main character sells her hair in order to buy a present for her beloved. At the end of the final performance, two Marble City staff members donated their hair to Children With Hair Loss, raising money and awareness for the non-profit. Their recent production Ties that Bond featured three one-act operas in which all of the cast members wore bow ties from the Tie the Knot Foundation, a group that advocates for marriage equality. Upcoming projects include La Femme Boheme, which features an all-female cast of Puccini’s La Boheme, and Gershwin’s Blue Monday, a jazz opera featuring The Marble City Five jazz band.
Tennessee is also home to stage directors John Hoomes of Nashville Opera, Ned Canty of Opera Memphis, and until recently, Copeland Woodruff at the University of Memphis. While Memphis will certainly miss Woodruff’s bold, daring, and visionary productions, it is blessed to have Dean Anthony (Artistic Director of Janiec Opera Company in Brevard, NC) as an interim director of the university program.
Nashville Opera’s Artistic Director John Hoomes has been responsible for creating a culture of excellence during his tenure with the company. In addition to having a long track record of producing traditional works at the highest level, Hoomes recently began offering a series of non-traditional operas, including David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, a genre exploding chamber opera which offers a look toward the future of the art form, and Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, a brilliant opera about the neurological case study of a man with visual agnosia.
Hoomes’ recent production of Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher involved immersive video techniques that set the singers in an ever-changing, interactive visual world. At a recent production in Atlanta, I found myself speaking to an audience member who had traveled to Nashville to see the show, and she named this production as the finest opera production she had ever seen. Working with set designer Kris Stone and Lighting / Projection Designer Barry Steele has resulted in some of Hoomes’ best work. Upcoming projects include Daniel Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas and a revised version of Carly Simon’s opera Romulus Hunt.
Opera Memphis is doing excellent things under the guidance of Artistic Director Ned Canty. Their recent commission Ghosts of Crosstown is a cycle of 4 short operas, each one featuring a single singer and 2-4 instruments. The libretti were written by Memphis playwright Jerre Dye, and the piece was performed in three ways: once in a theatre; once on the loading dock of the old Sears Building with the audience seated in the parking lot; and once inside the Sears building itself. For the third performance, the performers were spread throughout the building, and the audience travelled through the space carrying flashlights. They would then stumble upon the “Ghosts” in the building and watch the performance lit only by the lights they carried. This venture attracted hundreds of first-time opera goers and was made in collaboration with three other local arts organizations–Voices of the South, Prizm Chamber Ensemble, and Crosstown Arts.
In September, Opera Memphis will present the third year of #30DaysofOpera – a month-long series of free performances throughout the city, which reached over 60,000 Memphians in the first two years. The performances range from full concerts for thousands to performances of “The Playground King,” a 20-minute children’s opera designed to be performed in a tree fort. The 3rd Annual Midtown Opera Festival will feature Dido and Aeneas (with period instruments), Poulenc’s Mammelles de Tiresias, and Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied.
Janiec Opera Company – Brevard, NC - In addition to acting as interim director at University of Memphis, stage director Dean Anthony will also be directing Pirates of Penzance at Nashville Opera, and Sweeney Todd at his own Janiec Opera Company in Brevard, NC. Last year, Dean collaborated with composer Michael Ching (former Artistic Director of Memphis) on a new opera called Speed Dating Tonight! One of the most interesting aspects of this show is that the order of the show, the number of cast members, and the gender breakdown of the cast are all flexible. Fifteen different companies and programs are slated to perform this show that was born in Brevard, North Carolina. This summer, director Keturah Stickann returned to Brevard, where she directed Don Giovanni. In the last few years, Keturah has also directed memorable productions for Knoxville Opera and Opera Memphis, and choreographed for Atlanta Opera. She states, “I think opera in America is still looking for a truly authentic voice, and I feel like the South might be the key. Our musical roots are here. Our ballads, folk traditions, and the sounds of Americana all come from this area of the country, and so it only makes sense that opera would find a voice in these musical hillsides and swamps and valleys.”
Asheville Lyric Opera – Just down the road from Brevard, one finds the charming, beautiful, and eclectic city of Asheville, North Carolina. In addition to the city’s natural beauty and fine cultural offerings, it also happens to be one of my favorite culinary destinations in the United States. The Asheville Lyric Opera does not have the financial resources of some of the other larger companies in the region, but Artistic Director David Starkey believes that he has found Asheville’s “Special Sauce” by presenting a farm to table approach to creating opera in which everything is made from scratch. Every show the company produces is completely original. The company does not rent sets, productions, or concepts from other companies, and they rely heavily on the generosity of the local community to make the productions unique. This direct involvement allows the community to be a part of the artistic fabric of the area, giving them a greater sense of ownership, connection, and engagement as well.
One recent endeavor of interest was a production of Die Fledermaus that was set in Appalachia in 1910. The company found incredible parallels between this setting and the original, as the piece focuses on the subject of migrant relatives, social classes, and wealthy business tycoons in the mountains. For example, the Biltmore estate was often the site of grand opera parties where international opera stars such as Caruso were guests. The production featured many references to culture and customs unique to the region, including a focus on regional Southern dialects.
Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director James Meena is a world-class conductor and producer of opera, who has provided the people of Charlotte with a wonderfully balanced mix of traditional and innovative offerings. Their production of Richard Danielpour’s new opera Margaret Garner was an exceptional project with tremendous local relevance to North Carolinians and was featured on NPR’s World of Opera broadcast. In the last two years, Maestro Meena has presented Jun Kaneko’s Madama Butterfly and Magic Flute, which were both exceptional in their inventive design and ability to challenge the audience’s notions of what opera can be.
Opera Carolina recently collaborated with the Confucius Institute and Asian Herald on a program called Art*Poetry*Music, which featured diverse singers in a program of opera, and of Chinese, Russian, and Korean music. Next season, the company will present a redesigned production of Fidelio on their main stage and Adolphus Hailstork’s Rise for Freedom in various Charlotte churches to celebrate Black History Month.
North Carolina Opera in Raleigh is run by General Director Eric Mitchko and Artistic Director Timothy Myers, whose meteoric rise in the conducting world has led to some truly stunning casting opportunities that are envied throughout the country. This dynamic duo is remarkably thoughtful and nuanced in how they have curated their audience’s artistic experience, as evidenced by their recent decision to produce concert versions of Wagner’s Die Valkyrie (Act I) and an upcoming Tristan.
In addition to semi-staged productions of Faust and Rusalka, which were actually fully staged without a set, Maestro Timothy Myers worked with New Music Raleigh to present an hour-long piece called All Souls by John Supko, a 31 year old composer based in Durham, NC. This edgy, interesting work was presented at the Contemporary Art Museum and did much to expand the reach of all three artistic entities. The company also produced Les Enfants Terribles, which was directed and choreographed by Robert Weiss, the Artistic Director of the Carolina Ballet.
Other artists whom I should like to mention at this point are Lighting Designer Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann and Kentucky-born Video / Projection Designer S. Katy Tucker. Tlaloc has worked for North Carolina Opera, Janiec Opera, University of Tennessee, and University of Memphis. He has worked extensively with S. Katy Tucker, who is internationally renowned for her visionary and breathtaking work, which has been seen at North Carolina Opera and the University of Tennessee. Both of these artists have also worked with Tomer Zvulun, of the Atlanta Opera, whom we will highlight below.
Atlanta Opera – One of the most exciting developments in the region is the new artistic leadership at Atlanta Opera. After having directed very successful productions of The Magic Flute and Lucia di Lammermoor for Atlanta Opera, the company hired rising star Tomer Zvulun to lead them into the future. Zvulun regularly works with designers Robert Wierzel, Erhard Rom, and Vita Tzykun, all of whom he plans to bring to Atlanta in his first year with the company. Zvulun will be directing Atlanta Opera’s upcoming productions of Madama Butterfly, which is a co-production with the Castleton Festival in Virginia, and of Rigoletto, which features the work of renowned set designer John Conklin. Additionally, Emma Griffin will direct a new production of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Alliance Theatre.
Atlanta is also home to stage directors W. Dwight Coleman and Carroll Freeman, whose work at the Georgia State University Harrower Opera Workshop this summer was excellent. Productions of Don Giovanni and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were done with tremendous imagination, training the next generation of opera singers to perform at ever-higher levels.
As Atlanta is our Southern most point in this journey, we conclude our travels with our Northern most point.
Kentucky Opera – All opera companies require vision both artistically and fiscally in order to survive, and David Roth has that vision perfected. David Roth made the decision to move the company into the newly renovated Brown Theatre, an intimate and elegant venue that creates a visceral experience because of the intimate size of the space. Recent productions of Tosca and La Boheme established that grand opera in smaller venues can achieve a much more powerful dramatic impact than can be achieved in larger auditoriums because the audience feels so much more connected to the performers. Using this smaller venue also means that their overhead in building new productions is smaller, allowing them to be more adventuresome in creating new designs and producing repertory that is unfamiliar to their audience. This approach is evidenced by their recent production of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra and two new one-act operas “The King’s Man” and “Danse Russe,” as part of their composer residency program with the University of Louisville School of Music.
In the Fall of 2013, the Kentucky Opera Board of Directors adopted a five-year repertory plan they call Vision 2020. The bold new plan will build the Kentucky Opera brand for innovation and creativity by focusing each season on new productions of rarely seen works and on the development of new works that speak to the American experience. David Roth explains, “Only those companies that refuse to expand their vision of what opera is and explore new possibilities with their audiences will suffer great losses by this new economy that began almost five years ago. If we hold that opera is only one thing, then we are doomed to fail by ever-changing tastes, habits, and realities. But a far greater sin than economic failure is the failure to understand that our art is not valuable unless it is relevant. Discovering what that relevancy is for our audience, our community, and our industry should be the driving passion of all performing arts organizations.”
I love opera that challenges my basic assumptions. I love opera that shocks me out of mere complacency and moves me towards catharsis. I love the ability of opera to attract, motivate, and inspire new audiences and traditional audiences alike. Opera, like the South, is evolving. Much of the work I admire most is being created here as a result of the visionaries leading these organizations. The states of Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky are all regularly ranked among the best places to visit, live, work, and retire. As it turns out, they are also among the best places to see opera.
James Marvel is a Stage Director who made his Lincoln Center debut for the Juilliard Opera Center with Maestro James Conlon conducting. In 2013, James directed the United States premier of Cavalli’s Eliogabalo for the Gotham Chamber Opera in NYC. He will return to Gotham Chamber Opera in October to direct two one-act operas by Martinu. In 2012, James made his Carnegie Hall debut, working on Katy Tucker’s video production of Carmina Burana.
Since his professional directing debut in 1996, he has directed over 80 productions in the United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, South Korea, South Africa, and the Czech Republic. Other upcoming engagements include La Traviata for Teatro del Lago in Chile, Rigoletto for Opera Tampa, and Tosca for Opera Grand Rapids. James is the Director of the University of Tennessee Opera Theatre.