A 40th birthday is looked on by most as an unfortunate, but inevitable, milestone—particularly if you happen to be 39. Outside of the human context, though, 40 years is a mark of admirable longevity. For example, the original Star Wars, which influenced a generation of filmmakers and popular culture, had its 40th birthday this year.
In the Knoxville music scene, a 40th Anniversary is also a substantial milestone, one that is being enjoyed this season by Knoxville Opera. Founded in 1978 as the Knoxville Civic Opera by its first artistic director, Edward Zambara, the company’s first production in October of that year was Verdi’s La Traviata, starring soprano Mary Costa, and was staged at the Bijou Theatre. The company returns to the now restored Bijou this Friday, October 27, to begin its 40th Anniversary season. This opening event will be a Gala Concert that celebrates the past, present, and future of opera in Knoxville.
Brian Salesky, Knoxville Opera’s General Director and Principal Conductor since 2005, describes what’s in store for audiences at the Gala.
“What we’ve come up with here is a tremendous smorgasbord, a buffet, of opera which is absolutely going to thrill the audience. In a 750 seat theatre, with a 50-piece orchestra and these type of voices, this kind of event just never happens. This is a rather unique opportunity to have a visceral experience of opera this way. We’re not going to cheat at all on the fortes or on the pianissimos. These singers can do it all and I am privileged to have them with me.”
Leading the cast of singers for the Gala will be sopranos Rochelle Bard and Catherine Daniel, and baritone Scott Bearden, all of whom appeared in the 2017 production of Mary Queen of Scots. Making his debut with Knoxville Opera on the concert will be tenor Aaron Short. Both Bard and Bearden are also well known to Knoxville Opera audiences for past productions—Bard sang the title role in the KO production of Bellini’s Norma as well as appearing as Leonora in Il Trovatore. Bearden has appeared in several KO productions including Otello, La Fanciulla del West, Hansel and Gretel, and in the role of Baron Scarpia in Tosca.
Choosing a program of music for such singers from the vast operatic repertoire that not only satisfies an audience, but has the potential of moving them to ecstasy, is no simple task.
Salesky explains: “I clearly had a mission of my own in the sense that I wanted the music to represent looking back and looking forward in Knoxville Opera’s repertoire. So, that only leaves a million pieces to choose from. Obviously, it was a very difficult task for someone who loves so much music. But I also knew that if I had these artists to work with that I would just move around the choices so that each artist would be heard in their best regard.”
The fourteen works on the program represent not only the well known, but a few that are less so, but no less compelling. In other words, Salesky has chosen something for every opera lover. Among the fourteen selections: Mozart’s “Madamina” from Don Giovanni, Bizet’s “Au fond du temple saint” from The Pearl Fishers, “O don fatale” from Verdi’s Don Carlo, and arias from Donizetti, Cilèa, Massenet, and Richard Wagner. From the operetta world, Bard and Short will perform “The Love Waltz” from Lehar’s The Merry Widow.
In addition to the four featured singers, Salesky has assembled a supporting vocal ensemble of familiar faces and voices—Linda Barnett, Arielle Basile, Allison Deady, Joey DiMenno, Karen Nickell, and Elizabeth Peterson.
While Knoxville Opera’s full productions this season continue with Puccini’s Turandot in February and Verdi’s Aida next May, Salesky believes that this 40th Anniversary Gala concert represents a particular opportunity for an important segment of the Knoxville music audience.
“I think a Gala concert like this is perfect for someone trying to find out whether the entire idea of going to an opera is for them,” explains Salesky. “Because the 14 pieces cover a very wide range of the genre, people are going to have an opportunity to hear lots of different kinds of opera. The Gala Concert offers the perfect opportunity to do that in the biggest and most potent way.”
In addition to the sheer value of operatic entertainment, the 40th Anniversary Gala is also a celebration of the people who have helped make those 40 years possible in different ways. To that end, the evening will honor eight people and organizations who will be inducted into the Knoxville Opera Hall of Fame. The inductees are The Aslan Foundation, Betsey Richards Bush, Dr. Michelle Lanter Brewer, Pilot Flying J, Peggy J. Sood, Dr. Monroe and Sandra Trout, Andrew Wentzel, and Jackie Wilson.