If you ask a hundred opera lovers why they are drawn to the art form, you’re likely to get a hundred different answers. After all, it is essentially an unanswerable question. While all arts appeal to individuals in distinctly particular ways, opera captures its victims with a mélange of attractions: vocal and instrumental music, poetry and literature, dramatic and comedic theatre, and the visual arts.
Last Friday evening, you could have asked that question of 700-or-so opera lovers in the Bijou Theatre, as Knoxville Opera presented a Gala Concert to honor and inaugurate its 40th Anniversary Season. What those opera-goers received was a concert lovingly constructed, programmed, and led by Knoxville Opera maestro Brian Salesky, and performed with stunning artistry by four soloists, a vocal ensemble, and a 50-member Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. All that made for a packed Bijou Theatre, but one that radiated with sublime performances that electrified the willing audience.
Joining Salesky for the program of 14 arias, duets, and ensemble numbers, were sopranos Rochelle Bard and Catherine Daniel, tenor Aaron Short, and baritone Scott Bearden. The vocal ensemble consisted of sopranos Linda Barnett and Arielle Basile, and mezzo sopranos Allison Deady, Joey DiMenno, Karen Nickell, and Elizabeth Peterson.
Of course, Bard, Daniel, and Bearden were seen and heard last spring in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots)—and the evening concluded with the infamous and heated Confrontation Scene from that opera. Before that, though, came a smorgasbord of works, carefully chosen to showcase the singers, as well as to delight the audience with both the familiar and the less so. In the rare category came “Esprits de l’air” from Massenet’s Esclarmonde, featuring Ms. Bard and Ms. Daniel.
Short and Bearden brought a tear to many eyes with a poignant “Au fond du temple saint” from George Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers). Bearden, who has sung in a number of roles for KO including Baron Scarpia in Tosca, returned shortly for a beautifully rich take on Leporello’s aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.”
Bard and Daniel were stunning in “Alle più care immagini” from Rossini’s Semiramide, and each had individual arias: Ms. Daniel in “O don fatale” from Don Carlo and Ms. Bard in an exquisitely gorgeous “Io son l’umile ancella” from Francesco Cilèa’s Adrianna Lecouvreur. Also a highlight among highlights was Bard, Daniel, and Short in “Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima” from Bellini’s Norma, a work KO performed in 2014 with Bard in the title role.
Although Mr. Short was making his debut with Knoxville Opera, there were many in the audience hoping for a return engagement sometime in the future. Not only was the tenor’s tone golden with the perfect edge, he has the capability to blend beautifully with other singers.
For KO, Richard Wagner’s operas have been out of consideration for several years now due to production and artist requirements. Wagner lovers had a reason to rejoice, though, with a first half finale of the “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre with the ensemble. Another reason for Wagner-lovers to rejoice is the rumor that Salesky is working on a plan for a full production of Die Walküre at some future date.
In addition to the program of music, this Gala Concert was an opportunity for the company to thank some long time supporters by inducting them into the Knoxville Opera Hall of Fame. The inductees were The Aslan Foundation, Dr. Michelle Lanter Brewer, Betsy Richards Bush, Pilot Flying J, Peggy J. Sood, Dr. Monroe and Sandra Trout, Andrew Wentzel, and Jackie Wilson.
On the off-chance that any of the audience left the Bijou unsure of the amazing evening they had witnessed, I can relate the words of a certain tuxedo-clad gentleman who grabbed my arm and proclaimed “Now THAT was an ‘eff-ing’ great concert!”