We all know too well that the last few years have been challenging and different for arts organizations, people, companies, and communities, but 2021 brought some wonderful opportunities and performances for Marble City Opera. With the help from our fantastic staff, artists, board, volunteers, and patrons we had a really varied and interesting year!
We started off the 2021 year with a collaboration between Marble City Opera, The Knoxville Symphony, and Go Contemporary Dance in a performance of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale performed live to an online audience streamed from The Bijou. It was conducted by Aram Demirjian, Directed by James Marvel, Narrated by Kathryn Frady with Joshua Allen as the solider, and Rick Eledridge as the Devil. It was an odd experience to be performing indoors without an audience, but the experience was uplifting for those of us involved.
Our next production of the season was the World Premiere of Royal Flush by Frank Pesci, performed outdoors under the tent at the TN amphitheater in March. Two wonderful local casts of talented singers and four socially distant performances were directed by Kathryn Frady and filmed by Jim Johnson so that we could offer online and in-person tickets to the production. All the singers were tested regularly for covid and wore masks in rehearsals to help ensure the safety of everyone involved. Behind the scenes events were held on YouTube, including a recorded preview concert performed by UT singers covering the leading roles.
All of our behind the scenes episodes can still be found at YouTube.com/marblecityopera
Each cast and singer brought something special to their role and the performance. The story was about four sisters playing poker with their mother and each giving away their hand by their obvious "tell." While this opera was intended to take place in a more intimate setting and at one table, because of the pandemic it was creatively directed in a socially distant way keeping each character at their own table. In reality this staging choice really demonstrated how far a part these sisters had drifted over the years from one another and how alone they each felt. Each character had their own aria in which they share their true feelings and emotions while the other characters are frozen in time, or so engrossed in their own cards that they don't hear what the other character singing is going through. Ashlee King and Jenna Weaver played the role of Annie whose tell was "anger." These are two young singers to watch. Jenna is a dynamic performer with a full lyric tone and large range both vocally and dramatically. Ashlee King, a recent graduate from UT, shows a tremendous amount of potential both vocally and dramatically, which she proved each night during her aria. Jacquie Breechen and Kayla Beard played the role of CeeCee whose tell is "giggling." The two sopranos both have sparkling tones that have the ability to draw an audience into their singing and wrap them in a blanket of beauty. Jacquie's nervous giggle stole the show with her delightful playfulness, and Kayla's authenticity of emotion drew the audience in to her character's story. Tori Franklin and Whitney Myers played the role of Frankie, the overdramatic performer, and these two did not let the team down. Both singers have beautiful warm tones and large voices that filled the TN amphitheater easily. The role of Delores, "the mother," was sung and acted well by Audrey Odle and Sarah Klopfenstein, and the most surprising character for an opera Rosie, whose tell was "cursing" was played in comedic flair by both singing actresses, Ryan Colbert and Sarah Clementine-Mire. Both sopranos have versatile and flexible crystalline voices who share an ability for comic timing. Each cast brought their own personality to their characters and their performances making this family and group of sisters relatable to the audience. It was a huge feat for MCO to perform safely during the uncertainty of the pandemic and a wonderful opportunity to offer performance opportunities to 10 female singers, and role study to four UT students who were otherwise not performing due to so many theater closures.
Then the vaccine became available and opened up wonderful possibilities for our next planned production. As luck would have it, we had anticipated that the summer would bring fewer covid cases, and we boldly moved towards our goal of producing Tosca at the St. John's Cathedral in a site-specific production moving from the sanctuary in Act I, to the Great Hall for Act 2, and the courtyard for Act 3. In a stunning success, we were able to produce and perform the biggest opera that we have ever produced with a fully vaccinated cast, crew, and orchestra the first weekend in June. Jim Johnson again filmed the production so that we could continue to offer on online option for those who were unable to attend in-person. This allowed us to reach audiences all over the country and the world. The opera was viewed online 260 times and was performed to three sold out audiences at the Cathedral. With the creativity and collaboration between Frady and stage director Marya Barry we were able to create a unique immersive production that used each of the spaces at the Cathedral in an inventive way. From characters entering the sanctuary from outside and the back of the room, to the percussion and off-stage singing entering the room from outside in Act 2, to the soldiers marching Cavaradossi into the courtyard for his execution, each act used the space in a memorable and special way.
We continued to present Behind the Scenes footage for our audiences leading up to the production, including an episode of the Frank and Friends Show, where Stage Director Barry teaches Frady Tosca's final jump. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IE16eqIS9CI&t=9s
Arts Knoxville said, "This weekend’s current production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca by Marble City Opera represents a quantum leap in artistry, complexity, and sophistication from where the company began eight years ago." Read the full review by Arts Knoxville here. https://artsknoxville.com/index.php/2021/06/05/review-marble-city-opera-delivers-a-fabulous-tosca/
After ending our 2020-21 season on the high note of Tosca we began looking towards our current season. We started off the season with our "Kick Off Concert" in September at the Flying Anvil Theater, which is our new home for offices and rehearsals. Kayla Beard, Dominick White, Brandon Evans, David Crawford, and Kathryn Frady performed arias and duets from musical theater and opera accompanied by Brandon Coffer. We also gave a preview to our season with a Kurt Weill piece from Lily, a reading of "I Can't Breathe," and an aria from "The Copper Queen." All in all, it was a fun night in the theater with direction by James Marvel and Marya Barry. All the artists gave of their time and talents so that the proceeds of the concert could be used as donations to the company for our upcoming season.
First up in our 2021-22 season, was our production of Lily; her life, his music performed by Audrey Babcock and Ray Fellman and directed by James Marvel. This was a production created by Babcock and originally performed in New York with the same creative team. We were even able to bring in the original video design of Katy Tucker whose work can also be seen in The Metropolitan Opera's production of Euridice. The monodrama was made up of songs by Kurt Weill following a fiction character Lily Weiss's journey from Berlin, to Paris, to the US as she escaped Nazi Germany. Using sound design and video projections to help tell the story it was performed at the Flying Anvil Theater to help create the cabaret feel to the production.
Read the Review
A week after Lily, we held our first annual fundraising event at the Botanical Garden's Dogwood Center. This year's theme was Diving For Pearls, with performances and auction items to match the theme. Performances happened throughout the evening in a flash mob style, while guests enjoyed beer, wine, and delicious appetizers by Holly Hambright of Holly's Gourmet's Market.
This year two of Marble City Opera's productions were named as the Most Memorable Music Performances in Knoxville out of six performances named all together. Lily; her life, his music, and Tosca! We are honored to be named twice this year! Read the full article here.
Other successes for the company this year include Managing Director Brandon Gibson being chosen as one of The News Sentinels 40 under 40, and Founder & Executive Artistic Director Kathryn Frady being chosen to participate in the prestigious OPERA America Leadership Intensive in which 12 candidates from across the country were chosen to participate and are considered current and future leaders of the opera industry. As an organization we became a professional membership opera company with OPERA America.
Producing opera and theater during a pandemic creates a lot of extra hurdles that all the organizations and artists have to go through in order to present performances and keep everyone safe, and the challenges continue. We have been fortunate to be able to keep going, and we are still offering all of our performances recorded and online as well as Behind the Scenes episodes to give background and information about the works that we are producing.
2022 will bring the World Premiere of "I Can't Breathe" written by our very own Brandon Gibson and composer Leslie Burrs. Frady brought three other opera companies on board for the production so that the opera will continue to have a life after our production. It will also be produced by Pacific Opera Project, Opera Columbus, and Cleveland Opera Theater. For our final production of our current season, we will be offering the staged premiere of "The Copper Queen" by Clint Borzoni and John de los Santos. We look forward to seeing you all at a performance in the New Year! Stay tuned for our upcoming season 10 announcement. All information and tickets for our upcoming productions can be found at www.marblecityopera.com
Happy New Year!
Marble City Opera