Dueling Arias 

Different strokes for Memphis and Nashville opera

Different strokes for Memphis and Nashville opera

The joke goes like this. A stranger asks a guy from Memphis what he thinks about Nashville. The Memphian blurts out, “I hate that city! They get all the breaks. They get professional football and hockey. They get the state Legislature eating out of their hands. They get money for schools. They get corporate tax breaks....” He rants on and on and on.

A short time later, the stranger meets a fellow from Nashville and asks his opinion about Memphis. The Nashvillian thinks a moment and then responds, “Memphis.... Now, is that east or west of here?”

To many Nashvillians, Memphis is nothing more than a blip on their personal radar screens. In the area of opera, however, Memphis has reigned for years. Nashville’s aria lovers have salivated over the recognition and prestige Opera Memphis has long enjoyed. The company’s acclaimed outreach programs have penetrated the public school system so profoundly that small children grow up educated in the differences between a cantata and a sonata. The company’s collaborations with New York’s esteemed Metropolitan Opera Guild, and the ready-made publicity from having such a top-notch partner, are the envy of regional opera houses across the country.

While Opera Memphis’ reputation has remained intact, Nashville Opera has recently begun climbing a few tiers. When Carol Penterman and John Hoomes took over the Nashville company in 1995, things were in a shambles. Penterman often spent wakeful nights wondering how she could possibly make ends meet.

In the past five years, however, Nashvillians have started turning out for productions by the local company. The recently completed 1998-99 season ended with 11,329 people—or 89 percent of capacity—attending the troupe’s mainstage shows. In contrast, Opera Memphis had 12,300 attendees this season—or 79 percent of capacity. The $1.2 million Memphis company sold $133,000 in subscriptions, while subscribers contributed $175,000 to Nashville Opera’s budget of $1.3 million. Both organizations spend a comparable amount, about $200,000, for each of their large mainstage shows.

Opera Memphis general/artistic director Michael Ching says, “John and Carol have done a terrific job of generating spectacular growth since they’ve been there. We haven’t experienced [equivalent] growth, but we’ve been fiscally solid and creatively innovative.”

Numbers aside, Opera Memphis and Nashville Opera are two totally distinct animals. Nashville Opera is like the conservative college student who comes to the table wearing a sweater and tie, while Opera Memphis is like the parent who’s grown a little wild and crazy during mid-life. Led by Ching—an accomplished pianist, conductor, and composer—the latter company has built its reputation by taking big programming risks and originating new American operas. Several years ago, for instance, Ching commissioned Nashville songwriters Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, Karen Pell, and David Olney to write a song-cycle version of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which played to great reviews but was subsequently mired in copyright issues.

And that’s just one example of Opera Memphis’ fertile creativity: In 1996, Ching and the Metropolitan Opera Guild collaborated with another Nashville-based songwriter, Mike Reid, on the creation of Different Fields. The company has also premiered an original composition by Ching, Buoso’s Ghost, a sequel to Gianni Schicchi. This year in Delaware, the artistic director opened Out of the Rain, a controversial piece for high-school audiences that deals with AIDS. He also opened an original one-act opera, Faith, in New Hampshire.

“As a composer I would feel somewhat hypocritical not to be developing new works,” Ching explains. “But most of our new works are smaller projects, not ones on the scale of Aïda. I feel Tennessee is one of the creative centers of the United States, and since people like Mike Reid live here, it would be a shame not to take advantage of that and cooperate with them on projects.”

Ching is an artist. Penterman and Hoomes, on the other hand, are veteran arts managers. Hoomes directs the bulk of Nashville Opera’s productions and enlists guest conductors to lead the Nashville Symphony. In contrast, the Memphis company often features Ching waving the baton and hires guest directors to mount the shows.

As managerial types, Penterman and Hoomes aren’t willing to take the financial risks associated with commissioning new works. “There are many wonderful classical operas that Nashville Opera has never done and our audiences have never seen, like Otello or Don Giovanni. We’d be cheating our community by not doing those before we start jumping into new compositions,” Penterman says. “Unlike Opera Memphis, we have a new audience here. We have to keep in mind when we do programming that most of our opera-goers will be seeing either their first or second opera ever.”

Having salvaged Nashville Opera from a recent near-death experience, Penterman feels obligated to take a conservative, calculated, and tightly controlled approach to each season. “The only way we can accomplish so much with only six full-time staff members is by being organized out the wazoo,” she says.

Opera Memphis is now in the throes of a capital campaign to build a new rehearsal/office/workshop space. For budgetary reasons, the Bluff City troupe recently cut its season back from four shows to three and is returning to more traditional programming with a trio of classic war-horses—The Barber of Seville, Tosca, and Aïda. Ironically, Nashville Opera finds itself in a period of expansion and is offering four mainstage shows in 1999-2000—Madama Butterfly, Susannah, The Magic Flute, and The Flying Dutchman.

Because of its long history of education and outreach, Opera Memphis has a large presence within a 150-mile radius and is a crucial and valued part of West Tennessee’s cultural life—a goal that Nashville Opera continues to strive toward here in Middle Tennessee. The Memphis company is deeply entrenched in monthly arts partnership programs with St. Jude and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospitals and the Inner City Library.

Ching is now offering workshops not just for kids, but for prisoners and teachers as well. He’s implemented a music-writing program for children similar to the lyric-writing project offered by the Country Music Foundation in Nashville. “We insist that the students write the music too, not just the lyrics,” he says. “That’s challenging, but the psychological payoff is incredibly rewarding.”

As for Nashville Opera, its own efforts in this area are coming along nicely. Penterman initiated the company’s outreach program in 1995, and during that first year, she says, they were begging schools to let them come. Now there are long waiting lists, and the company’s next focus for expansion will be in education.

In some respects, Opera Memphis may have done its job too well. After the suburban community of Germantown built its new performing arts center, New York City Opera was quick to schedule an annual performance tour there. Opera Memphis executive director Steve Aiken admits that because of programming snafus, NYCO’s production of Madama Butterfly played the same week as Opera Memphis’ lesser-known The Abduction From the Seraglio, meaning the latter took a small hit in ticket sales. “But,” Aiken reasons, “anything that promotes opera isn’t going to hurt us in the long haul.”

By contrast, Nashville Opera’s biggest competition seems to be football, hockey, and all those big-ticket distractions and entertainment options that are new to the city. “Nashville is striving to be a world-class city, and we want to be a world-class arts organization,” Penterman says.

Ultimately, opera in Tennessee has leveled out and is no longer heavily weighted toward the western side of the state. Memphis probably still rules, but more by rights of seniority than conquest. It’s fortunate that Opera Memphis and Nashville Opera are engaged not in a rivalry, but in a healthy competition—each troupe raising the bar a little higher every season. In the end, both cities benefit all the more.

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