Nashville Opera Association is one of our city’s bright lights these daysnot just in “classical music,” but in delightful, classy, substantive entertainment of any kind. Four years ago, it was the smallest of the four opera companies in Tennessee. But the audacious leadership of Carol Penterman and John Hoomes is drawing more and more eyes and ears. Next year the organization will become the largest company in the state, offering, as it did this season, a variety of selections, from the farcical to the serious.
Nashville Opera’s 1997-98 season has been solid all the way through. It began with a splendiferous production of Giuseppi Verdi’s Aïda, followed by Benjamin Britten’s lean and menacing Turn of the Screw. Next came a delightful comedy, Giacomo Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella)an opera demanding a kind of vocal athleticism that was already declining when the work premiered in 1817. Julia Anne Wolf in the title role looked lovely, acted capably, and sang the way Tara Lipinski skates. Hoomes’ direction and staging included a lot of vaudeville shtick that delighted the houseand whetted appetites.
Now, this Friday and Saturday at TPAC, Nashville Opera offers a one-two punch for its season finaleLeonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti and Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. The two one-act comic operas will both get a lot of laughs, and the audience ought to leave abuzz with chuckling conversationpartly because each opera has a serious core. Trouble in Tahiti, composed in 1952 (five years before West Side Story made Bernstein a household name), is very funnyand yet not really. It’s the story of a middle-class American suburban couple whose marriage is an emblem of their livesaimlessly busy and neurotically useless. Divorce seems unlikelymaybe because for this couple even divorce would be pointless.
The music has the jazzy contemporary texture that belongs to Bernstein. There are only two main roles, husband Sam (a baritone) and his wife Dinah (a contralto), together with a jazz vocal trio that serves as chorus for the drama. The trio’s microphony sound contrasts sharply with the troubled couple’s unamplified voices. This dramatic dissonance, like the title of the opera, resonates with irony. Trouble in Tahiti is the name of a movie that the couple goes to see, seeking some escape from the reality they can’t or won’t face. For Bernstein, surely, the opera’s title also recalled 19th-century painter Paul Gauguin, who left career and family in Paris to run off to Tahiti and paint.
Gianni Schicchi is the only comedy by Puccini, who was celebrated for some potent melodramas, among them Madama Butterfly, Tosca, and La Bohème. First performed 80 years ago, Gianni Schicchi is indeed funny and musically delightful, though it contains only one lyrical aria and one love duet. The core of this farce is the selfish pride and greed that drive a large quantum of human behavior. Whereas the Bernstein is hip and flip, looking forward to Jerry Seinfeld, this Puccini looks backward to Molière and Shakespeare’s buddy Ben Jonson, both of whom took their cues from ancient Roman comedies. The Romans understood urban cynicism.
In the Puccini, as in the Bernstein, irony is pervasive. A very wealthy man has died. His family members pretend to mourn, waiting until they can decently begin to use that wealth themselves. But they quickly learn that he has left all his money to a monasteryhoping to escape at least some of his just desserts in the hereafter. Now the family genuinely mournsuntil they hit upon a scheme to substitute a forged will for the real thing.
Such a scheme will not be easy: They have to keep the dead man’s doctor from finding out that he is in fact dead until they can flim their flam. And they have to fool a lawyer into replacing the real will with a forgery. Needing an ace con man, they call on Gianni Schicchi. One of the dead man’s nephews wants to marry Schicchi’s daughter, but the family has opposed the union as beneath their social station. Desperate, however, they reluctantly ask Schicchi to help them. And boy, does he ever. Guess who winds up with all the loot.
These two short operas, alike in thematic concerns, are very different in other ways. As audacious in its production as Turn of the Screw, the Bernstein uses a large screen and three projectors instead of an ordinary set. The Puccini, on the other hand, is staged as a conventional period piece, though both music and stage business are ingeniously farcical. But in both operas, the featured singers will be voices nurtured by Nashville Opera’s Young Artist Program.
Many opera companies have young-artist programs, though none quite like the one here, according to John Hoomes. Through a nationwide auditioning process, Nashville Opera chooses one soprano, one alto, one tenor, and one bass to join the local company for a 12-week term. At first the young artists sing supporting choral roles. Then they take on primary roles in special educational-outreach performances for public schoolchildren. Finally, at the end of their tour, they sing principal roles in a major production. This is the feature, Hoomes says, that’s unique to the Nashville program.
This season’s four young singersStephanie Anne Jones, Heather Johnson, Conrad Ekkens, and Kevin Keesare all featured in both operas this weekend. Kevin Kees sings Sam in Tahiti and the title role in Gianni Schicchi. Only 26 years old, he has a big, accurate, flexible, dramatic voice, good acting skills, and great stage presence. In 10 years, when his voice is in full bloom, he may well be internationally known. Heather Johnson, who sings Dinah in Tahiti and the Florentine matriarch Zita in Gianni Schicchi, does a fine job as well. The other two young artists are two-thirds of the jazz trio in Tahiti, and they sing the young lovers in Gianni Schicchi.
Together with these imported talents, the cast includes some fine local singers. David Ford, a craggy masculine presence with a huge, accurate basso, sings the role of Simone, the chief mouth-organ for the greedy relatives in Gianni Schicchi. Also in Schicchi are Keith Moore, who heads the opera program at Belmont, and Evan Broder, the 9-year-old boy who sang a major role in Turn of the Screw. Karen Lynne Deal, the Nashville Symphony’s very capable associate conductor, returns to direct both operas. It’s gratifying to watch how deftly, securely, and musically she goes about her work.
If you’ve already heard Nashville Opera in performance, you’ll look forward eagerly to the upcoming season. It opens in October with Carmen, an opera that deserves its fame. Next is a January production of H.M.S Pinafore, a farcical operetta reminding us that once there really was a British Empire to poke fun at. Then, in February, Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte (All Women Are Like That), a biting lyrical work that should have a special resonance in these days of tangled gender politics.
Finally, in April, comes next season’s finale, Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), an opera that rivals Aïda in splendid grandeur. Probably the most performed 20th-century German opera, Der Rosenkavalier is an elaborate, worldly-wise, Romantic theatrical spectaclethink of it as sort of an operatic Swan Ball. It should be scrumptious.
In the season now closing, Nashville Opera began huge with Aïda, and it’s finishing with an exquisite couplet. Next season, the company opens with a Gallic version of Iberian gypsy passion and saves the whopper for last. In both seasons, there’s lots of good stuff in between. If you haven’t yet done so, lend these folks an ear. They’ll make you glad you did.
So long Don. Your creative energy and encouragement were inspirational to me.
It was so great being one of those kids in Dayton.
I miss Iodine.
^ It's nice to see an official acknowledgement by management. Kristen Mcarther Miles (the girl…
How ironic that "Vandy radio" gets resurrected as a fictional station?! I was just glad…
Wonderful tribute to a wonderful man.