Ready to Fly 

Nashville Opera continues to build its impressive reputation

Nashville Opera continues to build its impressive reputation

Madame Butterfly

Presented by Nashville Opera

8 p.m. Sept. 18 and 7:30 p.m. Sept. 21

Jackson Hall, TPAC

$12-$48, with limited “pay-what-you-can” and $5 student “rush” tickets

For ticket information, call 832-5242 or 255-ARTS

In the last four years, the Nashville Opera Association has presented a series of beautiful and moving productions, culminating in last season’s gorgeous and puissant finale, Der Rosenkavalier. Nashville Opera now continues with this season’s opener, Madame Butterfly. Rehearsals promise that this production will reach for the level of excellence achieved in Rosenkavalier, honing the hope that our city may indeed become the home of consistently first-rate classical music.

Not every Nashville Opera offering is as good as the last one was, but I haven’t seen one that wasn’t thoroughly professional and solidly realized—and the quality keeps getting better as the company’s reputation spreads. Opera in Nashville is barely 20 years old, some 30 years younger than the Symphony. For its first 15 years, it was kept alive largely through the iron will and tireless effort of Mary Cortner Ragland, who died last July at age 81. Herself a gifted opera singer who chose marriage over career, she is seen by many as the mother of both the Nashville Symphony, established in the 1940s, and Nashville Opera. Despite the absence of much interest, she was determined to offer opera until people had to hear it and began to like it. She lived just barely long enough to see her dream start to come true.

“There would be no opera in Nashville,” Nashville Opera executive director Carol Penterman says, “were it not for Mary.” A Mary Ragland Memorial Fund is being established as an endowment to help secure the future of the company she began. That kind of support is essential to success in the arts: No opera company, no symphony orchestra—whether in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Nashville—can endure without strong support from generous patrons who want classical music to be a nutrient in their local culture. Fortunately, support for Nashville Opera right now is healthy and growing.

From its precarious beginning, Nashville Opera has lately taken off like a successful shuttle launch. Since the 1996-97 season, when Penterman and artistic director John Hoomes assumed their roles at the company, attendance has grown 350 percent over that of the ’95-’96 season. The company is now producing four operas per year instead of one; it has also successfully merged with Tennessee Opera Theater, so that what had been two opera organizations often rubbing each other the wrong way has become one company with two branches that mutually and reciprocally support each other. TOT is now the educational arm of Nashville Opera, carrying opera to thousands of students each year—largely through the Young Artists Program, which in turn identifies talent for casting in Nashville Opera’s thoroughly professional productions.

Of the four productions each year, the bookends are large and well-known masterworks—Aïda, Carmen, Rosenkavalier—produced as lavishly as possible. These are normally done in TPAC’s Jackson Hall. The other two are smaller, sometimes lesser-known works—Turn of the Screw, Trouble in Tahiti, Così fan tutte—normally done in the smaller Polk Theater. In all these productions, the young artists, identified through auditions all around the country, may play significant roles.

Nashville Opera also draws on the local talent pool, whenever the voices and the roles match up properly. Some local singers—Marcia Jones, David Ford—have sung a number of significant supporting roles. (Ford sings a key role in Butterfly.) Nashville Opera choruses are made up of singers from Nashville and environs, centering on a cadre of what John Hoomes calls his “Old Faithful” singers, who make time to sing in nearly every production.

No less important is the artistic direction John Hoomes himself gives to the enterprise. His rapport with singers is close and comfortable, and he often accepts suggestions from them. His own insights may be audaciously effective—as in Così, when he made the singer/actors’ gestures and body-language work in ironic counterpoint to the literal sense of what was being sung; in so doing, he realized, uniquely so far as I know, the kinship between the “fluffy” comedy and the pitiless irony of Don Giovanni. Nothing directed by John Hoomes is déjà vû all over again.

The company celebrates its success, and hopes to build on it, by moving into new and more spacious quarters. Last Sunday, the new digs were on display at a public open house. The new facility, on Trousdale Road near the I-65/Harding Place intersection, has 7,500 square feet, more than four times the area of the previous location, so that generous rehearsal space and adequate storage for sets and costumes are all under one roof. Carol Penterman says only a handful of companies anywhere are that lucky.

An emblem of that success, and a tribute to Mary Ragland, is Madame Butterfly, this season’s opener, to be followed in the new millennium by Susannah and The Magic Flute, before a lavish production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman closes out the season. I foresee memorable stuff.

Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (d. 1924) looks like a marvelous opener, a tragic tale about love between a foreign girl and a boy far from home. The time is about 1900. The foreign girl is Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese geisha. The boy away from home is American seaman Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who doesn’t think his marriage to Butterfly, as she is called, is a “real” marriage—even though she has abandoned her Buddhist faith and embraced his Christian one as a sign of her devotion. This causes her family to disown her. None of this registers with Pinkerton, who isn’t so much evil as jingoistic and self-absorbed.

He and Butterfly live together for a few months in a leased house before his ship sails out of Nagasaki, leaving Butterfly pregnant with his son. When three years later he returns aboard the Abraham Lincoln, he brings with him his “real” American wife. Butterfly thinks he has come to claim her and his child, and when she learns the truth, she has, in her own view, only one choice. Pinkerton is moved by her death, but not, one imagines, permanently scarred. The Japanese-American child that he and his American wife take away is an enigmatic emblem.

Much of the opera’s power is in the music—achingly beautiful melodies, luscious harmonies, dramatically ingenious orchestrations, a blend of Verdian richness and Mozartian light. But much of the power is also in the staging and the acting, which elucidate and ironize what the music is doing. The action takes place in Nagasaki, which appears in this opera as a place of sea and sky. Nashville Opera’s sets have an elegance and an abstraction like those of oriental calligraphy—a house represented by a roofbeam and two double-panels of rice-paper screen, sea and sky and day and night suggested by canny backlighting. And the acting—which often consists of simple gestures like kneeling—works as a part of the total form.

The cast assembled is a typical John Hoomes cast—talented singer/actors that fit together into a strong vocal and dramatic ensemble. Butterfly is sung by soprano Lori Phillips, who has lately won a number of prestigious competitions and is poised to break into the big-time. A strong and gentle presence, she has a large, supple voice that in its richness and expressiveness recalls perhaps the greatest Butterfly of our time, Leontyne Price. Her rehearsal of the scene when she says goodbye to her son, played by Aaron Broder, was very moving, even in its first run-through.

Philip Webb, a tenor with a list of impressive credits, sings Pinkerton in a big, accurate voice that recalls Pavarotti rather than Placido Domingo—bright, focused, a little edgy, with plenty of range and power. It’s just right for this role, as is his burly physical presence. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, as Webb plays him, is a man who never had to ride a school bus.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce Campana, as Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, radiates compassion and genuine affection; so does baritone Richard Hobson, who sings Sharpless, the U.S. consul in Nagasaki. Patricia Andress, who lives in Franklin and was a 1997 participant in the Young Artists Program, sings the role of the “real” wife, Kate Pinkerton. And Nashvillian David Ford sings Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle who rages at her for rejecting her heritage. The music will be conducted by Christopher Larkin, conductor of the New York City National Opera Company, which lately toured the country with a production of this opera.

John Hoomes gives a lot of credit for Nashville Opera’s success to the resources of the city itself. There is, he says, a large talent-pool of singers here willing to invest time in a demanding project. There is also, he says, a world-class symphony that provides accomplished musicians for ambitious performances. And there is TPAC, with its resources for realizing complex productions.

Even so, Hoomes admits that TPAC is not an ideal venue. It has many advantages, but good acoustics is not one of them. This is clearly audible in an opera when you compare the sounds of voices singing from the proscenium with those same voices singing upstage. The differences are more evident after hearing the singers perform in a responsive rehearsal hall. It’s frustrating to know that these singers—and the orchestra as well—won’t really be heard the way they’re supposed to.

It is a cause for joy that Nashville Opera is filling its houses. It is a cause for chagrin that last season’s Der Rosenkavalier, as potent as it was, worked its magic running on about 60 percent of its actual nuclear fuel. What might its effect have been in an accurately responsive hall?

At the very least, we can give thanks that Nashville Opera is doing its part to vitalize classical music in Music City. The growth of the arts in this town has been a long and gradual one; because of Mary Ragland and Carol Penterman and John Hoomes, among others, we’re part of the way there. And who knows? Maybe one day, thanks to some public official or private donor—think “Dell Performance Hall”—we might have a place where we can truly enjoy this music as it should be heard.

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