Nashville’s moniker “Music City” is usually taken as a reference to its status as country music’s headquarters, and no one who spends significant time here can deny our deep connection to country. But the city is home to a variety of music scenes, each robust and active in its own right. Classical music is no exception.
One of Nashville’s musical crown jewels is its professional opera company, the Nashville Opera Association. Since its founding in 1981, Nashville Opera has become a well-respected, artistically vibrant force, not just locally but nationally. The company has mounted two operatic world premieres—Grammy-winning songwriter Marcus Hummon’s Surrender Road in 2004 and Herschel/Garfein’s Elmer Gantry in 2007. More recently, the Opera’s groundbreaking 2015 multimedia production of Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas (created by artistic director/CEO John Hoomes) debuted at New York City’s Lincoln Center this past June.
Nashville Opera’s upcoming season is a perfect example of Hoomes’ knack for presenting classics in a fresh, engaging way, while still keeping an eye out for worthy new works to introduce to local audiences. The bookends of the 2016-2017 season are by composers who are indisputably part of the classical music “hall of fame”: in the opening slot is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the closer is Carmen by Georges Bizet. The two central operas are Glory Denied by Tom Cipullo and Three Way by Robert Paterson with libretto (text) by David Cote, works by living composers with very different stories to tell.
I spoke with Katie Arata, community engagement manager for Nashville Opera, about how to approach seeing an opera for the first time, what to expect, and the season’s productions. Opera has traditionally been an activity for the rich, but Nashville Opera is committed to making opera in Music City as accessible as possible.
“We offer backstage tours and insight talks before each opera performance,” said Arata, “and I hope every newcomer has the chance to partake and learn a little bit more about what they will see that night. If you're a newcomer to Nashville Opera, find me! I still read the plot synopsis before every opera I see; I’m not fluent in another language, so I read the supertitles, and I love to talk music of all kinds. Also, you can wear whatever you want to the opera, whether that's your go-to denim or your favorite formal attire. We'll be happy to see (and meet) you in whatever outfit you don.”
Nashville Opera also has a group geared toward young adults interested in opera called Forté, Arata said. “[It’s] our outlet for young creatives and professionals. This is a great way to meet new people, enjoy a night out in Nashville and become a part of the experience that opera is really all about.”
Opera blends music, visual art, and drama in a way few other art forms can, all in the service of telling an exciting story. Take Don Giovanni, for example: the amoral nobleman Giovanni has abandoned one young woman, murdered another’s father, and crashed the wedding of a third to steal her from her new husband, all the while attended (and assisted) by his servant Leporello. Eventually, however, he is faced with the consequences of his actions.
“This production of Don Giovanni is a John Hoomes original,” Arata explained, “visually-arresting, magnetic and bold. It will captivate you from the downbeat and keep you enthralled for the entire production.”
The music encourages such an approach – some 200-plus years later, Mozart’s score is full of great tunes, an easy listen for the opera newbie. One naughty highlight is Leporello’s Catalog Aria, where he sings impishly of Don Giovanni’s 2065 female conquests, even breaking the list down by country of origin! “No matter if she’s rich, ugly or beautiful; if she wears a skirt,” Leporello chuckles, “you know what he does!”
Carmen is stamped on the popular imagination thanks to the melody of its signature aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (Love is a rebellious bird). We simply call it the Habañera; it pops up in an astounding number of movies and advertisements. The song is tobacco factory worker Carmen’s warning to infatuated young soldier Don José that she is alluring but dangerous: “If you don’t love me, I’ll love you,” she sings in French, “but if I love you…. Watch out!"
Ms. Arata informed me that “this production will be a new one… sensual and captivating, very different from our previous production of Carmen.” Bizet’s opera is set in sunny Seville, the same city that serves as backdrop for Don Giovanni; it follows the unlucky Don José’s doomed love for Carmen, who treats him like a plaything, ending up more intrigued with handsome, flamboyant toreador (bullfighter) Escamillo.
As with Don Giovanni, this is an easy listen with plenty of hummable melodies, including the Habañera mentioned above and Escamillo’s main aria, the Toreador Song. These “traditional” operas complement each other surprisingly well; Mozart’s story of the womanizing Count versus Bizet’s tale about a fiery, independent, overtly sexual outsider, each trailing their respective string of broken hearts.
In contrast to these tales of pleasure-seekers wreaking havoc is Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, “the true story of a Vietnam veteran who was also America's longest held POW,” based on an oral history taken by journalist Tom Philpott, Arata explained. It chronicles Col. Jim Thompson’s time in the jungles of southeast Asia and his struggle to adjust after returning to an America very different than the one he left. “This narrative is layered with so many emotions and experiences connected to the identity of countless Americans who served and saw their loved ones serve.”
The “four” characters are actually older and younger versions of Jim and his wife Alyce; Cipullo’s score is vivid and dynamic, cinematic even, edgy with sudden bursts of soaring melody (Younger Alyce’s “My darling Jim” is a standout). Prepare for wrenching drama in the second half, where Jim returns to find that a desperate, lonely Alyce, whose memory sustained him during his captivity, has told their children he is dead and started an affair with another man.
Perhaps the cheekiest of the season’s offerings is Paterson/Cote’s Three Way, a set of three one-act operas wrapped up in a single package. “I'm most excited about Three Way, our world premiere that will also be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music next June. Besides it being a premiere,” Arata added, “this piece is what opera is all about: artistically celebrating the human experience.”
The collection’s title doubles as a provocative slang term, and yes, the unifying thread here is the offbeat, seriocomic way these three tales deal with love, sex and desire. The first, “Safe Word,” is a dominatrix fantasy gone horribly awry (or has it?), while the central piece, “The Companion,” tells the story of a woman, her android companion/cyberspouse, the support tech who upgrades the android’s software, and the ensuing love triangle. The finale, “Masquerade,” looks in on an erotic masked ball in a country mansion—think Eyes Wide Shut minus the spooky stuff, plus singing. The music here is bright, quirky and accessible; if singing in other languages isn’t your thing and/or you enjoy musical theatre, you might start your operatic exploration here.
For those interested in a more hands-on role with the Opera, Arata was pleased to report that this is very possible. “There are tons of ways to get involved with the Opera, and we've got opportunities for people of all ages. You can volunteer with the opera and help on the nights of the performances and also at our administrative offices.”
More information on these opportunities, the young professionals group Forté mentioned earlier, and how to purchase tickets for this season’s productions can be found at the company’s website, nashvilleopera.org. The season opens with Mozart’s Don Giovanni at TPAC’s Jackson Hall, October 6 at 7 p.m. and October 8 at 8 p.m.
Eddie Charlton is a local singer, voice teacher, and music director who performs with the Nashville Opera Ensemble. Photo from Don Giovanni provided.