With over 40 years under its belt, Knoxville Opera is keeping the rich tradition of opera alive and well right here in East Tennessee.
Brian Salesky, the company’s Executive and Artistic Director, described the process of the troupe’s founding.
“There were people in Knoxville who felt it was the right time to start a regional opera company in Knoxville,” Salesky said. “Certain people with great passion and commitment to the project got together (and) acquired some funding.”
The company was originally founded in 1978 by Edward Zambara, the chair of UT’s vocal performance department.
It all began with a performance of “La Traviata” starring Mary Costa, a singer famous for voicing Princess Aurora in “Sleeping Beauty.”
Over 130 productions later, the ensemble continues to expand its repertoire and take on new performers, crew members, and audiences.
Though based in Knoxville, the organization’s reach spreads far beyond the city. Most of their soloists come from outside Knoxville, with some coming from as far as New York City or even Canada.
One such soloist is Catherine Daniel, a Canadian singer who’s taken part in three of the group’s productions.
Daniel started with Knoxville Opera during a 2017 production of “Maria Stuarda” and still travels from her Canadian home to take part in their latest endeavors.
“Travel is part of the deal. I love coming down to Knoxville. It is always super kind,’ Daniel said. “Knoxville Opera is a community. It’s an opera group (that’s) passionate about the art form and values the impact that opera can make on the viewer’s experience. It’s family now.”
Daniel will play the role of Santuzza in the troupe’s upcoming production of “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
Opera productions are not easy to put together. There are funds to acquire, sets to build, costumes to create and rehearsals to schedule all before the curtain rises.
To combat this, Knoxville Opera is always on the lookout for new talent to fill their numerous productions and outreach events.
Local artists receive special attention, with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra providing each production’s music and local singers serving as the group’s chorus line.
The art form is also kept alive through the training of younger generations. The group gives younger artists a head start by auditioning singers from UT’s graduate opera program.
“You can appreciate that you don’t produce opera with a month’s notice. You’re working on it for years in advance,” Salesky said. “UT students have an opportunity to be in our chorus for at least two of our three productions, and, virtually every season, UT grad students have the opportunity to do certain smaller roles.”
Graduate students are also given a chance to perform during Knoxville Opera’s many community outreach events, such as introductory singing classes at Knoxville schools and gospel choir performances at local churches.
“We are present in lots of places, (but) it’s not always the exact same recipe every single year,” Salesky said. “We go to the cancer support community every year. We will be in churches. We will sometimes be in synagogues. We’ll be at rotary clubs and other civic organizations.”
However, the crowning jewel of Knoxville Opera’s outreach events is the annual Rossini Festival, a massive event that will overtake downtown Knoxville this Saturday.
“(The festival) is a truly unique opportunity for everybody to come and receive—in one humongous dose—a variety of performing arts that you cannot experience somewhere else,’ Salesky said.
After a long and prestigious history, Knoxville Opera continues to be a valuable part of the Knoxville artistic scene and art outreach community.