Romeo and Juliet

Love, death and conflict are the immortal themes presented in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” However, themes are flexible things that different artists can handle in different ways.

That’s what Knoxville Opera aims to do with an opera adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play. Knoxville’s premier opera company will perform on Valentine’s Day weekend, with one show on Friday, February 14 and another on Sunday, February 16.

The production will star ­­Mackenzie Whitney as Romeo and Yulan Piao as Juliet. In an interview with the Daily Beacon, Piao expressed her excitement at playing the starring role. She described her gratitude at being offered the role and commended the creative team for their skill in working together.

“It’s really an honor to play this great masterpiece,” Piao said. “With our amazing team together, I feel so grateful. We have the same energy for each rehearsal, and that’s important because that’s what makes work work.”

“Romeo and Juliet” will be Piao’s first major role with an opera company, as well as the first time Knoxville Opera will feature an Asian actress in the Juliet role.

“Romeo and Juliet” was originally written in William Shakespeare’s signature style of prose. However, Brian Salesky, Knoxville Opera’s maestro, wanted to take advantage of the ways that music can enhance a story.

“You want to take the audience on both a dramatic journey and a musical journey at the same time. That’s the brilliance of the great composers,” Salesky said.

Multiple composers have interpreted Shakespeare’s play, but Salesky chose a composition by 1800s French composer Charles Gounod. As such, the opera will be entirely in French.

However, Knoxville Opera won’t simply perform Gounod’s music and lyrics. Instead, they hope to combine the theatrical experience of Shakespeare’s original English with Gounod’s musical interpretations.

To do this, Knoxville Opera has brought in actors from UT’s Clarence Brown to perform dramatic readings of the original English before each of the opera’s scenes. Salesky said the artistic decision came from a desire to help audiences appreciate the original text while taking advantage of the creative opportunities that music provides.

“That way, audiences will be able to have a feel for that wonderful, wonderful text before we hear Yulan singing something similar in French,” Salesky said. “When you speak it, it’s over. Whereas in music, the story goes on and on and on. Therefore, there’s this wealth of expression that singing allows characters to have.”

Not every part of the original text will make it into the final opera. Instead, the text has been abridged and altered to draw out the themes of love, death and their consequences.

Knoxville Opera has performed “Romeo and Juliet” two times prior, but wanted to take the opportunity to introduce new fans to the masterpiece.

“It’s like any of the famous operas: ‘La Boheme,’ ‘La Traviata,’ ‘Madame Butterfly’ — you want to bring them back every few years because, not only do opera fans want to hear it again, but there are always people hearing it for the first time,” Salesky said. “So you’re constantly giving the public the opportunity to revisit old works and giving a whole new generation the chance to experience a masterpiece.”

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