ALL IS OPERA Festival unites va­ri­ety of styles, forms

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - STAGE - By Jon W. Sparks Spe­cial to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

Where else can you find a mix of lead­ing di­vas both tragic and comic, a Dave Brubeck jazz mu­si­cal, opera-fla­vored cirque per­for­mances, French songs, Shake­spearean airs, gypsy jazz and bal­let per­for­mances?

The fourth an­nual Mid­town Opera Festival is bring­ing all of this to Play­house on the Square over a 10-day span that con­tin­ues to re­fine a vision by Ned Canty, the general di­rec­tor of Opera Mem­phis. It doesn’t of­fer mas­sive pro­duc­tions of grand opera, but in­stead goes for ex­cel­lence and va­ri­ety in more in­ti­mate, some­times off­beat works.

This year, there are two per­for­mances each of two such one-act works that book­end the festival, and in be­tween is that in­trigu­ing mix of other en­ter­tain­ment. “I’m mainly driven by the fact that I love fes­ti­vals,” Canty says, “and I have won­dered for a long time why we didn’t have a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary Mid­town arts and cul­ture festival. If I see a gap, I start lean­ing into it and try­ing to fill it.”

As in past it­er­a­tions of the festival, he’s of­fered space and time to other arts or­ga­ni­za­tions. He says, “This gives Mem­phis artists and arts or­ga­ni­za­tions a way to have main stage time at a the­ater of very high qual­ity which, if any one of them in­di­vid­u­ally was do­ing it, the cost would be much higher.”

The main at­trac­tions are the two op­eras, both writ­ten in French and set in Spain. The comic pro­duc­tion is “L’heure es­pag­nole” by Maurice Ravel, telling the racy tale of a clock­maker’s wife who is busy hav­ing and hid­ing three lovers. It stars Marie-stéphane Bernard, an ac­claimed so­prano who has per­formed world­wide and now lives in Mem­phis.

The other work is “The Tragedy of Car­men,” based on Bizet’s clas­sic opera but adapted by Peter Brook in a way that keeps the mu­sic, dis­penses with ex­tra char­ac­ters and in­cludes scenes from the orig­i­nal novella to bring a fresh un­der­stand­ing of the story. The ti­tle role is per­formed by Caitlin Mckech­ney, a Chicago-based per­former who is do­ing the work for the first time, yet brings great fa­mil­iar­ity to the role.

“‘Car­men’ is one of those op­eras familiar to ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially young stu­dents study­ing opera,” Mckech­ney says. “She’s the ul­ti­mate role for a mez­zoso­prano, so she’s been on my mind since col­lege.” The singer has per­formed works from the opera nu­mer­ous times, in­clud­ing in Opera Mem­phis’ 30 Days of Opera com­mu­nity out­reach pro­gram. She’s also sung the fa­mous Ha­banera in bars, much the way Car­men does in the opera.

“That’s in­formed my ex­pe­ri­ence of her be­cause I’m in­clud­ing the au­di­ence in the per­for­mance,” she says. “I’m singing her — in bars for hip­sters who have prob­a­bly never been to opera — while I’m in­cor­po­rat­ing a lot of my own per­son­al­ity into my idea of her char­ac­ter.”

For Bernard, “L’heure es­pag­nole” is a role and an opera she adores. “I love the com­plex­ity and I love that it goes fast — boom boom!” she says. “Tech­ni­cally, it’s Caitlin Mckech­ney per­formed in Opera Mem­phis’ “Rigo­letto” in 2013 with Ja­son Slay­den.

very chal­leng­ing and you have to be right on top. It’s bub­bling, like Cham­pagne.”

Bernard is ea­ger to delve into the comedic as­pect of the show, find­ing the fun through the com­plex­ity of the mu­sic. For one thing, she says, “I’m the only fe­male on stage — I like that!” And for those who ask if com­edy isn’t hard, she says, “Not for me — put me on stage and it’s ob­vi­ous for me. I’ve worked with won­der­ful direc­tors and learned my job and how to be very spe­cific with the rhythm of the ac­tion.”

The rest of the festival pro­gram­ming is di­verse but re­lated to the core op­eras.

“We went to New Bal­let and asked if they had a cou­ple of af­ter­noons would they be able to use them, and they said ab­so­lutely,” Canty said. “I asked if they’d be able to take in­spi­ra­tion from the other pieces we’re do­ing, and they said ab­so­lutely.”

The re­sult is two per­for­mances of its an­nual “Springloaded” pro­duc­tion by com­pany mem­bers and stu­dents. Katie Smythe, the Marie-stéphane Bernard stars in Ravel’s “L’heure es­pag­nole” at the Mid­town Opera Festival. Fri­day, April 1 - Tues­day, April 10 Most events at Play­house on the Square; see op­er­amem­phis.org for full sched­ule. In­di­vid­ual tick­ets for preshow meals and talks, stage pro­duc­tions and other events range from $10 to $55. Festival passes pro­vid­ing ac­cess to all festival op­eras, part­ner events, pre-show meals and free drinks are avail­able for $100. To buy tick­ets, call 901-257-3100 or visit op­er­amem­phis.org.

founder, CEO and artis­tic di­rec­tor of New Bal­let Ensemble & School, says the dances are in­spired by French and Span­ish in­flu­ences, in­clud­ing, “a new ex­per­i­ment with fu­sion that’s not jookin, but com­bin­ing Span­ish and Amer­i­can cul­tures through Fla­menco, tap dance and break dance.”

New Bal­let is also per­form­ing a work ti­tled “Dear Brubeck,” which ties into an­other opera festival pre­sen­ta­tion. There will be two per­for­mances at Play­house on the Square of the jazz mu­si­cal “About the Show,” writ­ten by Dave Brubeck and recorded in 1961. Brubeck was a strong sup­porter of civil rights and wanted to tell this story of racism in the mu­sic busi­ness. The festival is part­ner­ing with Rhodes Col­lege, which is hold­ing a 2016 Brubeck Festival April 8-10 and do­ing a num­ber of events on cam­pus.

As in past years, the Mid­town Opera Festival is hold­ing other events as well. There’s en­ter­tain­ment af­ter many of the main per­for­mances, in­clud­ing a per­for­mance of gypsy jazz, an aria juke­box where lo­cal and vis­it­ing singers per­form on de­mand, “Opera Takes Flight” with a pro­duc­tion by High Ex­pec­ta­tions Aerial Arts and a mas­ter class by vis­it­ing singer Dan Mobbs, who is per­form­ing in “The Tragedy of Car­men.”

Also, Bernard will per­form French songs in “April in Paris” with key­boardist An­gelo Râ­pan and the Vagabonds. Tunes will in­clude mu­sic made fa­mous by Edith Piaf, Josephine Baker and Charles Trenet.

The Bard also gets his due with “Sweet Airs that Give De­light,” a con­cert of Shake­spearean songs per­formed by Mobbs that will be held at the Beethoven Club.

Caitlin Mckech­ney per­forms in “The Tragedy of Car­men” at the Mid­town Opera Festival.

PHOTOS COURTESY OPERA MEM­PHIS

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