ALL IS OPERA Festival unites variety of styles, forms
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.