Some of my most memorable theatrical experiences have come from productions in alternative spaces, so the continued presence of Marble City Opera and their chamber opera productions in Knoxville is good news indeed. By design, and by necessity, the company has sought out different performance spaces for their three major productions, and for their numerous other events, something that gives their efforts a casual coolness and a delicious informality, even if it is minimalism for a reason. Their inventive production this weekend, a collection of three short American operas collectively titled "Ties That Bond," performed at the Emporium's Blackbox space, was evidence of their growth in sophistication since their beginnings one year ago. The production's stage director was Thomas Isaac Collins; the pianist and musical director was Joseph Welch.
This was my first visit to the minimal Blackbox space, so I assume it is probably a delightful one for most intimate theatrical presentations. However, for operatic-strength voices, it was a bit too small and reverberant. Overall, the reverberative nature of the space worked against diction with some cast members, which is quite a statement considering the distance from performer to listener was on the order of 15 feet or less. This was particularly the case in the second work, Hugo Weisgall's Will You Marry Me? The work, a tonally complex, two-character piece sung by Natalee Louise McReynolds and Ryan Olson, depends completely for its impact on every word, phrase, and nuance being cleanly understood. Even though I was seated quite close to the performers, I found myself missing lines, but certainly not from volume.
The four singers in Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge--Daniel Sparkes, Martha Prewitt, Ian Richardson, and Linda Barnett--had a more amenable and communicative vehicle for the space and proved that less movement is no liability at all with excellent acting singers.
In the imaginative and creative structuring of the evening, Introductions and Goodbyes by Lukas Foss was both the opening and closing, the work being broken into two sections. Kevin Richard Doherty impressively sang and acted the monologue piece with mute character assistance from the other singers standing in as arriving and departing party guests. The arc of Doherty as the host beginning and ending in his boxer shorts was brilliant.
Chamber opera, by definition and by necessity, is predominantly about music and voices, as it should be. However, Marble City Opera has now reached a point of accomplishment where more sophisticated environment and atmospheric suggestion for their productions will become increasingly important for continued success. Singers of the quality now attracted to the MCO productions will need their performances enhanced by more than just a few props or costumes, even while retaining the gorgeous minimalism and abstraction that is so freeing. Theatre, after all, is still theatre--and theatrical Knoxville needs Marble City Opera as an essential segment of that scene.