Full Circle

Caroll Freeman's long and circuitous career led him to Knoxville and back

It's a small world, the saying goes. It really must be for University of Tennessee Opera Theatre's Carroll Freeman, for his world of music and opera is filled to the top with amazing performances and famous colleagues, and painted vividly by life's intriguing coincidences.

For most people, one successful career is something to be proud of. Yet Freeman, whose UT Opera Theatre production of Don Giovanni is a part of Knoxville Opera's Rossini Festival lineup, is now fully into his third one. First, as a renowned boy soprano, he sang with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. Later, as an adult tenor, he sang with New York City Opera and in significant productions all over the globe. And now, as artistic director of the UT Opera, he is helping to put the university's School of Music on the map of notable opera training programs around the country.

In the fall of Freeman's eighth-grade year, the renowned Columbus Boychoir made a concert stop in a town near his family's home in Aniston, Ala. "This choir sang and I was spellbound," he says. "I couldn't believe it because I had the same sounds in my body, but I had never heard anyone else do it." Freeman auditioned for the choir following the concert and they accepted him on the spot, even though the school year had already begun. After arrangements were made, his parents delivered him to his new school in Princeton, N.J.

"I became their star," he explains."There was television work and movies and operas, all that stuff as a little boy."

All that stuff included nothing less than singing the boy treble solo in the American premiere of Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms with Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic and a small role in a New York City Opera production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, with Beverly Sills. "And we toured all over the world," he says. " Then my voice changed and I had to start all over."

After returning home from the Columbus Boychoir School, Freeman's family moved to Hattiesburg, Miss., where he enrolled in Southern Mississippi University and where he later got his bachelor's of music degree. "I had had so much training and experience as a boy that had carried over," he says. "It kind of made school really easy for me. And I excelled at the college level to the point that I started getting invitations to sing professionally—in small parts and in summer programs."

One of those summer programs was at Wolf Trap Farm Park for the Performing Arts outside Washington, D.C. "My contacts at Wolf Trap were so strong," he says. "They really focused me on where I was going to go to graduate school. Oddly enough, I chose Oklahoma City University, a small Methodist school in downtown Oklahoma City. But they had an excellent program. They did six operas a year!"

Joining Freeman in Oklahoma for a Masters was Kay Paschal, a young singer he had met and sung with as an undergraduate. The two married in 1975. Although they did not know it at the time, a series of circumstantial events had begun that would lead them to Knoxville.

"In 1982, Kay and I were living in New York City," Freeman says. "I received an affiliate artist appointment to come down here—Alcoa was the corporate sponsor and Maryville College was the educational sponsor. I spent about six to eight weeks over the course of the year doing recitals and such. Kay came down and sang for my last recital. When we got on the plane to return to New York, we both suddenly felt really sad because we felt such an attachment to the area."

At the same time, however, Freeman was making another big connection in New York. In 1982, he made his debut with the New York City Opera as Alfredo in La Traviata, conducted by the City Opera's resident conductor at the time, Brian Salesky, now director and general manager of the Knoxville Opera Company. Also in the cast were Diana Soviero as Violetta and William Stone as Germont. Just this year, those four had a reunion in Knoxville, when Stone and Soviero were here as judges for the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

The 1980s were filled with one notable event after the other for Freeman. In 1980 and 1981, he won back-to-back National Opera Institute Awards presented at the Kennedy Center by Beverly Sills. In 1985, he sang in the Japanese premiere of Minoru Miki's opera Joruri, starring Faith Esham (KOC's 2006 Madama Butterfly) and bass Andrew Wentzel, who is also on the current UT School of Music faculty. In the late '80s, Freeman was chosen by director Peter Sellars for the role of Don Ottavio for his "re-imagined" production of Don Giovanni that originated at the Pepsico Summerfare in Purchase, N.Y., was filmed in Vienna, and was subsequently aired on PBS's Great Performances.

But life has its twists and turns. In 1985, a severe burn accident in Dallas had Freeman beginning to evaluate his career path once again. During his recovery from the accident, he received an offer to direct and help resurrect the summer program of Opera in the Ozarks in Eureka Springs, Ark. "It was a turning point for me, and I've directed ever since," he says. "I still sang a lot, and in plenty of great places, but my heart really wasn't in it so much after I started to direct."

The route back to Knoxville for the Freemans came in early 1996. "Robert Lyall [then director of KOC] hired me to direct Kay in KOC's The Marriage of Figaro," Freeman says. "Kay was going to do the Countess. We were thrilled about coming back to Knoxville. However, Kay ended up going to Europe instead, but I came back and directed the production. And I had friends here, like Andy Wentzel, who I'd known since 1982. When the position with the UT Opera program opened up, they asked me to come right away and be an interim head. I didn't really want to do an interim position, but it just seemed right. How could the circle be any more complete? So I took it."

Since 1996, that circle has widened to include the many opera students who are being launched into professional careers by Freeman and his colleagues in the UT School of Music. This week's production of Don Giovanni continues that circle.

"You know, I've got major talent in this program," Freeman says. But that fact is certainly no accident. Freeman has taken the vast opera and music world and brought it down to size for his students, painting it with his experience, and lining it with career opportunities.