There was a time, a century ago, when Knoxville's self-styled nickname, "Marble City," reflected the city's pride and preeminence in its use of a certain natural resource during a time of phenomenal city growth and commercial energy. Today, while the long-abandoned marble quarries are finding other uses and the city's economic focus has changed completely, the name Marble City is rising once again in popularity as projects and organizations seek to reclaim the spirit of Knoxville's authentic, if not scruffy, past.
The latest endeavor is Marble City Opera, a partnership of two Knoxville singers: soprano and artistic director Kathryn Frady Marvel and baritone Kevin Richard Doherty, a University of Tennessee School of Music alumnus who will serve as general director. The pair is seeking to define and add a sorely needed layer to Knoxville's already diverse music and performance scene—chamber-style opera. Outside of the marketable range of the larger music organizations—Knoxville Opera and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, for example—lies a vast territory of interesting, smaller-scale works, often contemporary, often by American composers, that lend themselves to more intimate performances in unusual and non-traditional spaces.
"Opera has its niche, its crowd, grand opera has an audience, and I never want that to go away," Doherty says. "But I thought, let's put on accessible shows that other people can relate to, in small spaces, not charge a lot for tickets … places where you can go to the bar, get a bite to eat, and not worry about the usual stuff, and just enjoy the show. Then it gets people thinking and they'll be open to checking out the more traditional stuff."
Marble City Opera's inaugural production will be a work that is nothing if not accessible: The Face on the Barroom Floor, by the contemporary American composer Henry Mollicone. Commissioned in 1978 by Central City Opera in Colorado, the 30-minute one-act cabaret opera has acquired something of a cult reputation. The work was inspired by a poem by Hugh Antoine d'Arcy from 1887 and by the actual painting by Herndon Davis on the floor of the Teller House bar in Central City, Colo.
The plot features an intriguing parallel construction of time and characters. Isabel, a member of the current-day Central City Opera chorus, and her friend Larry visit the Teller House bar. When Larry asks the bartender, Tom, about the face painted on the floor, Tom tells the story behind it, but from the point of view of a 19th-century bartender named John. It is the tragic love triangle tale of John, a bargirl named Madeline (played by the same actress who plays Isabel), and a traveler, Matt (played by the actor portraying Larry). When the old story ends and the action returns to the current day, an ironic twist seems to lead to the same tragic conclusion.
Joining Marvel and Doherty in the three-person cast is tenor Boris Van Druff; James Marvel, Kathryn Marvel's husband and director of UT Opera, is staging the performances.
After a single performance at Relix Variety Theater, the company will do five performances at the Atlanta Fringe Festival. That booking, in fact, provided the final impetus for the Marble Opera startup.
"The Atlanta Fringe Festival posted that they were looking for shows for this summer," Marvel explains. "So we applied and they needed a company name. Starting a company had been on Kevin's mind for a really long time, so he already had the name—Marble City Opera. We submitted it and they said ‘Yes, we want you to come to Atlanta.' So we said to each other, ‘I think we just started an opera company.'"
Plans for future productions are still being worked out.
"We don't want to do anything that would conflict with the schedules of the other opera productions in Knoxville," Marvel says.
But she acknowledges that the lull in end-of-year performances in Knoxville is a real opportunity for them.
"We are talking over the idea of something in late November or December."
First things first, says Doherty. "While we are looking ahead, we have always said, let's get through The Face on the Barroom Floor and then we'll figure out what is next."
And the Marble City will be eagerly waiting.