The Rossini Festival is next weekend, 10 years old now. In my experience with my home town and its festivals, Knoxville Opera's annual street fair was the first one that clicked on all cylinders: interesting food, good drink, diverse music, surprise, a real sense of occasion, and big, big, happy crowds.
For decades, earnest organizers had tried to reach Knoxville's elusive festival heart with annual events having to do with barbecue or bluegrass. We regarded them with puzzled skepticism. It took Giaochino Rossini to release our inner mirth.
In the decade since, other street fairs have approached Rossini in scale and variety. We are finally a festive city. I feel, therefore, some gratitude to Signor Rossini—who, except for the fact that he was born about the same time Knoxville was, had nothing to do with this city, or this particular nation, during his actual life. When he died in 1868, Knoxville was a town of about 8,000 that never heard any Rossini except when dowagers hosted a recital for their daughters to sing an aria or two. Somehow, more than a century later, Rossini played an unexpected role in changing Knoxville for the better.
This year, Knoxville let Rossini's birthday pass without commemoration. It's almost criminal, considering that it comes around only every four years or so. He was born on Feb. 29, 1792. He's 220 years old, though by my calculations, it was just his 53rd birthday, considering that 1800 and 1900 weren't leap years. I hope somebody here remembered, even if they didn't invite me. I like to believe there's a secret opera underworld that commemorates such occasions with chianti and candlelight.
The world's only other Rossini Festival is held yearly in Pesaro, Italy, a city on the Adriatic much smaller than Knoxville. It is indeed devoted specifically to the works of Rossini, and is known for promoting his lesser-known pieces. This August, they're putting on five Rossini operas, plus lots of other Rossiniana, about a dozen big musical events in all. But then, Signor Rossini put that city on the map, and endowed a major institution there. We can't expect that kind of devotion here.
But—should it bother us that most years, we host the biggest Rossini Festival in the Western Hemisphere without staging any actual Rossini opera? Rossini wrote a controversial opera called Otello, but the one we're putting on during the Rossini Festival is the much-later (and more famous) version by Verdi.
Rossini wrote some 39 operas. Our Rossini Festival has, in its entire decade-long history, staged just five of them—and in the last seven years, only one. If we hear any Rossini at this year's Rossini Festival, it'll have to be some stray arias during the street fair.
The assumption is that we Knoxvillians go for the familiar, famous stuff—and that we also get tired of it. The festival has already hosted Rossini's The Barber of Seville twice.
Opera's a high-stakes game. I lose perspective on anything much more expensive than lunch, so I'm not here to question assumptions of what operas operagoers will support. Me, I'd like to live in a city that produces operas so obscure that serious fans might cross state lines just for this one rare chance to see them. I've come to understand that I'm peculiar in some regards.
Still, it seems to me that to justify calling something a Rossini Festival, it requires some Rossini of some sort. If we really can't stand his operas, well, let's try his food.
He was once famous for it. After Rossini retired as a composer, at the age of 37, he was almost as famous as one of the world's great eaters. "I travel not so much for the sake of my music," he once remarked, "as for that of my stomach."
Well-known in all the best restaurants from Florence to Paris, Rossini befriended maitre d' and chef alike. He was the sort of fellow who loved festivals.
In a bin somewhere about five years ago, my wife found an uncorrected-proof copy of a book called Rogues, Writers, and Whores by Daniel Rogov. I'm not sure what she meant by getting it for me, but it's a historical cookbook highlighting dishes associated with interesting famous people. Rogov was an Israeli wine expert who died just last fall. His book includes a short chapter about our amico Gioachino. Rogov noted Rossini typified the "new, lighter mood" of Europe, ca. 1820, after the horrors of the Napoleonic wars.
His culinary tastes were as legendary as his arias, and Rossini loved nothing more than truffles. His favorite dish was turkey stuffed with truffles. Chefs would name dishes for him: Oeufs Rossini involves poached eggs with sliced goose liver, with a sauce made of Madeira and veal stock, and truffles.
More famous is a dish you may see on some menus, Tournedos Rossini. A tournedo is a prime slice of beef tenderloin, like filet mignon. Tournedos Rossini also involves goose liver, and, for fun, some port and cognac. And a rich and complex boeuf sauce. And, of course, some sliced truffles.
I've been meaning to try some Rossini recipes, looking for truffles all over. I made a scene last week. "And you call this Food City?" I said.
But you can find them hereabouts, if you know people. East Tennessee has gotten some national attention for cultivating American truffles, in Greene County, along the Nolichucky River. A New York Times article suggested that Dr. Tom Michaels' Tennessee truffles are the best truffles ever grown in America.
It occurred to me that truffles might become our heretofore elusive connection with Signor Rossini. Sure, they're $50 an ounce. But put them in a pushcart on Gay Street, and after a few plastic glasses of chianti, we'll be ordering them with mustard.
Just a suggestion, in time, I hope, to prepare for the festival. We can celebrate Rossini without having to stage The Barber of Seville again.