Knoxville's Dry Season for Classical Music

“School’s Out” was a big hit for Alice Cooper in 1972, and has since become an iconic statement of euphoria for a summer with little to offer except a few mindless pleasures. Unfortunately, though, the song’s anthemic refrain—“School’s out for summer”—has also become something of a metaphor for Knoxville’s own classical, post-classical, opera, and music theater scene, which in recent years has mostly evaporated with the last concerts of May, leaving area music professionals, music and theater students, and local audiences with little to do or experience until the fall rolls around. For a city the size of Knoxville that contains exceptional music organizations and educational institutions, the dearth of summer music seems a little odd, a little wasteful, and more than a little disappointing.

It hasn’t always been quite so bleak. Knoxville Opera often offered a July production until 2000. The University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown and Carousel theatres have historically had summer seasons. In the 1960s, UT inherited a 2,500-seat outdoor amphitheater outside of Gatlinburg that had originally been constructed for the historical drama Chucky Jack, based on the life of John Sevier. Operated through 1977 mostly under the auspices of the UT theater department, Hunter Hills Theatre offered a repertory schedule of musicals and plays from June to September as both an entertainment draw for summer tourists and as a professional training ground for music and theater students. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I confess I was one of those lucky students for a number of seasons.)

In general, the success of summer programs seems to have more to do with good ideas and organizational willingness and perseverance than it does with geography or population. The recent summer issue of Listen magazine listed 150 or so summer music festivals, summer opera and musical theater travel destinations, and urban music series scattered about the United States. Among these—and certainly notable for their longevity and diversity of programs—are Santa Fe Opera, Central City Opera in Colorado, Mostly Mozart and the Caramoor Festival in the New York City area, Tanglewood in the Berkshires, Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene, Ore. Closer to home, the small, quaint town of Brevard, N.C., hosts the Brevard Music Center, a well-respected summer training institute and music festival. Sadly, though, none of the 150 on the list were in the state of Tennessee.

When asked directly, almost everyone responds that Knoxville needs summer music events of some kind. Unfortunately, few are able or willing to dive into the deep end of programming logistics, funding, and marketing that is required to get a program going. There have been a number of enthusiastic efforts, however, mostly on the training side. The 2011 Oak Ridge Summer Conservatory, under the auspices of the Oak Ridge Youth Symphony Orchestras, opens on July 11 and offers pre-college music students a week’s worth of specialized training.

In Knoxville, the UT Summer Opera Workshop has just completed its two weeks of operation, in which 17 UT music students, running the gamut of age and stage experience, tackled leading roles in six operatic scenes, culminating in a performance last weekend. Performers ranged from first-year undergrads to seasoned second-year graduate students such as Ryland Pope, Seth Maples, and Maria Natale, who have all performed roles with UT Opera Theatre and Knoxville Opera and are beginning professional careers. Andrew Wentzel, the coordinator of the voice area of the UT School of Music, offered his hope that this could be the exciting beginning of an ongoing program. Given the truly impressive levels of theatrical stage presence exhibited by the workshop participants, I fully concur with his optimism.

Clearly, a summer music series or festival could have substantial business and public relations benefits for the city itself, as well as to performers and their audiences. The models of financially successful and popular programs—the combined professional/apprentice program of Santa Fe Opera, the small-town charm of the Glimmerglass Opera or Brevard Music Festival, the celebrity-driven L.A. Philharmonic program at the Hollywood Bowl, or the international diversity of the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, N.Y.—offer tantalizing examples of what could be if we decide to add a little music to our summer lives once again.

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