Marble City Opera Gets in the Holiday Spirit With 'The Gift of the Magi'

If there is one month in the year that is defined by our memories and experiences of music, color, sights, sounds, activities, and emotions, it is December. That makes it all the more strange that Knoxville’s own classical- and new-music scene—at least in the last 10 years—has strangely drifted into the doldrums during December. Other than the expected church pageants, the Knoxville Symphony’s holiday concerts, and a Nutcracker here and there, the number of public music events drop off precipitously—no choral masterpieces, no orchestral or chamber music, no opera. Why this should be the case in Knoxville while other cities take advantage of a music-filled holiday atmosphere is a bit hard to fathom. One could certainly speculate that a misinterpreted lack of interest, coupled with an overly cautious business attitude, is to blame, despite ample evidence that notable music events do very well in December when properly marketed.

Although the midwinter music scene may currently feel a bit bleak, the situation is certainly correctable, as opportunities abound for organizations willing to seize them. This weekend, one of Knoxville’s newest music organizations, Marble City Opera, is doing just that, jumping into the festive season with David Conte’s chamber opera The Gift of the Magi in three performances at Remedy Coffee in the Old City. You may remember that Marble City Opera began life last May with The Face on the Barroom Floor, assigning themselves the task of performing smaller, more intimate works with Knoxville’s impressive roster of local opera talent.

The Gift of the Magi is based on the familiar O. Henry short story of the same name, originally published in 1905 in The New York Sunday World and a year later in the author’s anthology The Four Million. The story involves a poor city couple, Jim and Della, on Christmas Eve; they each sell their one valuable possession to buy a gift for the other, in a depiction of true selfless love. In typical O. Henry fashion, though, an ironic twist makes the conclusion all the more poignant.

The story has been adapted numerous times over the years by filmmakers and was the subject of a 1984 Off Broadway musical version. Conte and his librettist, Nicholas Giardini, created their one-act opera in 1997 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, with the orchestral version premiering in December 2000.

While the Remedy Coffee location is not a typical venue for drama, Marble City Opera sees the charm of brick walls and warm wood as a special advantage. “We have this incredible opportunity to relinquish some of the control we would cling to in a traditional theater space,” explains stage director Corrine Hayes. “And having some of the outside noise filtering in, it’s almost as if we have transported this whole thing into a New York tenement building. … We’re looking to create a real immersive experience for the audience, shamelessly destroying the fourth wall.”

Musically, Conte’s score is quite lyrical and tonal, albeit in a fresh, contemporary sense that scrupulously avoids commercial clichés or religious overtones. “You don’t often get a Christmas piece that is quite so universal,” says Kathryn Frady Marvel, Marble City Opera’s artistic director. “Everyone can relate to these characters.”

Musical references abound, it seems. “We’ve all had these Puccini moments listening to the piece,” Marvel admits. “Then it kicks into an almost jazzy feel that could almost be early Sondheim or Bernstein. … It’s delightful, but never overwhelming.”

Conducting the 14-player instrumental ensemble will be Rachel Grubb, a face familiar to University of Tennessee School of Music audiences. Grubb is currently pursuing an artist’s diploma in violin performance at the University of Tennessee, having previously earned her master’s degree in orchestral conducting at Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree from UT.

In the cast, Marvel will be singing the role of Della, with baritone Scott Beasley singing Jim. Conte and Giardini added two additional roles—Jim and Della’s best friends, Maggie and Henry—to their opera. Those roles will be sung by Sarah Fitch and Brandon Gibson, respectively. The Magi will be sung by Ryan Olson, Zeke Varajon, and Breyon Ewing.

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