gamut (2006-14)

ABDOMINAL DIVAS: As improbable as it may seem, bellydancing has been one of the Italian Street Fair’s popular attractions.

HEIR TO A FESTIVAL: Maestro Brian Salesky with opera star Catherine Malfitano last October at the Tennessee Theatre.

This Saturday, thousands all over the city will put off spring cleaning and digging the vegetable garden for another week, and do something that would have been unexplainable or even perverse on an April Saturday afternoon 10 or 20 years ago. They’ll come downtown.

Of all the festivals held in the city each year, Rossini may be the most obviously successful, even if you don’t believe the Knoxville Opera’s official estimates (if there weren’t “65,000” people at the Italian Street Fair on Gay Street last year, there were a whole, whole lot). This weekend, they’re shooting for a Neylandish crowd of 80,000.

The reasons it has been successful may seem elusive. Only a tiny minority of those who attend the Rossini Festival are operagoers; those with any strong Italian heritage may be rarer still. But it works. Go figure. Throw a bluegrass festival in Knoxville, and if a couple hundred people show up, it may seem like a pretty good crowd. Throw a public party for a national-championship football team, as UT did a few years ago, and you may get a couple thousand.

What really gets Knoxvillians to drop everything by the tens of thousands and come downtown is this homage to Gioacchino Rossini, the 19th-century Italian composer of operas. He has no direct connection to Knoxville that we know of, probably never heard of the place. But we seem to love the guy—or, more specifically, we love what we do when his name’s on banners up and down Gay Street.

This weekend’s Rossini Festival will be bigger than ever in its history—a much bigger space, and longer hours. There will be five performance stages featuring everything from barbershop to jazz, and more than 45 food vendors, with a strong concentration on the Italian.

The festival also features wine and beer. The word Rossini —or maybe it’s just the word opera —may weed out those who would make the availability of alcoholic beverages a problem; there are few church-busloads of suspicious Baptist ladies who are attracted to a Rossini Festival on the one hand, and few jeeploads of rowdy frat boys on the other. That in itself—alcohol, but in a civilized setting—may be one of the festival’s secrets. It’s a rare Knoxville festival in which tottery octogenarians and rambunctious kids seem equally comfortable. Rossini seems to have hit the golden mean for a Knoxville festival.

This year, in response to some complaints last year, all of the wine sold at the Italian Street Fair will be Italian. Bob’s Package Store will host a wine tasting with a series of Italian wines, including chiantis.

But a couple of things will be missing: one is former Knoxville Opera director Frank Graffeo, whose idea the whole thing was just four years ago. Graffeo, the energetic conductor both adored and resented for his extravagances, left the opera company just after last year’s festival, leaving a cash-strapped opera and the legacy of an unusual festival to the new guy, Knoxville Opera general manager Brian Salesky.

Opera conductors are used to coordinating a lot of things: orchestra, singing, choreography, and most importantly of all, budget. Salesky is in the awkward position of directing a Rossini Festival without ever having attended one. Raised in Queens, Salesky had spent most of his life and career in New York when he was recruited last May to take the reins of the Knoxville Opera. (They’re no longer the KOC, by the way—they now go by the decisive-sounding KO.)

Salesky is an unpretentious guy who doesn’t casually tolerate the title maestro . A stocky fellow with a thick, almost vertical hedge of black hair, he’s 54, but could pass for younger. The Juilliard-trained conductor has led operas all over the world; for a six-year stint he was resident conductor of the New York City Opera.

Whatever drew Salesky to Knoxville, it wasn’t the accommodations. Tucked away in an old warehouse on East Depot, a few blocks east of the Old City, in a grim part of town most folks don’t know exists, the opera-company office is surrounded by parts shops and rubble, with only the New Knoxville Brewery to cheer things up. A railroad track runs right behind. “We get 10 to 15 trains a day,” says Salesky with a game smile, and maybe something of the bohemian elan you used to hear from musicians who lived in attics in Greenwich Village. “And they tend to blow their horns.”

The opera’s office is now more remote than ever. Its part of Depot is cut adrift by the mysteriously massive interstate expansion project. The only way to get there is by a fishhook maneuver from East Jackson, and that’s if there’s not a freight blocking your path.

He came to town as a guest conductor once before, back in 1999; otherwise he’s just learning his way around, and he admits his familiarity with the city’s charms beyond the rubble of East Depot is scant. “I live in this room,” he says of the office. “I don’t have any time for myself, for anything. I shouldn’t, but I pulled an all-nighter the other night.”

In all his operatic experience, Salesky has never run a festival, and says it’s very unusual for an opera company to mount a big street fair. “It’s an awesome responsibility to run a festival of that size,” he says, “with that many people involved, with a staff as tiny as ours is.” That’s four to five, depending on when you drop by. “We’re tremendously dependent on the volunteers here. Without hundreds of volunteers, this thing couldn’t happen at all.”

The purpose of the festival, he says, is to raise money for the opera. Among the performing arts, opera is unusual in its demand for funding far beyond ticket sales. Operas are so expensive to mount that even sold-out shows, which aren’t unusual for the KO, tend to lose money. The opera has to raise hundreds of thousands through private appeals and events like the Opera Ball and, especially, the Rossini Festival.

“I know I’m going to lose money” during any operatic season, Salesky says. “When it comes to something huge, like a festival, it has to make money.

“Up until now, the Rossini Festival was profitable to the public. As it’s been described to me, the best free party Knoxville has every year. It’s still a free-admission event. But it’s a fundraiser for the opera company, not just a free party. My goal is to make sure the Rossini Festival is profitable both to the public and to the opera company.”

He has some anxiety about April showers. “Mother Nature is a major partner,” he says. “If Mother Nature doesn’t ante up, all plans are in trouble.” Still, even if only 5,000 people show up, he’s confident that at worst, the Knoxville Opera will break even.

Part of his confidence, he says, will come through the generosity of sponsors. Corporate donors like U.S. Cellular, Motorola, and Pilot Corp. seem mentioned more prominently in promotional literature than in the past. Tom Catani, regional vice president of U.S. Cellular, is serving as official chairman of the Rossini Festival.

“We made some slight adjustments in who was going to sell what,” says Salesky. In past years, Gay Street was so crowded it was hard to walk through, and the end of the festival at 8 p.m. often seemed abrupt. “We’re going over to Market Square as well, and we’ve expanded it two hours; it’s the longest and the largest we’ve ever had.” In the past, Rossini has typically covered five blocks of Gay Street; this time, counting Market Square, it will cover nine, plus Krutch Park, which will have an unusual feature that adds an unexpected twist to the Italian theme that even Signor Rossini would have considered antique: Roman Encampments. A group of Roman-soldier reenactors with one or more horses will demonstrate Roman ways and, every now and then, conquer and reconquer the festival with martial parades down Gay Street.

Conspicuous in his absence, though, is a major participation by Signor Rossini himself. No Rossini operas will be performed at the Rossini Festival. In fact, there won’t be an opera, strictly speaking; instead, the main show at the Tennessee will be The Most Happy Fella , a ‘50s Broadway musical by Frank Loesser, famous for its signature aria, “Standin’ On the Corner (Watchin’ All the Girls Go By).” Knoxville Opera is officially producing the show, but it will be conducted and performed by UT Opera Theatre.

To some longtime opera supporters, the substitution of a familiar Broadway show for Italian opera was dismaying, if not a little insulting—as if Knoxville Opera, giving up on interesting Tennesseans in real opera, was condescending to the unwashed masses with a rootin’ tootin’ musical. It may not be as bad as all that.

This year, there are two subtexts. One is that, though things have improved somewhat, the KO was deeply in debt when they were planning the season, and perhaps happy to find reasons not to mount another opera.

The other is the logistical reality that to do two operas the same weekend, you need two theaters. The Bijou, which has accommodated Italian operas in the past as part of the Rossini Festival, is still closed for renovation, due to reopen in early May. The UT Opera, which has participated in the Rossini Festival in the past, sometimes by producing Rossini operas, was already planning The Most Happy Fella .

“With only one theater to perform in, you can only perform one thing,” says Salesky. “I had to move Most Happy Fella to the Tennessee.” He adds, with a perfectly straight face: “Joyfully so—this is the perfect piece to perform at this festival.”

Salesky holds that because the California-based musical has an Italian theme, and the large show, with a cast of 36, has operatic aspects. “It requires of certain characters an operatic voice,” he says. “Certain other characters require what we call belting.” He says such a contrast might be a struggle for European singers, but American professionals are more “flexible.”

Salesky says Most Happy Fella has been performed by opera companies for many years. “As soon as it left Broadway, opera companies started to do it.” For the record, the same musical was also performed this spring by the New York City Opera.

For its first four years, the Rossini Festival maintained a focus on the life and times of Rossini and his 19th-century Italian contemporaries like Donizetti; even most of the entertainment on Gay Street was said to reflect the settings and stories of the operas being performed in the theaters.

Can you have a Rossini Festival with no Rossini? Well, Salesky says there will be a little bit of Gioacchino’s spirit peeking through here and there. “Sposalizio!” the dinner and concert at the Tennessee Friday night opens with an orchestral performance of part of the famous William Tell Overture, as well as a song, “L’invito”, from Rossini’s Serate Musicali . Among several Passover-oriented classical pieces performed at Temple Beth El on Sunday afternoon, there will be an excerpt from from Rossini’s Moses . And at the street fair, Rossini pieces will be mixed within the pieces sung in front of the Tennessee Theatre.

However, Salesky seems skeptical about letting Rossini dominate the Rossini Festival now and in future years. Rossini wrote dozens of operas, but all but one or two are obscure to most Americans. “Would we not run out of interest in The Barber of Seville ? Can we afford to restrict our diet to Rossini? How is it that in Knoxville, Tennessee, we’re limited to 50 percent or 25 percent Rossini every year?”

He admits he’s surprised that there’s been some negative reaction to his choice to soft-pedal Rossini this year. “If we do Rossini every year, will you buy the unsold tickets?”

“We could do William Tell . Everybody knows the end of the overture. But do they know it’s a five-hour opera with five acts? People might hear about that, and say, ‘I’m not sure I want to go to the opera.’”

“I in no way mean to suggest I don’t like Rossini,” he adds. “I’m a huge Rossini fan. I conducted Cenerentola on TV.” He’s referring to his turn with the baton on a Live From Lincoln Center performance of Rossini’s famous version of the Cinderella story.

Salesky has high hopes for the future of the festival and calls it the Rossini Festival even when he talks speculatively about its distant future, when he hopes the Rossini Festival will feature 20, 40, or even 60 events. “A lot of groups, in time, will take advantage of the Rossini Festival.

“However the original vision was conceived, we need to be flexible to grow,” he says. “I don’t know how long I will be here, but I would hope that in year 10, it will be much larger.” He refers to Graffeo respectfully, but says he’s not in touch with the former maestro, whose photo still adorns several pages of the KO’s website. Graffeo now directs a music school in Knoxville.

“Things were in such disarray, my learning curve was massive. I have a wealth of experience in this industry, but I don’t have a wealth of experience in Knoxville, Tennessee. They asked me to create a season very, very quickly. We did what we could under the circumstances. With very little funds, we’ve been able to accomplish the execution of an excellent entire season. Was it perfect? No. There’s no such thing as perfect. The arts are not sciences. They’re arts.”

Salesky says the festival is still unique. “In this country, it’s got to be,” he says. “You and I don’t know any opera company that’s producing a street fair.”

But it’s hard to deny there’s something lost. Knoxvillians, like most Americans, may know Rossini chiefly for his associations with the Lone Ranger and Bugs Bunny. It may have been that very oddity, the fact that a mid-sized city in the Southern Appalachians should host a festival celebrating a 19th-century Italian who wrote about German patriots and Spanish barbers that accounts for the Rossini Festival’s astonishing appeal.

Salesky sees it developing as an all-purpose festival of all the performing arts, but the Knoxville Opera’s website still boasts that it’s “the only annual Rossini festival in the Americas.” There’s a big one in Rossini’s birthplace of Pesaro in Italy, which features lots of Rossini operas, and at least occasionally one in Johannesburg. But type “Rossini Festival” on Google and most of what comes up first is about the one in Knoxville.

 During that weekend, Knoxville wasn’t just another city with an arts festival; it was the only city in America with a Rossini Festival.

But maybe most of those who attend this weekend will appraise the Rossini Festival not on its 19th-century Italian or operatic authenticity, but on whether it’s as fun as last year’s was.