Marble City Opera creates significant theater in ‘I Can’t Breathe’ – Knoxville Arts

BY ALAN SHERROD

IIt would be impossible to find a topic more relevant to contemporary theater than that found in Marble City Opera’s production of I can not breathe, a new opera which received its world premiere on Thursday evening at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center. Fueled by this relevance, the production had been highly anticipated in Knoxville, so much so that its first three performances sold out more than a week in advance. With a musical score by Leslie Savoy Burrs and a libretto by MCO CEO Brandon J. Gibson, the opera explores through vignettes the lives and tragedy of six generic fictional characters, characters that suggest and symbolize participants in the tragic real life events. of police conduct gone horribly wrong — incidents that should have otherwise been an innocent interaction between law enforcement and African Americans… or no interaction at all. Marble City Opera has commissioned the work, joined in the commission by a consortium of three other opera companies – Pacific Opera Project, Opera Columbus and Cleveland Opera Theater – who will stage their own productions of I can not breathe in the future.

Mr Gibson’s poetic libretto discusses the six individuals – known only as ‘The Mother’, ‘The Athlete’, ‘The Rogue’, ‘The Scholar’, ‘The Father’ and ‘The Lover’ – revealing the details of the good, the bad, and the mundane everyday things that define the characters’ lives and make them relatable. Each character revealed, however, comes to an abrupt end as a fatal encounter with the police, an encounter so pointless it defies logic and cries out with the eternal question: Why?

In addition to Gibson, this MCO production brought in a number of current and former Knoxvillians. Conductor of the 10-member ensemble is Garrett McQueen, the former KSO bassoonist and WUOT radio host, who moved to the Twin Cities area and currently hosts a number of radio shows, as well than a weekly podcast, TRILLOQUY. The director is Jonathan Clark, Executive/Artistic Director of Carpetbag Theatre, Inc. Knoxvillian Brandon Coffer is MCO’s Music Director and Keyboardist.

Burrs’ score is, at once, a curious stylistic blend of contemporary jazz flavors and complex jazz rhythms, with hints of gospel and pop effervescence thrown into this flirtation with atonality before returning to earth in the framework of the energetic contemporary lyricism of the composer. Discovering that one side of Burrs’ career involved virtuoso jazz and classical flute – and probably copious amounts of improvisation – says a lot about what the listener hears in this work. Admittedly, the score has moments of episodic indecision. As the work’s characteristic instrumental density expands and contracts appealingly, the dynamics at times suggest emotions that seem absent from the stage image. In the neighborhoods near the non-theatrical venue of the Beck Center, with its acoustically hard and reflective concrete floor and walls, this instrumental density was sometimes able to build and overwhelm all but the most powerful singers. A well-sung choral passage in the finale involving the entire cast plus additional backing vocals, however, underscored the work’s important premise with a well-harmonized rush of emotion.

Soprano Jayme Alilaw, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ – Photo: Marble City Opera

In Jonathan Clark’s staging, the six singer-characters represented a cross section of life and life’s stakes, just like the real-life characters they resembled. In “The Mother,” soprano Jayme Alilaw brought crisp diction and a wonderfully lyrical voice to her character: a mother who reflects on the defining events of her life as she is busy folding the family laundry, only to receive the always dreaded phone call. Tenor Breyon Ewing was “The Athlete”, a swaggering Everyman coming from a game with a soda and snacks in his pocket. Powerful bass-baritone Jacob Lay was “The Thug,” a guy challenged by his past and lack of early parental support. Tenor Benjamin Burney was “The Scholar”, a new owner carrying boxes to his new home. Baritone Maurice Hendricks was ‘The Father’ packing the family car for a two-day trip with his young daughter and his ‘The Lover’ sung by mezzo-soprano Laura Thomason, who has to deal with the consequences – anger and feelings helpless with guilt. The three chorus members, Michelle Clayton, Robyn Maker, Teyah Young, plus Avery Clayton as “The Child” rounded out the cast.

Marble City Opera House I can not breathe is an important, if not essential, opera commentary in the ongoing discussion of what policing is, and should be, in the United States today. Arriving with an admittedly long running time of more than three hours, including intermission, it demands an audience, not only for its time, but also for its heart, spirit and involvement. It will be interesting to follow the progress of the work as the other sponsoring opera companies put their own stamp on it.

Although the final performance of I can not breathe is sold out, tickets for a streaming version viewable all weekend are available here.

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