Midtown Opera Festival pushes boundaries

Rappers, modern dancers and aerialist performers upended expectations at the 5th annual Midtown Opera Festival, the latest effort made by longstanding Opera Memphis to redefine its art form as both approachable and innovative.

The ten-day event, which took place in Midtown’s theater district, offered short contemporary operas and ground-breaking experiments by mixing traditional elements with dance, hip hop and even cabaret performers.

The festival featured three short operas by living American composers: John Musto’s Later the Same Evening, Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, and Hilliard & Boresi’s Blue Viola as well as Scheonberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire and a workshop of a newly-commissioned hip-hop opera dubbed RiverKings at the Opera.

Michael Sakir, an out-of-town conductor who directed Blue Viola and Three Decembers, says that he appreciates the importance Midtown Opera Festival places on accessibility to opera.

“(Opera Memphis General Director) Ned Canty ascribes to the belief that the measure of a community’s arts is not only quality, but more importantly accessibility to that art,” Sakir said.

“The festival brings this art form back to the center of town, literally, in a well-known performance space and provides the opportunity for the company to push the boundaries of the art form and combine genres.”

The festival is not the only example of Opera Memphis’ initiative to change outdated and elitist misconceptions of the art and bring it into the center of the city. 

Every day in September, 30 Days of Opera offers free public performances across the city. Sakir, who has also directed shows for 30 Days, calls it “a phenomenal example of the Memphis philosophy.” 

This philosophy shone through the selected works, whose subject matter is widely-relatable. Blue Viola, which Sakir described as “Strauss meets Memphis blues on the Southside of Chicago” explores the power of money and who and what people will sacrifice to get it when two low-wage Chicagoans find a viola that might be worth a large sum of money.

The second week performances started with RiverKings at the Opera, an experimental performance for a work-in-progress that melds hip hop and opera featuring local rappers Marco Pavé and Alfred Banks. The deeply personal performances explored trauma, poverty, social justice, and the past and present of racism in Memphis.

“It’s important that Memphians have easy ways for anyone to get to see main stage productions. All of the operas are under an hour and a half and just as compelling as any movie,” Sakir said.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by J. Dylan Sandifer.

J. Dylan Sandifer is a freelance writer living in Memphis since 2008. They have also contributed writing and research for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, VICE News, and Choose901.