Operatic music has long been performed on stages throughout Tennessee, although the establishment of permanent local opera companies is a far more recent trend. Famous stars and opera companies of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries often presented performances in the state’s larger cities. In 1851 Jenny Lind appeared in both Nashville and Memphis, and Adelina Patti gave her first Nashville concert in 1859. By the late nineteenth century, opera lovers in Memphis flocked to performances at the Memphis Grand Opera House, constructed in 1890. The Metropolitan Opera of New York City staged Bizet’s Carmen in Memphis and Nashville in 1901. Enrico Caruso, the Met’s primary star, gave a recital at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 1919.
Tennessee, in fact, has a direct connection to the Met’s tradition of traveling companies through the career of Francis Robinson (1910-1980), who was born in Kentucky but grew up in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. A graduate of Vanderbilt University, Robinson worked for the Nashville Banner and then WSM Radio in the 1930s before accepting a position at the Metropolitan Opera, where he became the manager of its national and international tours. Later advancing to Impresario of the company, Robinson received an honorary doctorate from Princeton University and the Italian Order of Merit. He also served on the Board of Trustees for Vanderbilt University. At the end of his career, Robinson donated his papers and Met Opera memorabilia to Vanderbilt’s Heard Library, where the collection is a major reference source for opera scholars.
Current Tennessee-based opera companies date to the second half of the twentieth century. The Chattanooga Opera was the first, established in 1942. It merged in 1985 with the Chattanooga Symphony, creating the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera Association, the only such combined organization in the country. Memphis hosted regular summer performances of the Metropolitan Opera. Opera Memphis, founded in 1955, grew out of those experiences. It has included such stars as Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, and Memphis-born Kallen Esperian in its productions. In 1976 the Knoxville Civic Opera Company was incorporated. Its first performance in 1978 of Verdi’s La Traviata featured Knoxville native Mary Costa. In 1983 the company moved to the Tennessee Theater on Gay Street and changed its name to the Knoxville Opera Company. In 1981 the Nashville Opera was created; it performs at the Jackson Theater and the Polk Theater of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. Since the mid-1990s Nashville Opera has dramatically expanded its number of performances, increased its attendance, and improved its productions. Its educational tour, OperaNet, performed in over thirty local schools in 1996, introducing a new generation to the drama, comedy, and music of opera.
Several Tennessee natives have achieved fame in the international world of opera. Roland Hayes of Chattanooga was a major international star in the early to mid-twentieth century and a mentor to other significant talents such as Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Grace Moore, from Jellico, made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1928 and followed that success with performances at most of the major opera houses in the world in a long and distinguished career. More recently, Elizabeth Carter of Nashville has performed with the Met, Covent Garden in London, and the Vienna Staatsoper in Salzburg as well as other international opera companies. Kallen Esperian of Memphis also has enjoyed a successful international career; she won the Pavarotti Opera Company of Philadelphia International Voice Competition in 1986.
The most impressive recent opera star to be born in Tennessee is Nashville native Dawn Upshaw, now recognized as one of the major performing and recording sopranos in all of opera. Awarded prizes from the Naumburg Foundation and Young Concert Artists, Upshaw was invited to join the Metropolitan Opera Studio a year before she made her critically successful debut at the Met in 1985. Since that time, Upshaw has sung with the major international opera companies and as a soloist in concert with many leading symphony orchestras.