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July 26, 2014

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Knoxville Opera’s Rossini Festival – il Gusto d’Italia!

Large crowd gathers for the festival.

I once spent three weeks in Italy with only a pocket phrase book for company. My Italian vocabulary consisted almost entirely of the following: vino de la casa, acqua non gassata and insalata mista. Everything else I said with my hands, channeling my inner Italian, which has no business swimming in my Scots/Irish gene pool. But what can I say? I’m passionate; I love to eat, and I love opera!

Rossini goers crowding Gay Street.

So the idea of an Italian Street Fair taking place in downtown Knoxville is molto piacevole to me. The Rossini Festival is Knoxville Opera’s gift to the community: a celebratory weekend of Italian food, cultural arts, entertainment and that most vibrant of art forms – opera – all in the name of a 19th century Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini, who wrote 39 operas, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville).

Vendors serve up all kinds of goodies on Gay Street.

In her wildly popular novel, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert rediscovers herself in Italy. All I discovered when I was there were stray cats under the trattoria tables. But I did fall instantly in love with the extraordinary art and architecture, the charming people and the glorious food …

So a weekend filled with opera and pasta and festive goings-on is more than un poco attraente!

Now in its ninth year, the Rossini Festival draws tens of thousands of people to the heart of Knoxville. This year’s Italian Street Fair promises to be even more enticing with a “Little Italy” conjured straight out of Maestro Brian Salesky’s childhood memories from Lower Manhattan. As a boy, Salesky was enthralled by the Feast of San Gennaro, which still attracts more than a million people from the four corners of the globe to participate in this annual salute to the patron saint of Naples. In Salesky’s sensory memory, Little Italy was a block and a half of sausage, peppers & onions and sweet cannoli with powdered sugar. Salesky admits it’s a romantic notion of his to put all the Italian food vendors and artisans as well as the opera stage in one block of downtown Knoxville between Clinch and Union. “Oh, but the wonderment of it,” he says with a gleam in his eye. “Just look for the red, green and white tents – the colors of the Italian flag!”

The Italian Street Fair takes place Saturday, April 24 from noon to 9:00 p.m. on Gay Street and Market Square. The event features 170 unique food vendors and artisans, as well as four outdoor stages showcasing ballet, modern and ethnic dance, choirs and jazz – and, of course, opera. “There’ll be 36 hours of entertainment packed into nine hours,” Salesky says.

The prestazioni stellari of the weekend are the bookend performances of Rossini’s classic opera buffo, The Barber of Seville, at the Tennessee Theatre on Friday, April 23 at 8:00 p.m. and Sunday, April 25 at 2:30 p.m. The opera achieved cult status in a 1949 Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny – The Rabbit of Seville focused primarily on Rossini’s overture, keeping it virtually intact. You should be humming to yourself by now. Remember Elmer Fudd in the barber chair getting a scalp massage? Priceless!

Salesky says the libretto of The Barber of Seville is hilarious, as clever as Gilbert & Sullivan’s work. Mezzo soprano Leah Wood plays Rosina with perfect comedic timing. Superb Metropolitan Opera bass Kevin Burdette returns to his Knoxville home for the first time in five years. In fact, the principals of this Knoxville Opera production are all veterans, including three UT graduates, so expect hijinks and high notes!

The cast of The Barber of Seville will perform on the open-air opera stage intermittently throughout Saturday’s Italian Street Fair. The UT Opera Theatre will preview its production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Paulus’ The Village Singer as well. The University of Arkansas at Monticello will showcase highlights from Pirates of Penzance. And, for dessert at this day-long operatic banquet, Knoxville Opera Gospel Choir will sing favorite songs from its inaugural cross-genre concert.

Knoxville Opera’s Rossini Festival will be an authentic slice of Italy with traditional food and a veritable feast of entertainment for an expected 70,000 revelers. Seating is limited for The Barber of Seville, and both performances are expected to sell out in advance. For details go to KnoxvilleOpera.com or call 865.524.0795. No reservations are necessary for the Italian Street Fair, which is FREE – gratuito!

“This is such a uniquely entertaining event; you have to embrace some portion of it,” says Salesky. “Anything this delicious deserves at least a taste, il gusto …”

Viva Rossini!

Knoxville Opera is a client of Laura Bower PR

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