On April 28 and 30, Knoxville Opera will present Mary, Queen of Scots, the 1835 opera by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti. It’s also known by its original title, in Italian, Maria Stuarda. To modern folks, it might seem surprising to see an Italian take on a Scottish story. These days, most American plays, most American movies are about Americans. It’s the same for Italy and most countries. In the 19th century, though, it was common, even expected, to jump boundaries of nation and language to tell another culture’s story in your own culture’s idiom. In fact, Maria Stuarda is an Italian composer’s version of a Scottish story, based on German writer Friedrich Schiller’s German-language play Maria Stuart

Even Mary Stuart herself was international; although she’s considered one of the most iconic Scots of all time, she grew up in France, and learned English only as a second language. 

According to the Knoxville Opera, this will be the Tennessee premiere of Donizetti’s opera about Mary Stuart. It came out in Europe when Davy Crockett was still in Congress, and has a subject matter of special interest to folks of Scottish descent. But somehow it has never been produced in Tennessee before. 

However, you might have to be pretty old to remember, her story has been told in the Tennessee Theatre before. In fact, the classic battle of wills between cousins Mary and Queen Elizabeth was the basic story of the first full production of a Broadway play ever shown at the Tennessee Theater. It was on March 28, 1935, a production of the Broadway hit Mary of Scotland. It was a touring show, but featured much of the original Broadway cast, just a few months after the original run closed. Among them were well-known actors Phillip Merivale, Pauline Frederick, and Helen Hayes herself in the title role. Already a big star of both Broadway and Hollywood at the time (she’d won the Best Actress Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet), Miss Hayes was here just for the day, between trains, but expressed interest in walking around town and looking at old buildings. She was especially charmed by the old Dickinson-Atkin house on Main Street. Of course, we tore that one down a few years later. 

A near-sellout crowd turned out to see the show--more than 2,000 constituting what was reportedly the largest crowd that had ever seen a play in Knoxville. 

Hayes told reporters she found the size of the Tennessee intimidating; its stage is unusually wide, and the seating areas of most Broadway theaters are smaller. 

We hope that won’t be a problem for soprano Rochelle Bard, who’s playing the same character in a more musical version of the same story, 82 years later.