This weekends's extraordinary production of Tosca by the Knoxville Opera may be an operatic event of a lifetime, but you can also look at it as an interesting tour of Knoxville architecture, some of which already has interesting associations with classical music. Giacomo Puccini's classic 1900 tale of love and vengeance came out at a time when Staub's Opera House still stood on Gay Street, where Plaza Tower is now, and arias from the opera were sometimes performed as parts of singing presentations, especially by sopranos and tenors.
Church Street United Methodist Church is located, for reasons members can tell you, at the corner of Henley Street and Cumberland Avenue, and is probably Knoxville's most famous church, as a building. Its designers were the then-young Charles Barber (1887-1962), original partner in Barber McMurry, the local architectural firm that last year celebrated its centennial, in consultation with John Russell Pope (1874-1937), who is the most famous architect who ever worked in Knoxville--though at the time he worked here, his most celebrated works, the National Gallery of Art and the Jefferson Memorial were still in the future. Several years before he worked on Church Street, he had designed the Dulin house on Kingston Pike, which later served as an art gallery.
It's hard to talk about the church's construction without mentioning that it's associated with a tragedy that sounds like something out of Tosca. In 1930, as construction was underway, the foreman, surprised by a man with a gun on site, was shot to death. Newspaper readers soon learned that it was an act of romantic vengeance, reflecting a years-old love triangle.
Completed in 1931, Church Street Methodist was only four years old when it played a momentous role in Knoxville's cultural history. In 1935, the same room used for this weekend's opera performance witnessed the very first performance of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of its founder Bertha Roth Walburn Clark (1882-1972), who had been leading her "little symphony" in other locations like the Farragut Hotel for years before. That night in November, 1935, though, young pianist Evelyn Miller performed a Mozart concerto with a full orchestra. Thanks to that early performance, the KSO is arguably the South's oldest continuously operating symphony orchestra.
The second act of Tosca will be at the Knoxville Convention Center. Designed by McCarty Holsaple McCarty, and built partly with Tennessee marble, the big modernist, or postmodernist building was finished in 2002, 20 years after the 1982 World's Fair. The half-million-square-foot building is still working on its history, but may be best known outside of Knoxville as the site of a PBS's "Antiques Roadshow" in 2013.
The dramatic Act III of Tosca will be at the World's Fair Park Amphitheater, which also has an association with the McCarty firm, but it's one of Knoxville's most famous modernist buildings for its association with the German engineer Horst Berger, who helped design it for the 1982 World's Fair. Berger, born in 1928, later became famous for using similar designs in major construction projects around the world, including airports. The late Bruce McCarty later played a major role in saving and preserving the Knoxville structure.
Originally known as the Tennessee Amphitheater, and a little less formally as Dolly's Bra, the venue hosted lots of big crowd-pleasers during the big fair, especially the musical "Sing Tennessee," which was performed every day of the fair, but also hosted some classical performances of note, including the Warsaw Philharmonic, who performed a Rachmaninoff symphony. It was a particularly emotional performance, because Poland, still under Soviet domination, was then the setting of an inspiring new Solidarity movement. During the Warsaw Philharmonic's performance at the World's Fair, some young people in the amphitheater held up a Solidarity banner, to which the orchestra responded with approving taps of their bows.This was years before Knoxville erected a bronze statue of Rachmaninoff just to the southwest of the amphitheater. It's an homage to the great Russian composer and pianists's final concert, which happened to take place in Knoxville, at UT's Alumni Hall, in 1943. Be sure to pay homage between acts.