Childhood Memories of Knoxville

Sheffield’s music-making organisations have come up with some enterprising and worthwhile material to perform in this weekend’s Classical Sheffield Festival of Music.

None more so than Opera on Location at the Crucible Studio on Saturday evening when it performs two operas and a sort of song cycle, because of its mood swings, in 45 minutes – all complete!

The latter is Samuel Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a superbly atmospheric work he penned in 1947 to a text drawn from a prose piece by James Agee: a memoir of childhood written in the first person which he was moved to commit to paper in 1938.

The words fluctuate between a child and adult uttering them as a boy’s feelings of security and safety vacillate with those of fear and darkness, culminating in a prayer for the well-being of his family.

The piece is continuous and Barber’s music dresses the words beautifully. He described it as a lyric rhapsody and wrote the work to a commission from one of America’s greatest sopranos of the time Eleanor Steber.

It is invariably performed by a soprano, despite the words coming out of a boy’s mouth; but can, apparently, be sung by a tenor – although not come across one yet!

The work lasts 15 minutes, five more than Barber’s one-act opera from 1959, A Hand of Bridge!

A fairly straightforward affair – well, you can’t get too complicated in ten minutes! – it has four characters: a soprano, mezzo, tenor and baritone, as two unhappily married couples who meet for one of their regular bridge evenings.

As a game progresses, each person moves away from it to express their inner feelings in an arietta, Bill’s ending with his wife Sally exclaiming: The Queen, you have trumped the Queen!

A comedy with a dark side, the often-witty libretto was written by Barber’s long-time companion Gian Carlo Menotti, another composer, primarily of opera and shamelessly ignored.

Menotti completes the 45 minutes with another, better known one act opera, The Telephone, which premiered in 1947. It proved to be one of his more popular pieces and has an even more straightforward plot, although it lasts twice as long!

Ben arrives to propose to Lucy before leaving on a trip only to find her glued to a telephone having conservations. Eventually, not wanting to miss his train, he leaves but makes one more attempt to get her attention when he gets outside – guess how!

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