Carol Z Shane
Brandon Gibson was deeply shaken by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020.
“They hit the news cycle at the same time. I thought to myself, “Maybe this should happen once in a lifetime,” said the general manager of Marble City Opera.
Kathryn Frady Marvel, executive artistic director of Marble City Opera, was devastated.
“I woke up and another story happened,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘What’s wrong with our society and what can I do to help people? I run an opera company; how does that help?’
She began to imagine a socially conscious play presented in a series of vignettes and asked Gibson to write the libretto, telling him, “you have the sense of the words and the heart for this problem”.
They created “I Can’t Breathe”, an original opera which will premiere at the end of the month in Knoxville.
It will soon be performed by opera companies in Columbus, Cleveland and Los Angeles.
“I really wanted to come to what I felt was the real tragedy of what’s going on,” Gibson said. “More than ‘black people are good, the police are bad’. There is an opportunity to do so much more.
“The tragedy of all of this is that you have these real people living real lives, overcoming some of the issues that we all have, and some specific to the black community – and then their lives are taken away from them just because someone thinks that they look scary, or because of some prejudice they have.
While the opera takes its title from Floyd’s last words as former police officer Derek Chauvin pinned the 46-year-old to the ground for more than nine minutes, Gibson said the opera was not a dramatization or retelling of Floyd’s story.
“It’s something different than what people might expect,” Gibson said.
“You can see a lot of situations that have happened nationally, but none of them are specific,” said director Jonathan Clark. “It really forces you to sit down and ask yourself the question ‘how many more times do we have to deal with this? “”
Gibson spent five years as general manager, helping to produce everything from classic opera to contemporary works, all in the spirit of the company’s mission: “to engage a diverse audience through productions of intimate and accessible opera”.
The popular baritone has also performed with the organization, including as Knoxville-born artist Beauford Delaney in 2020’s “Shadowlight.”
With the help of three other opera companies, Marble City Opera commissioned renowned black “urban classical” composer Leslie Savoy Burrs to write the music.
The predominantly black cast and crew include Clark, who is the executive director of the Carpetbag Theatre, and bandleader Garrett McQueen, a former Knoxville Symphony bassoonist and WUOT announcer who now runs TrillWerks Media in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
“When Brandon asked me to do it, I knew I had to get involved,” said McQueen, whose goal and passion is to expand the traditionally Eurocentric field of classical music to include a range of larger and more diverse artists.
“Knoxville has a very special place in my heart. It’s the city where I had my first professional band gig, where my career as a broadcaster and content producer began, and where the sense of urgency I feel about racial equity in arts was cultivated,” McQueen said.
“I Can’t Breathe” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. from February 24-26 at the Beck Cultural Exchange Center at 1927 Dandridge Ave. Live and streaming tickets are available at marblecityopera.com/events/i-cant-breathe.
“This opera raises awareness,” McQueen said. “I hope everyone can watch with an open mind and really think about the right to live.”
“I Can’t Breathe” is made possible by the generous support of Sylvia and Jan Peters, Lowery Family Fund, East Tennessee Foundation, Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Carpetbag Theatre, WUOT 91.9, City of Knoxville , from Hyatt Place, UT Music and the Tennessee Arts Commission.