It's been a bumpy road for Kentucky Opera this season, having become embroiled in the labor dispute between Louisville Orchestra's management and its union musicians, who have not been able to come to terms on a new contract. But the show will go on this Friday at the Brown Theatre with an orchestra in the pit for The Merry Widow -- though not the members of the Louisville Orchestra who usually play and without conductor Joseph Mechavich, who just announced his departure.
For the opener, Carmen, the opera managed a separate contract with the union musicians, but claimed it could not afford the same terms again, which brought about the unusual arrangement of seating two pianists and a harpsichord player for The Marriage of Figaro. For it's third and final opera of the season, The Merry Widow, Kentucky Opera accepted the proposal from a group of community musicians to provide an orchestra after the union musicians rejected the per-performance deal that was offered to them. According to Kentucky Opera's General Director David Roth in the Courier Journal's report, these community musicians are made up of players from the Southern Baptist Seminary Orchestra, the Jewish Community Center Orchestra, and a few former LO members. The replacement orchestra rehearsed for the first time last Thursday with striking Louisville Orchestra members handing out fliers outside the Brown, and they will probably also be greeting opera-goers on Friday night's opening performance.
One of the replacement musicians, violinist Anna Blanton (who also contributes to Louisville.com), agreed to answer a few questions about the controversial role of the orchestra that will fill in for this weekend's production.
How do you respond to the union musicians who are critical of the group's decision to play despite the on-going labor dispute with LO? Are you or any of the musicians concerned about being barred from future opportunities?
Blanton: I understand why they are upset and frustrated, but we must agree to disagree on the topic of the KY Opera. My view is that the KY Opera is not the Louisville Orchestra. They are two completely different resident groups. The LO musicians' battle is with their management, not the KY Opera. The KY Opera offered them the opportunity to perform the Merry Widow before any of us were contacted, but they declined. If the KY Opera does not have an orchestra for this performance they could very well start to lose patrons, and the KY Opera could potentially crumble like the LO. In retrospect we are helping preserve the KY Opera which will give those LO musicians work opportunity in the future. I personally have a hospital bill to pay, loans, mortgage, and other expenses that I could really use this money for. I think it is unfair for them to be critical of us trying earn income when they themselves declined the offer to play. I am not concerned about being blacklisted. I do not receive any union gigs or nonunion gigs from anyone affiliated with the Louisville Orchestra.
What were the first rehearsals like?
Blanton: The first rehearsal was a bit intimidating. We had a whole ensemble of individuals who have never played together. An orchestra is a team environment and it takes time for an ensemble to mesh. I think some of us were also a bit rattled by the protesting outside by the LO musicians. Some of us knew some of those individuals, so it was also a bit of a mental battle. Our original conductor [Joseph Mechavich] had to quit, understandably, due to concerns about his career and the union. Jason Raff will be conducting us.
As for the show itself, The Merry Widow is an operetta by Austo-Hungararian composer Franz Lehar. Set in 19th Century Paris, the story concerns the wealthy widow, Hanna, from the Grand Duchy of Pontevedro and the machinations of her countrymen to keep her wealth from passing out of their cash-strapped principality by marrying a foreigner. The proposed suitor and fellow Pontevedran is Danilo, a former lover whose uncle forbade their match back when Hanna had nothing, so there are obvious kinks in the plan. Expect beautiful waltzes, can-can dancers, and Art Nouveau decor. Directed by Michael Cavanagh, soprano Emily Pulley will play Hanna and lyric baritone Christopher Feigum will portray Danilo.
Tickets are available for Friday, February 17 at 8:00 p.m. and the Sunday performance, February 19 at 2:00 p.m. at the Brown Theatre, 315 W. Broadway.