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Blackjack Makes Opera Memphis Debut


By Nancy and Tommy Brannon

On Valentine’s weekend, Feb. 14-15, 2020, Opera Memphis offered a special Puccini double-bill: Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi. Opera Memphis offered a Puccini Lovers’ Special that weekend, with two tickets, Dinstuhl’s chocolate, and two adult beverages. Both performances were at the Germantown Performing Arts Center.

Suor Angelica follows the story of young Sister Angelica, who has been sent to a convent by her family after she gave birth to a child out of wedlock. For the love of her child, she has dutifully remained there until a fateful meeting with the family matriarch forces her to make an impossible choice.

In one scene, two alms-collecting nuns enter, leading a well-ladened donkey – but in this version it is the Shetland pony Blackjack. Blackjack is the charge of Opera Memphis singer Amanda McGee and her daughter Evelyn McGee, both of whom appear in the opera. Amanda is wife of Shannon McGee, DMV of Collierville Animal Clinic and MFH huntsman for Oak Grove Hunt Club.

The sisters crowd around while the alms-collectors unload and hand the gifts to the Housekeeping Sister. The gifts include a full oil-skin, hazel nuts, walnuts, flour, cheese, a bag of lentils, eggs, butter, and a stem of red currants. The sisters enjoy the red currants.

The second piece, Gianni Schicchi, is a hilarious Italian dish made of equal parts love and deceit. Family patriarch Buoso Donati has died, and his “loving” relatives look forward to inheriting his vast wealth. When they discover that the deceased left his entire fortune and earthly possessions to a local monastery, there is only one man in Florence who can help them cheat and connive their way out of poverty--the incomparable Gianni Schicchi!

Daily Memphian sports columnist and talk-show host on 92.9FM, Geoff Calkins, made his Opera Memphis debut as “the deceased,” Buoso Donati. In the opening scene, Calkins has just a few last, anxious words in Italian, and then drops “dead” in his bedchamber, as the rest of the family members scramble to determine how to get his inheritance. “Geoff brings a the role,” said Director Ned Canty.

Among Buoso’s most treasured assets are “the mule, the house, and the mills at Signa.” The relatives agree to leave the disposition of the mule, the house and the mills to Schicchi, though each in turn offers him a bribe. The notary arrives, and Schicchi starts to dictate the new will, declaring any prior will null and void. To their general satisfaction, he allocates the minor bequests, but when it comes to the mule, the house and the mills, he orders that these be left to “my devoted friend Gianni Schicchi.” Incredulous, the family can do nothing while the lawyer is present, especially when Schicchi slyly reminds them of the penalties that discovery of the ruse will bring. Their outrage when the notary leaves is accompanied by a frenzy of looting, as Schicchi chases them out of what is now his house. Blackjack has another supernumerary actor appearance – this time as the valuable “mule” Schicchi has “left” to himself. The brass section of the orchestra mimicked a donkey’s bray when Evelyn McGee, playing the part of the young grandson of Buoso, led Blackjack on stage for the finale. He stayed on stage for the curtain calls to the applause and awes of the audience.

The versatile Blackjack is not only a new opera personality, he is also a seasoned fox hunter with Oak Grove Hunt Club. A Shetland pony in his mid twenties, he has trained at least three or four children to ride. The McGees purchased him for $100 off Craigslist about seven years ago when Evelyn was in kindergarten, and Amanda says it was the best $100 they ever spent! At only 10 hands he was just the right size for the petit Evelyn, but kept up with the bigger horses quite well. Evelyn could jump off and on him to tend to hounds while he was trotting and cantering on the move. He was so good in the hunt field that he was awarded Oak Grove horse of the year in 2015.

Visitors to the McGee farm are often greeted by the diminutive shaggy pony when they come to the door because Blackjack lives on the porch. When the McGees purchased their current house as a foreclosure, they found that the previous owners had abandoned another pony that they named Bella, who was living in the yard. This pony was so badly foundered that she could hardly walk. Rehabbing Bella had some success, but her mobility was so limited that she could not walk out of the yard. Bella and Blackjack became fast friends and Blackjack preferred to stay in the yard with his buddy, looking out for her. The wooden floored, covered porch turned out to be a perfect shelter for the ponies. Blackjack sleeps in a dog bed on the porch, and even more dog-like, will paw at the door to be let in, begging for a treat, and will paw at the door again to be let out.

After the recent death of Bella, Blackjack has become best friends with Barbie (Barbontito) Evelyn’s 16.2 hands off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding. The contrast in height, size, and shape makes them look like Mutt and Jeff, especially in the hunt field.   

If you are interested in upcoming Opera Memphis performances, on March 28 and April 4, Mozart’s Così fan tuttecomes to Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, Tenn. as part of the Midtown Opera Festival.

The title of the opera literally means “So do they all,” using the feminine plural (tutte) to indicate women. It is often said that love is blind and fickle, as the people it possesses, but young Ferrando and Guglielmo and their fiancés Dorabella and Fiordiligi swear absolute trust, fidelity, and devotion to each other as they prepare to walk down the aisle. That is – until Don Alfonso presents the young men with an opportunity to test the bonds of love. Will Ferrando and Guglielmo choose to open this Pandora's box on their relationships? Can their sweethearts surmount the challenges that they would inevitably face? Or will it all come crashing down upon them like so many tiers of wedding cake? The answer comes in Act 2 of this comedic romp through the hearts of men and women. Blackjack does not have a cameo appearance in this opera.

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