This month, the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre celebrates the 30th anniversary of its annual “Grand Night for Singing” show tune concerts. But to the one of the event’s creators, this year feels somewhat like starting over.
“We have now two years of singers who have not been involved as much with performing because we’ve been locked down,” says UK Opera Theatre Director Dr. Everett McCorvey. “So, we started having to sort of work on that mentality again.”
Thirty years ago, the singers weren’t coming out of two years offstage, but they were definitely learning to flex different musical muscles — namely musicals.
McCorvey was inspired to stage the early summer concerts as a way to orient UK’s budding opera singers to other performing possibilities. It was not always an easy sell, as many singers saw themselves as pure opera singers and didn’t see the need to try other styles. McCorvey was familiar with that outlook.
“When I was in college, I thought that either I had to be a full-blown opera singer, or I had to be a teacher, and not much in between,” says McCorvey, who graduated from his home state University of Alabama. “And then I got to New York and realized that there’s so many jobs in so many areas of music, that if I didn’t pigeonhole myself, that I would have a lot more opportunities to work and perform.”
And he did, getting his first job in a musical theater production and working in jazz, commercials, film such as 1984’s “The Cotton Club,” and opera.
“I had a church job that paid really well, and my church job paid for my apartment,” McCorvey says. “And then I had all of these different offers, some substituting for other singers for different things. And I was just busy all the time. And I thought, ‘Wow, this is a world that I did not know about.’”
Performance experience for UK opera students
So at UK, he wanted to make sure his students knew and left UK with a few more skills at their disposal. It is important, he says, to be a trained musician who has their music theory down and can quickly adapt to new situations.
“Grand Night” was a chance to put that work on stage, and in the process, McCorvey created a wildly popular annual offering that pairs students and community performers in a production that now plays eight performances over two weekends in June to the 1,500-seat Singletary Center for the Arts concert hall.
McCorvey joined forces with UK Theatre professor Dr. James W. Rodgers to create the production, after they had success presenting a joint production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”
“It was a gratifying success — we truly enjoyed working together — and we wanted to continue, but being educators, we both agreed it would be best if we could find a way of involving more young performers (present, recent past, and soon-to-be students) in future summer productions, so together we worked out the format for staging a musical type revue,” Rodgers, who is now retired, wrote in an email. “We decided that one of the gimmicks could be featuring the musical highlights for one of Broadway’s leading composers. After some brainstorming, we decided on Rodgers and Hammerstein II, and decided to use ‘Grand Night for Singing’ as the title of the program. From there, everything, began to grow.”
And it grew in a variety of ways. The shows started in a choral concert format, McCorvey recalls, with singers standing in rows on risers and stepping out front to microphones at the front of the Singletary Center stage when they had solos. Dancer Peggy Stamps was part of those early shows and soon started adding more choreography to the show, becoming its choreographer, and eventually its stage director.
“Grand Night” grew from giving performers a musical taste of Broadway to helping them refine their triple-threat skills, and songs were presented as fully-staged numbers in the styles of the shows they were drawn from. The rehearsal period is four weeks, reflecting the professional period for mounting a show.
First Lexington performance of ‘Hamilton’ numbers
The themes also disappeared as “Grand Night” became an annual look at Broadway classics and some of the newest offerings, being the place where Lexington audiences first heard music from shows like “Hamilton” live.
And that whole thing about helping students prepare for Broadway opportunities? That worked too.
McCorvey can look at a 14-year-old photo from “Grand Night” and pick out which singers went on to what successes. Last year when UK graduate Audrey Belle Adams came through Lexington on a national tour of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” she recalled “Grand Night” as one of her formative experiences as a student.
The COVID pandemic impacted “Grand Night” the same way it hit theater in general in 2020 and ’21. Theaters were closed and in 2020 Grand Night presented a best-of video version of the concert. Last year “Grand Night” was one of the first performances to return to the stage in Lexington, albeit with a smaller cast and shorter show with no intermission to limit contact. And it was at the Lexington Opera House.
Shorter format, more shows and matinees
This year, “Grand Night” is back to a full-size cast at its longtime home of the Singletary Center. But the shorter, intermission-less format remains.
“We did a questionnaire afterwards that we sent out to our ticket buyers, and the 90-minute show was very popular,” McCorvey says. “So we thought, OK, we’ll try that again, even though we’re in a big, big space.”
Pre-pandemic, “Grand Nights” were clocking in at more than two-and-a-half hours. The shorter show is allowing it to expand again to eight performances, with Saturday afternoon matinees.
“You’ll have to talk to me after the show to talk about the wisdom of going from six to eight shows during COVID, but it seemed like the right thing to do in terms of adding matinees,” McCorvey says.
The most important thing is that the show continues to give young performers valuable experiences and audiences a beloved annual tradition.
“We’ve had a lot of success with our students who have gone through this,” McCorvey says. “This process is a quick four-week process, but it changes your life.”
Grand Night for Singing
What: Annual show tune concert presented by UK Opera Theatre
When: 8 p.m. June 10, 2 and 8 p.m. June 11, 6 p.m. June 12; 8 p.m. June 17, 2 and 8 p.m. June 18, 2 p.m. June 19.
Where: Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $45-$55 adults, $40-$50 senior adults and UK faculty, $30 UK staff, $15 students