Planet Opera: Opera in Chicago Avoids Troubles Seen Elsewhere

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I adore Chicago. It is my second-favorite American city after my hometown of New York.  It combines a love of the old (baseball’s Wrigley Field from 1914 and the Civic Opera House from 1929) and the cutting edge. Its people, drawn from a rich ethnic mix, are friendly and direct. Chicago has excellent universities, a vibrant theater scene, gorgeous architecture, wonderful museums and a love of art in public places. There is a superb music scene, including the marvelous Lyric Opera, the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra, gospel, jazz, blues and WFMT radio. 

The city benefits from having an important second opera company, the Chicago Opera Theater, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It has produced nearly 120 works, including 35 Chicago premieres. This gives opera lovers more variety and serves to keep the Lyric nimble. Since 2012, under Andreas Mitisek, COT has co-produced many works with the Long Beach Opera, which serves a similar function as the feisty little brother of the big Los Angeles Opera.

The city is not perfect—as its stubbornly high crime rate and grinding social inequality demonstrate—but its energy and humor make it a pleasure to spend time in. My heart lifts whenever I am there. In March I went for a speedy two-day stay to see the Art Institute’s new wing, have a bowl of pasta at the bustling new Eataly, see friends, attend two performances at the Lyric and speak with its general director Anthony Freud.

On March 19, there was a gala concert with Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann, two stars whom Chicagoans, with their love of “big,” doted on. Kaufmann made his U.S. debut here as Cassio in Otello in September 2001 in a production that starred Fleming and Ben Heppner. 

Fleming has been the Lyric’s creative consultant since 2010, working on outreach to schools and forging partnerships with numerous arts institutions around town. Fleming and Freud have spearheaded Lyric Unlimited, a collection of expected and unusual initiatives that link opera to education, other art forms and even the awareness of hunger as a social scourge. Following performances of Hansel and Gretel (in which hunger is an important issue), the company collected 1,599 pounds of food donated by audiences to be distributed by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

I was especially eager to attend La Clemenza di Tito on March 20. I can never get enough of this opera, the last one Mozart wrote, and I find its themes of truth and reconciliation eternally relevant. Joyce DiDonato’s gripping Sesto is a performance I will never forget. She was matched by Matthew Polenzani in the title role. While I had a couple of reservations about the generally strong production (originally by David McVicar, staged here by Marie Lambert), the confrontation in the second act between Sesto and Tito was the best-directed scene in opera I have witnessed in many a year. Anyone who says opera is not great theater should have seen this.

My particular interest in attending Tito came in the fact that, apart from DiDonato, all members of the cast (Emily Birsan, Cecelia Hall, Amanda Majeski, Polenzani and Christian van Horn) are products of the Ryan Opera Center, the Lyric’s young artists program.

La Clemenza di Tito at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Dan Rest)

A Rich History

Chicago has had opera since 1850, both from touring companies (including the Met) and homegrown organizations that boomed and busted when ambition outstripped financial resources. The Lyric was founded in 1954 by the triumvirate of Carol Fox, Lawrence Kelly and Nicola Rescigno. After a “calling card” production of Don Giovanni, the official opening was Norma on November 1 with Maria Callas in her American debut. Kelly and Rescigno left to create the Dallas Opera in 1957 and Fox continued until 1980.

The Lyric was a singer’s house, nicknamed “La Scala West” for the emphasis it put on world-class voices rather than memorable productions. Great stars flocked to Chicago and some (including Mirella Freni, Tito Gobbi and Alfredo Kraus) spent more time there than New York. Bruno Bartoletti was a fixture in the orchestra pit for five decades starting in 1956, leading approximately 600 performances of 55 operas.

Under Carol Fox finances were often rocky. She stepped down in 1980 and was replaced by Ardis Krainik, who began with the Lyric singing small roles, and whose tenure was a golden age. Krainik, whom I revered, had incredible aptitude for decisive management while promoting opera as an art form. She could say a firm but cheerful no when necessary but also created an initiative called “Toward the 21st Century” in which a contemporary American and European opera was were presented each season for a decade. The Lyric became a big attraction, subscriptions soared and most performances sold out.

Following Krainik’s death in 1997 William Mason took over and ran the company effectively until 2011. Mason began as the shepherd boy in Tosca in 1954 and he, Krainik, Bartoletti and others ran the company based on what was tried and true.

Freud is the first general director to not rise up in the company. A self-described “teenaged opera nerd” who grew up in London, Freud structured his life around the seasonal announcements of repertory and casting at the Royal and English National Opera companies. He was general director of the Welsh National Opera (1994-2005) and the Houston Grand Opera (2006-2011) before coming to Chicago.

I was struck, in our conversation, about how well he understood the Lyric’s particular history and is eager to incorporate the best of the past while also opening new pathways and dealing with the realities of today’s opera world. “We are large enough to do things at the highest level but small enough to do things right,” he said. Singers are still front and center but more emphasis is given to theatrical values. Together with music director Sir Andrew Davis, Freud created a decade-long repertory plan including more co-productions with theaters in North America and Europe. He has added a run of a Broadway musical to end each season: The Sound of Music runs April 25-May 25.

While certain critics have taken the company to task for what they consider the conservative recent programming, the pride and connection Chicagoans have with their opera company is still strong. The Lyric under Freud has 25,000 subscribers (which he says is the largest of any U.S. company) and sells 70 percent of its tickets on subscription. “Our subscribers see themselves as stakeholders,” said Freud. It's a philosophy that seems to guide the 60-year-old company through even these trying times in the opera field.

WQXR listeners can hear broadcasts from the Lyric Opera’s 2013-2014 season on Saturday afternoons starting on May 17.