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posted: 11/9/2012 6:00 AM

Local opera companies try singing out of the box

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  • One of two online comedy sketches features a Doctor Opera therapy session featuring Hansel (Adam Peacock) and Gretel (Aidy Bryant) talking through their various issues. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has teamed up with The Second City for a one-night-only performance of "The Second City Guide to the Opera" set for Saturday, Jan. 5.

      One of two online comedy sketches features a Doctor Opera therapy session featuring Hansel (Adam Peacock) and Gretel (Aidy Bryant) talking through their various issues. The Lyric Opera of Chicago has teamed up with The Second City for a one-night-only performance of "The Second City Guide to the Opera" set for Saturday, Jan. 5.
    Courtesy of The Second City

  • The Lyric Opera of Chicago will present "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna," the world's first mariachi opera, at the Civic Opera House with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan on Sunday, April 7. Two subsequent performances featuring Mariachi Aztlan are set for the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago and the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan.

      The Lyric Opera of Chicago will present "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna," the world's first mariachi opera, at the Civic Opera House with Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan on Sunday, April 7. Two subsequent performances featuring Mariachi Aztlan are set for the Benito Juarez Community Academy in Chicago and the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan.
    Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

  • Ashley Brown starred as Magnolia in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2012 production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Brown will star as Laurie for the Lyric's new production of "Oklahoma!" in May 2013.

      Ashley Brown starred as Magnolia in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2012 production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Brown will star as Laurie for the Lyric's new production of "Oklahoma!" in May 2013.
    COURTESY OF DAN REST/LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO

  • Andreas Mitisek is the new general director of Chicago Opera Theater.

      Andreas Mitisek is the new general director of Chicago Opera Theater.

  • Anthony Freud became general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011.

      Anthony Freud became general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2011.
    COURTESY OF DAN REST/LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO

  • Famed soprano and Lyric Opera creative consultant Renée Fleming spearheaded a collaboration with The Second City.

      Famed soprano and Lyric Opera creative consultant Renée Fleming spearheaded a collaboration with The Second City.
    COURTESY OF DECCA/ANDREW ECCLES

  • Ashley Brown starred as Magnolia in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2012 production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Brown will star as Laurie for the Lyric's new production of "Oklahoma!" in May 2013.

      Ashley Brown starred as Magnolia in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2012 production of the landmark 1927 Broadway musical "Show Boat." Brown will star as Laurie for the Lyric's new production of "Oklahoma!" in May 2013.
    COURTESY OF DAN REST/LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO

  • Video: Dr. Opera with 'La Boheme'

  • Video: Dr. Opera with Hansel & Gretel

 
By Scott Morgan
smorgan@dailyherald.com

Opera companies are always on the lookout to attract new audiences. With much hand-wringing over the graying of subscribers and concerns about school music programs in danger of budgetary cuts, opera companies need to ensure that their audiences and donor bases will be refreshed for the future.

Yet, it's a struggle. Many people are wary of paying for pricey opera tickets, or just intimidated by the centuries-old art form, which is sometimes viewed as elitist.

"One of the biggest stumbling blocks to getting some people into the opera theater is the idea that everyone has of the tuxedos, the three-piece suits, the gowns and the champagne flutes," said Chicago Opera Theater general manager Jerry Tietz. "That can be an intimidating thing for people who have never gone."

Chicago-area opera companies, many of which have undergone major leadership changes, are working hard to chip away at that intimidation factor.

Several are building on outreach initiatives, including expanding repertories with more populist works, teaming up with other arts organizations and even taking opera outside of the opera house.

Making the biggest splash this season with some high-profile outreach programs is the 58-year-old Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Windy City's biggest and most-esteemed opera company.

Several new Lyric outreach programs are coming to fruition this season under the leadership of general director Anthony Freud, who previously ran Welsh National Opera in the U.K. and Houston Grand Opera before he came to Chicago in 2011.

"What I'm passionate about is finding a way of insuring that we relate the Lyric to Chicago in the most dynamic, most far-reaching way possible," Freud said. "At the start of the 21st century for an opera company to be truly relevant, we have to do more than produce great opera in our opera house."

The Lyric already has in place several outreach programs like scaled-down touring productions that travel to schools, discounted day-of college student tickets, a variety of pre-opera lecture series and backstage tours of the Civic Opera House. But some of the new events are outgrowths from the Lyric's Renee Fleming Initiative, which started in 2010 and was named after the world-famous American soprano who is also the Lyric's creative consultant. Others are from Freud's newly formed Lyric Unlimited department that aims to expand community engagement and new artistic approaches to opera.

First on the Lyric's expanded outreach agenda is "Popcorn and Pasquale" on Sunday, Dec. 2. It repackages elements from the Lyric's concurrent production of Donizetti's comic opera "Don Pasquale" for a 70-minute show specifically aimed at families with kids between the ages of 5 to 12.

"This is the first time in Lyric's history that we've done an event for families -- not just for children," said Lyric director of communications Susan Mathieson Mayer.

Jeff Award-winning actor Ross Lehman hosts "Popcorn and Pasquale," which features Lyric sets, a full orchestra and some singers from "Don Pasquale."

"And yes, there will be popcorn," Mayer said.

Another way opera companies aim to expand audiences is by producing works that are more accessible to everyday Americans. One idea is to produce operas sung with English translations, as with Petite Opera Players' current Park Ridge production of Massenet's "Cendrillion" ("Cinderella") playing through Nov. 17. In fact, Petite Opera describes itself as a "Chicago-based organization specializing in taking the stuffy out of opera" -- and only stages works in English.

Though budgetary constraints have prevented Elgin Opera from doing fully staged operas in recent seasons, the company has been producing theme concerts with musical theater songs and opera arias inspired by geographic regions of the world. France is the focus for its upcoming spring concert.

"We're trying to draw in people that way," said Elgin Opera executive producer Kimberly Albrecht. "It also helps with the younger children because they can learn musical theater pieces more readily and then we teach them some more of the operatic music."

Broadway musicals have muscled ahead of operettas for the majority of Light Opera Works' recent seasons in Evanston, while Chamber Opera Chicago has also mixed in musical theater works like "The Sound of Music" and "Man of La Mancha" in its seasons that include American operas like Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors" and "The Saint of Bleeker Street" (both of which are part of Chamber Opera Chicago's 2012-13 season).

Musical theater pieces haven't been strangers to the Lyric, either. Broadway-created works like "Street Scene," "Sweeney Todd," "Regina" and "Porgy and Bess" have been previously produced at Lyric.

"We did 'Show Boat' last season and that proved to be a great success," Freud said. "And it proved to bring an awful lot of people who had never been to the opera house before."

The Lyric aims to build on its "Show Boat" success with a 70th anniversary production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" directed by Gary Griffin and with re-creations of Anges de Mille's original choreography for a 16-performance run in May 2013.

"'Oklahoma!' will be the first in a series of great American musical theater pieces that we'll present at that time of year, soon after the end of the regular opera season," Freud said.

Another way of attracting different audiences is for companies to team up with other arts organizations, much in the way that Chamber Opera Chicago has paired with Chicago-based Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theatre for past productions like "Carmen" and "Te Amo: A Musical Evening in Spain."

A more unconventional collaboration arrives on Saturday, Jan. 5, when "The Second City Guide to the Opera" featuring Renee Fleming is set to be performed at the Lyric.

As officials from both organizations tell it, the collaboration between the two Chicago institutions developed when Fleming went to a Second City e.t.c. performance of "Sky's the Limit (Weather Permitting)" on one of her rare free nights. To Fleming's surprise, the production featured audio snippets from a couple of her recordings, so she approached music director Jesse Case at intermission.

"He was worried about a lawsuit, and she was interested in collaborating, which is the perfect way for us to start," joked Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of The Second City, the 53-year-old Chicago comedy institution.

"We came up with this idea of an evening of comedy and music that would speak to the world of opera," Leonard said. The collaboration has already produced two hilarious online video shorts that can be accessed via YouTube featuring a "Doctor Opera" therapist holding sessions with characters from Humperdinck's "Hansel & Gretel" and Puccini's "La Boheme."

"First it feeds us artistically and creatively," said Leonard about the collaboration. "But the other thing in my mind is it further legitimizes our particular art form and its place in the performing arts landscape. It's very easy for people to dismiss us just as a 'comedy club.'"

While it's important to get new audiences into the opera house, opera companies also have to take their art form directly to the community. While DuPage Opera Theatre will undoubtedly need to find other venues to perform in since its College of DuPage home at the McAninch Arts Center is undergoing a renovation, the Elgin Opera has made it a point to send its student and company singers to perform in area restaurants.

With the appointment this year of Andreas Mitisek as Chicago Opera Theater's new general director, speculation has been fueled that he'll seek out site-specific opera locations for Chicago. Mitisek has previously done so for California-based Long Beach Opera.

"That could be in a parking lot, it could be in a swimming pool, it could be an abandoned warehouse, and the goal is always to choose a venue or space that will inform from an aesthetic point of view the work that you're doing in it," said Chicago Opera Theater's Tietz.

He hopes that such productions might capitalize on the company's current outreach gatherings, which include opera cruises on Lake Michigan, "Beers and Baritones" brewery outings or its upcoming coffee house collaboration with Lifeline Theatre at Chicago's Uncommon Ground to promote Chicago Opera Theater's future production of "The Fall of the House of Usher" by composer Philip Glass based on Edgar Allan Poe's short story.

Another highly anticipated outreach event is the recent announcement that the Lyric will present the world's first mariachi opera, "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" ("To Cross the Face of the Moon"), in April via Lyric Unlimited for two Chicago performances (one at its opera house home and one in the Pilsen neighborhood) and at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan. Already a sold-out success when Freud commissioned it for Houston Grand Opera in 2010 and in later performances in Paris, "Cruzar la Cara de la Luna" is sure to attract some audiences who might not have attended a live opera before.

"One thing that is worth emphasizing is that Lyric Unlimited is not a marketing campaign," Freud said. "Lyric Unlimited and the various projects that fall under that umbrella are ends in themselves. What I believe is that it's our responsibility to reach with our work as many people as possible and as diverse a range of communities as possible."

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