Archive for December, 2015

PostHeaderIcon New Opera Triumphs Over Terror

I remember sitting in the lobby of Lyric Opera over three years ago to hear the exciting news that Lyric had commissioned Jimmy Lopez (composer) and Nilo Cruz (librettist) to adapt Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel, “Bel Canto”, into an opera. General Director Anthony Freud and Lyric Creative Consultant, Renee Fleming, were beaming over the announcement. This would be Lyric’s first world premiere since William Bolcom’s “A Wedding” in 2004, While Patchett’s book deals with an invasion at the Peruvian Embassy by local guerrillas in 1996, that background seemed long ago and far away.

Yet last month’s Paris massacre and the San Bernadino terrorist attack five days prior to the opera’s world premiere suddenly turned yesterday’s news into today’s headlines. Lyric went into damage control mode to reassure patrons. Prior to the premiere, Freud drafted a letter to be inserted in all performance programs. It called the contemporary opera’s theme “shockingly topical” but defended Lyric’s artistic choice: “I believe that opera is a relevant art form and must not shy away from dealing with contemporary and disturbing subjects. Hopefully, we can play a part in stimulating thought, discourse and debate.” Discussions will be held with the audience at all performances.

The world premiere of “Bel Canto” proceeded and it is a handsome production with a winning ensemble

Bel Canto World Premiere

Bel Canto World Premiere

cast, headed by Danielle de Niese, playing Roxanne Coss, a  world-renowned soprano hired for a birthday celebration honoring Katsumi Hosokawa, a Japanese executive at the home of Peru’s vice president.

In the middle of her singing, Tupac Amaru guerrillas burst into the mansion and take the guests hostage. A Red Cross representative tries to negotiate their release but, when the government refuses the guerrillas’ demands, a four-month siege ensues.

Danielle de Niese

Danielle de Niese

The long first act is briskly paced and full of incident. Director Kevin Newbury handles the choreographic challenge of a stage full of reception guests and the ensuing tumult with skilled command. A romantic element–the budding attractions between Hosokawa and Roxanne plus Gen, Hosokawa’s translator and Carmen, one of the terrorists–is introduced. The first act ends with Roxanne’s accompanist being killed as he rushes to save her from terrorist commander General Alfredo’s manhandling.

While the first act is replete with motion, the second suffers, by contrast, from a listless spell, brought on by the Peruvian fog known as garua. As one day drips into the next, a Stockholm-like atmosphere envelops captors and hostages. Hosokawa plays chess with a soldier, General Alfredo reads news accounts and one hostage hangs linen on a clothesline. A Russian diplomat awkwardly professes his love for painting and the lovely Roxanne.

 © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

GeneralAlfredo,               Rebel Commander
© Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015

Cruz’s lyrical adaptation, full of poetic imagery, could have benefitted from some editing or a shot of more drama here. While the languor of their captivity is perfectly captured and appropriate, the opera stalls until late in the act with riveting arias by two terrorists (mezzo J’Nai Bridges and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). This is followed by the act’s most effective moment, a striking tableau of love duets by Hosokawa (ably sung by Jeongcheol Cha) and Roxanne on stage left alongside Cesar and Gen Watanabe on stage right.

When government soldiers eventually storm the mansion with guns blazing and even splattered blood onstage,  I saw audience members flinch. Such a reaction, aided by greater distance from the San Bernadino tragedy, will probably not be repeated at the January performances.

The opera, even with its uneven patches, succeeds in combining gripping theater and an appealing score with Hollywood-sounding crescendos. It deserves an extended life with future productions in opera houses worldwide. All the elements–an accomplished score, riveting contemporary story, fine cast, handsome production values–carry it past the finish line. It must rank as Lyric’s most successful commission in recent memory.

“Bel Canto” will have four more performances when Lyric resumes in January. The first is on Tuesday, January 5. I urge you to go and see this highly theatrical work for yourself. For tickets and more information, visit



PostHeaderIcon An Exceptional Eight

The One-of-a-Kind Gift Show is a pre-Christmas shopping Lollapalooza that, each year, takes over the 7th Floor of the Merchandise Mart for a a long weekend. This year, 600 vendors from across America and parts of Canada are taking part in the 15th edition of this super successful show.

One can easily lose one’s bearings as well as one’s budget walking the aisles. There are countless purveyors of jewelry, artisanal clothing, gourmet food, commercial art, and designers of handmade creations. You won’t see these more artistic, high-end creations in the shops of Michigan Avenue or Chicago boutiques.

I walked the aisles on Thursday and found eight merchants worth your attention for must-visits. My plan was to seek out merchandise that displayed a larger artistic element, befitting the focus of this arts blog. I eliminated jewelry from my list since there are so many vendors in that category, making judgments near-impossible . My apologies to those quality exhibits I missed in my tour.

My list, in the order I found them on my walk, is as follows:

Artbags–Booth 4016–Debbie Crichton brings a real design sense to her bags. She has all styles on display–wrist bags, cross-body bags, large purses–in a range of colors and prices. Her designs are eye-catching and be sure to check out her flat bags.

Steel Petal Press–Booth 1022–Shayna Norwood calls her business an “urban letterpress boutique”. Her cards are small jewels that will demonstrate your good taste and make a great impression, be it for Christmas or Valentine’s Day. I am a sucker for distinctive stationery so my bias is showing here. Shayna plans to open a store in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood in 2016.

Foundry Woodprints–Booth 2041–Jim Lanza travels all over the U.S.A. capturing nostalgic images of each city’s landmarks. He then mounts the photos on wood and they make a great present for someone on your list. He puts the images on wooden coasters and large boards. How about having the Green Mill’s iconic hanging on your wall or above your home bar?

C Joseph, ny–Booth 2099–Catherine Joseph brings a wealth of designer smarts to her business, the result of many years working with Halston and other fashion designers. Just one look at her collection of Super 100 gabardine shirts and cashmere jackets will make you a buyer. The price range is $185-225 for shirts and $225-350 for jackets. C Joseph is the only men’s boutique I came across at the show which is geared mainly to women.

Alan Daigre Designs–Booth 4132–The priciest find on my list but so worth it in my opinion. Daigre designs handmade chairs and rockers with the most beautiful woods. His rockers’ wooden tiles are joined together with one long piece of rope that allows the back of each chair to conform to your body’s shape. You should go look and sit for yourself.

Mirabelle Studio–Booth 7054–Judy Lynn uses inventive patterns and her own block print images in the design of her books, boxes and prints. She likes instilling beauty in everyday objects. I must confess that, besides unique stationery, my other bias is handmade boxes. Give Ms. Lynn’s creations a look. Quite affordable (under $50) and make a fine Christmas present.

Kuketa–Booth 7081–Maria Cicarelli has a full line of handbags and accessories on display, all of which show her artist’s eye. I believe she’s a graduate of the School of the Art Institute. Her attractive messenger bags in Super Suede are only $95 and her Portland bags are $130. However, she has other distinctive designs ranging from $25 to $45.

Mary Lynn O’Shea–Booth 7095–I saved the best until last. Ms. O’Shea brings a half-century of experience as a weaver to her beautiful artistic clothing designs that are truly worthy of that overused term. Her upholstery jackets/coats featuring antique prints are simply stunning. Equally appealing is her selection of pleated silk blouses. If money were no object, I would have walked home with one and solved my Christmas shopping for a loved one.

Hurry because you only have today and tomorrow to catch these special offerings. Show hours today are from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $12 for adults.