Posts Tagged ‘Lyric Opera’

PostHeaderIcon Lyric Pushes Passion

While riding the Brown line last month, I had a most delightful surprise. “Delightful surprise” are two words that are rarely associated with the CTA. As the train left Chicago Avenue heading south, my eyes caught a giant image of opera star, Renee Fleming, on the side of a River North building asking, “When Was the Last Time You Cried at a Cubist Exhibition?.”  I did a double-take and then had a good laugh at the tongue-in-cheek dig at the Art Institute and MCA.

lyricreneeRenee had a point. It is one that Lyric Opera began pressing home this September in a series of images plastered extensively throughout Chicago on billboards, buildings and bus shelters. The images mainly feature Fleming and music director Andrew Davis making equally provocative statements. The tag line on all the messages is “Long Live Passion”.

As much as “Tales of Hoffman,” “The Magic Flute” and “Aida,” Lyric this season is promoting passion. And why not?  While opera-goers feel passionate about Lyric and the art form, that is not the way opera plays on the street and among most young Chicagoans.

07_passionAsk them what their impression of opera is and their replies will probably be some version of “stuffy,” “boring,” “for rich people,” and “not for me.” Well, the “Long Live Passion” campaign is out to change that and give Lyric a more contemporary, inviting image.

What are the tales of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Boris Godunov,” “Madame Butterfly,” “La Boheme” and “Faust” to limit the list to five choices but timeless stories of man’s insatiable lust for power and passion?  Lyric, in recent seasons, has also opened itself to staging newer repertoire, like “Candide,” “Porgy and Bess,” and this season’s “Showboat” that pay tribute to crowd-pleasing compositions that can arguably be ranked as 20th Century American operettas.

lyricRockWith this ad campaign, Lyric is moving forcefully to attract a larger audience—youth and adult—to the magic of live opera. To feel moved, to cry, cheer, even be changed by what they see and hear. Here’s to its success! Visit:

PostHeaderIcon Hercules Home From Iraq

Peter Sellers

Peter Sellers

What can an opera, whose composer died over 250 years ago, teach us about human suffering? Or what can a famous Greek playwright, who lived 25 centuries ago, say about modern warfare, long before the advent of guns, bombs and weapons of mass destruction?

Quite a lot it appears when Sophocles’ play, “Women of Trachis,” and George Friedric Handel’s oratorio, “Hercules,” are filtered through the brilliantly inventive mind of director Peter Sellars in his latest Lyric Opera collaboration.

Sellars has said that he wanted to depict the universality of wartime suffering, both on the battlefield warriors and those left behind on the home front. To that end, he has cut-and-pasted a modern libretto for this contemporary staging, aimed at underlining stark parallels between ancient Greece and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unlike his 2007 Lyric production of “Doctor Atomic,” where he over-reached in his attempt to critique the Faustian legacy of the atom bomb, Sellars triumphs this time out with a vocally rich, emotionally-charged production.

The casting of Eric Owens as Hercules, the gifted dramatic mezzo Alice Coote as Dejanira, Hercules’ wife, and countertenor David Daniels as Lichas, the court herald, was near ideal. However, the evening’s hosannas belong to Iole, the captured prisoner, sung by Lucy Crowe.

(Lyric, in its mail brochure, focused all its attention on the three leading stars and bypassed any mention of the night’s star with her pure tone and ardent delivery that merited several well-earned bravos.)

The story was spare, relative to its 3 ½ hour length. Sellars’ Hercules is portrayed less as the world’s strongest man but a general in full body armor, just returned from his most recent conquest to a hero’s welcome and his wife’s joyful relief.

Yet Hercules is a changed man returned to an alien world. He is shut down, refusing to talk about the war, what he has seen or how many he has killed. For Sellars, Hercules’ plight is like the experience of so many veterans of our current wars. He keeps the war inside where it still rages, until it explodes in post-traumatic stress disorder, domestic violence or possibly suicide.

Eric Owens (Hercules), Lucy Crowe (Iole), and Marckarthur Johnson (guard)

Eric Owens (Hercules), Lucy Crowe (Iole), and Marckarthur Johnson (guard)

The opera’s mood changes very soon after the opening curtain when we learn that Hercules has brought home a war trophy, the lovely Princess Iole, who is dragged on stage with her face masked and wearing an orange jumpsuit, evoking disturbing memories of Abu Ghraib.

Hercules is captivated by her but Dejanira is aflame with jealousy over having to share her home with this stranger and rival. Ironically, as a result of Sellar’s reworking, the destructive love triangle between Hercules, Dejanira and Iole is underplayed and almost non-existent in the production. Iole is barely seen in Hercules’ company at all but is wooed with greater success by Hyllus, his son.

Iole reaches out to make peace with Dejanira but is rejected. In her attempt to win back Hercules’ love, she unwittingly kills him and commits suicide when her plan for reconciliation goes horribly awry.

Sellars gives Hercules a hero’s flag-draped funeral complete with honor guard, despite his dying wish in Handel’s version to be buried on Mt. Olympus, home of the gods.

Opera purists may rankle at the extensive cuts and liberties Sellars has taken with Sophocles and Handel. Yet, “Hercules” succeeds brilliantly in depicting the cruel wages of war and ends Lyric’s 2010-11 season on a richly-satisfying high note.

Only two performances remain to catch “Hercules. For dates and tickets, go to

PostHeaderIcon A Young Guy’s Guide To Opera


Tristan und Isolde

I was a latecomer to opera, not falling under its spell until my late forties. Why?  Well, to my mind back then, opera was a foreign world, a musical universe in an orbit all its own. Countless opera fans worldwide treat this 400-year-old art form as a quasi-religion. They know the arcana of each opera’s composition, its performance history, major historical figures and hold passionate beliefs about how the music should be played and each aria should be sung. Such cult-like devotion, combined with opera’s centuries-old association with society’s aristocracy, made me think a guy from the West (not East) Side of Manhattan wouldn’t find opera to my liking.

Guys, don’t repeat my mistake and postpone discovering opera until late in life, or not at all. Let me offer several reasons that may convince young Chicago males to give opera a try.

Singers Are Athletes
When the weekend hits, most young men’s thoughts turn to sports. During the fall and winter opera season, that means the Bears and the Bulls.  Compared to Derrick Rose or Devin Hester, opera may seem like a long shot.  However, opera singers are athletes in their own right.

Like athletes, opera singers’ instruments are their voices. To be able to project their voice out to the rafters of the upper balcony’s last row without aid of a microphone is an athletic feat comparable to a running back or a marathon runner. All require great lung capacity, stamina and physicality. “These guys (and ladies) are strong,” says Roger Pines, the dramaturg at Lyric Opera for the past 15 years. “(To sing) Puccini or Verdi is a huge feat of singing force and power.”

Great Stories
I used to think the plots of most opera’s were outdated and overly melodramatic. They may seem so in reading the bare plot summaries but, on stage, the stories and emotions come alive in a larger-than-life way. You want stories about love, lust for power, sex, tales of the gods or the meaning of life? Opera has them all in spades. As Metropolitan Opera trustee and major donor, Agnes Varnis,

commented recently, “The opera’s like Broadway, only better. It’s got sex, it’s got incest, it’s got rape. You introduce young people to music, you’ve got them for life.”

opera couple

Porgy & Bess

Better than Broadway
Ms. Varnis’ non-PC remark hit the nail for me. Over the past five years, on semi-annual trips to New York, my hometown, I’ve bypassed Broadway in favor of seeing an opera at the Met. Such a choice has become a no-brainer because most Broadway musicals are retreads or not very engaging. And now that opera managers are engaging many more directors with theater experience, like Chicagoans Barbara Gaines or Gary Griffin, to stage new productions, the results on stage are more imaginative and gripping.

Opera usually has more complex, imaginative sets, richer costumes and a full orchestra of at least 80 members rather than a pared-down ensemble of fewer than 15 musicians. And the ticket cost differential is almost non-existent with premium Broadway seats going for $250 and up.

Better Date Cred
Tell that lady you’re trying to impress and move your relationship to the next level that you’ve got tickets to the Goodman and she’ll be pleased. But tell her to dress up because you’re taking her to Lyric Opera or The Met and your stock jumps dramatically. She may now see you in a brighter light, as being more sophisticated and with definite mating potential.

More Eye Candy
Besides staging more theatrically-attuned productions, major opera companies are busy retiring the old stereotype of the “Fat Lady” from the legendary expression, “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings”.

The days of Montserrat Caballe and Jane Eaglen-type leading ladies are numbered. That was the message conveyed in 2004 when a director at London’s Royal Opera House dropped Deborah Voigt from a production of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, because she was unable to fit into a tiny black dress. Ms. Voight, seeing which way the opera winds were blowing, subsequently underwent gastric bypass surgery and has resumed her top rank as a slimmer, but no less dramatic, diva.

Nadja Michael in Macbeth

Nadja Michael in Macbeth

So, men, if you crave slim, believable, beautiful leading ladies, you now have divas such as Joyce DiDonato, Ana Maria Martinez, Anna Netrebko and Elina Garanca and many others to galvanize your attention and win your heart.  At the present time, through October 30, you can be mesmerized by the stunning Nadja Michael who is playing Lady Macbeth to a tee at Lyric Opera. I watched in fascination last week as Ms. Michael, sheathed in a super-sexy thigh-high slit dress, gave a tour de force vocal performance driving Macbeth to murderous mayhem. It was easy to see why Macbeth was a goner. What man could resist a woman of such wicked wiles?

Nadja Michael & Thomas Hampson - Macbeth

Nadja Michael & Thomas Hampson - Macbeth

Opera now offers more ogling opportunities for young males than in decades past and less excuse for dozing off after Act One. And, during intermission, keep your eyes peeled for attractive, unaccompanied females who might be looking for their next opera arm candy as well.

For those five reasons, I urge 21-35 year-old men to give opera a chance. It’s not your parents’ opera anymore. Creative general managers like Peter Gelb in New York along Bill Mason and Brian Dickie here in Chicago are re-configuring it to appeal to a wider audience to insure its survival. The music and the voices must certainly remain the primary driving force. But there are many changes that are being made to modernize and replace practices grown stale and reinvigorate the mission.



If you’re a neophyte, take in that timeless tale of passion and fickle love, Georges Bizet’s “Carmen”, Lyric’s next production. See why this tale of a sex-bomb, gypsy seductress is the world’s most popular opera. Katherine Goeldner (October-November performances) or Nadia Krasteva (March) should get your hormones racing. You can even fantasize that, while Don Jose didn’t have the cojones to tame Carmen’s love ‘em and leave ‘em ways, she might have met her match in you.

Note: If your knowledge of the operas at Lyric this season is rudimentary or nil, you can get up to speed by attending one or more of the six remaining talks in Lyric’s Discovery Series, led by Roger Pines. The next one is Nov. 8th on “A Masked Ball.” Call Lyric at 312/332-2244 to register. For tickets:

PostHeaderIcon Opera’s “New Clothes”: Changes in Performance Practice

Three DecembersThe opera season ended last weekend at both The Met in New York and locally with Chicago Opera Theater’s very-winning and beautifully sung production of Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers” starring Frederica von Stade in her final opera appearance in Chicago. The season’s end seems a good moment to think about changes taking place in the opera world.

Even infrequent opera-goers can surmise that this four-century-old art form is in a period of transformation. The changes are vocal, economic and technological.  Most are changes of degree rather than radical in nature.  One or two, however, strike me as unprecedented. Taken together, they add up to a U-turn or two in opera programming and performance practice.

My thinking on this topic was provoked while examining the 2010-11 season brochure for Lyric Opera of Chicago. Sure, theater directors have, over the past 40 years, directed operas from John Dexter and Harold Prince to Sir Peter Hall and Peter Sellers. But Lyric’s eight productions next season feature six directors with strong past theater ties. Only former opera star, Renata Scotto, and John Copley of Covent Garden are primarily opera directors.

So, I started out exploring the following changes that seem to break from past operatic practice: 1) the greater use of theater directors, 2) opera moving beyond its own four walls, 3) the decline of the proverbial “Fat Lady” and 4) growing use of modern-dress productions.

I spoke with Chicago’s two operatic leaders—Bill Mason, general director of Lyric Opera and Brian Dickie at Chicago Opera Theater.

Both men shared memories gleaned from 50+ year associations with opera companies. Mason’s time has been spent entirely at Lyric, beginning with a walk-on role as a lad of 12 while Dickie spent over 30 years with the renowned Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Wexford Festival in England.

Both general directors played down any surprise about the use of theater directors overseeing opera productions.  Names like Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Jonathan Miller, John Copley and Peter Hall were bandied about.  The trend

has been more common in England than here which Mason attributed to London’s centrality and lively arts scene. “It happens more in England. Most theatrical talent is focused in London” while the same concentration is less prevalent here.

I asked both men when using a director more versed in the spoken word of theater than the musical language of opera makes sense. “It’s all about the music and sensitivity to the text but also the musical text,” said Dickie. “(Good directors) must have that language in their bodies. Directors can’t make singers do something that clashes with the musical text.”

Mason’s view on how to employ a theater director and insure a successful production is “it helps if both the company and director know the challenges the work presents to insure the best collaboration.  At the first presentation of the director’s ideas for staging the work, it is necessary to establish artistic parameters. Sometimes a director comes with a conception at odds with our view and you need to make changes or economize.”

Both men threw out the names of favored directors who had handled that transition very successfully. Mason cited Jean Pierre Ponnelle, Copley and David McVicker while Dickie named Carl Ebert at Deutsche Oper and gave particular praise to Wieland Wagner and his role in reestablishing the Bayreuth Festival in the 1960s.

However, Lyric and The Met’s greater reliance on theater directors, such as Charles Newell, Gary Griffin, Peter Sellers and Mary Zimmerman has contributed to two other changes: a focus on appearance and greater stage movement.

Not every such engagement is a successful marriage.  Pierre Audi’s static direction of Verdi’s “Attila” at the Met this past season is a case in point as are the two productions Mary Zimmerman has staged there as well, a “Lucia di Lammermoor” and this season’s “Armida”, both  of which received very mixed critical receptions.  There’s a general feeling that her acclaimed use of improvisation and movement in her theater work is not as transferable to opera.

Another major change is tied to our society’s obsession with being thin, fed by our celebrity culture. Deborah Voigt was cut from a production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 2004 because her weight made it impossible to fit into an infamous “tiny black dress”. The director asserted her heft made her unbelievable as the svelte and sexy female lead.  The signal was thus sent that visual appearance had entered the opera world and rendered the saying, “It ain’t over till the fat lady sings” moot.  Mason admits European houses “give more importance to the physical look.”

We want our Carmens to be smoldering femme fatales and Lyric intends to give us the goods next season, even while Mason says, that “at the end of the day, I’m moved by great singing and great dramatic  conviction. Without that dramatic tension, all the bells and whistles can’t help.

Dickie admits that, while he greatly admires Jane Eaglen and Birgit Nillson in her prime, “in the last 10-15 years, increasing attention is being paid to the plausibility of singers. If you can avoid an overweight Isolde, you should do it.”

Peter Gelb at The Met in New York assumed his post in 2006 with a mandate to shake things up. He has done precisely that in his short tenure.  He has insisted on staging many new productions in an attempt to make the classics more appealing to contemporary audiences.

His two signal achievements are the unprecedented telecast of Met productions to more than a hundred movie theaters around the country and a simultaneous telecast of the opening night performance of “Madame Butterfly” in 2007 onto the Jumbotron screen in Times Square.  These moves have created an invaluable visual archive for future artists and audiences.

While the changes have generated hosannas and catcalls, Brian Dickie is a fan.  “Anything that increases interest in opera can be a good thing.”

A final trend that is increasing interest in opera is the increasing use of computer technology in productions and situating characters and the action in the more recent past, retiring tired costume dramas sporting silk hose and medieval armor and set in the 17th or 18th Century.

Perhaps that’s why I’m going to more opera these days. An element of surprise and anticipation has re-entered opera. When it’s good, it’s better than anything on any Broadway or West End stage. And believable characters, strong dramatic action, a winning artistic concept and glorious voices make it an art form that should survive another century.

PostHeaderIcon A Marriage In Heavenly Song

FigaroLyric Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is ending the 2009-2010  season on a triumphant  high note.  It must share top honors, however in my view, with the earlier production of Leos Janacek’s tale of sexual and social repression, “Katya Kabanova” that featured an outstanding vocal and gripping dramatic performance by Karita Mattila.  I cannot remember ever attending a more viscerally emotional opera at Lyric.

I had been anticipating this revival of the Peter Hall production, most recently staged in 2003-04, ever since seeing the dream cast Lyric had assembled.  While Kyle Kettelson sang Figaro with full-bodied tone and authority, “Figaro” is an opera that revolves around the leading female roles—Susanna, Figaro’s fiancée who is also being pursued by Count Almaviva, the suffering Countess who gains her revenge and Cherubino, the Count’s young male page who has the hots for every woman he sees, in a superb reverse gender portrayal by Joyce DiDonato.

None of the ladies disappointed as consummate singing actors. Their signature arias were perfect in every detail with special praise for soprano Anne Scheanewilms, the Countess, and her achingly beautiful “Dove Sono”. Unfortunately, Ms. Schwanewilms has withdrawn from remaining performances due to a bronchial infection.  Her replacement for the final six performances, starting March 15th, will be soprano Nicole Cabell.

While Figaro, Bartolo and the Count weave a tangled web of lechery, jealousy, vanity and suspicion, it is, says Lyric dramaturg, Roger Pines, “the women’s guiles, wiles and wisdom (that) save face and restore faith” in the wonder of love. The opera, which dates from 1786, seems quite modern in its focus on the frailty of le relations between the sexes that still rings true.

Lost in all the comic tomfoolery is any recognition that the libretto, based on Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais’ play of the same name, was initially seen as deeply political. The opera premiered three years before the bloody French Revolution.  It raised official disfavor for both its portrayal of class conflict between the Count and Susanna, the Countess’ maid, and for exposing the Count’s boorish behavior to public ridicule. Depicting the shortcomings of the aristocracy was viewed with serious disfavor.

But politics takes a back seat to Mozart’s magical score. And stage director Herbert Kellner kept the action moving briskly, precisely the right tempo at which to play this Mozart confection. The three-and-a-half hour performance breezed by and I left the theatre feeling giddy and lighthearted.

Seven more chances (through March 27) remain to catch this utterly winning production. For tickets, go to