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September 2015
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With 3 operas on 1 night, which do you pick?

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opera_decisions_745alt

When three opera companies in one city all open their seasons on the same night, which opera do you attend? On Saturday, September 26, 2015, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Chicago Opera Theater, and Chicago Fringe Opera opened their seasons, performing The Marriage of Figaro, Lucio Silla, and The Turn of the Screw respectively.

With two operas by Mozart and one by Britten, opera loving Chicagoans had some tough decisions to make about what to attend. Though I couldn’t be in all three places at once, WFMT staff attended each of the three performances to ask audience members why they decided to attend. I also spoke with leaders at each company to learn why they programmed these operas as their season openers.

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Marriage of Figaro

WHAT THE GENERAL DIRECTOR SAID ABOUT OPENING NIGHT

Lyric’s General Director Anthony Freud told me he chose The Marriage of Figaro to open the current season because it “is one of the greatest of all operas, indeed it is one of the great masterpieces of Western art. It is life-enhancing, funny, moving and tells us as much about our lives today as about those of the characters of the opera, which is set in the late eighteenth century. What a perfect, celebratory way to open our 61st season.”

In the company’s 61-year history, Figaro has been performed during 9 different opera seasons, most recently during the 2009-10 season. Though Figaro is a favorite on Lyric’s stage, the company “has not done a new production of Figaro for 28 years,” Freud said, adding, “It was high time we created a new production of it.” For the new Figaro, Lyric teamed up with Barbara Gaines, artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Freud said that Figaro, with a libretto by the revolutionary Beaumarchais, “is a perfect piece for Barbara Gaines…The characters in Figaro are multilayered and complex, allowing Barbara to explore them with our wonderful cast and conductor, and to bring them vividly and unforgettably to life.”

Programming Figaro as the season opener fits with the company’s mission to present a “wide range of operatic, musical and theatrical styles,” Freud said.  “This season’s repertoire encompasses a world premiere (Bel Canto) alongside operatic masterpieces, both tragic and comic, spanning three centuries.”

WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT OPENING NIGHT

Craig Hensel and his wife Summer were excited to see their first opera ever on Lyric’s opening night. Summer explained, “Our son will be in Wozzeck later this season, so we’re just so excited to get to come and be a part of this season.” Though Summer didn’t know much about the opera in advance, she said “I’m super pumped. I’m a big classical music geek. I would watch Amadeus for fun.”

Amy Potter and Saint Lovett came to opening night together on a date. Potter said her aunt and uncle are season subscribers, and so is she. She decided to bring Lovett along to enjoy this new production of Figaro, who was visiting the Civic Opera House for the first time. Lovett said he’s “a big fan of Figaro. It’s the one opera I’ve actually heard of so I’m really looking forward it.” He added, “I just love beautiful music, the ambience, the environment, it’s great to see so many people out tonight for the show.”

Michelle Mbekeani, from Oak Park, said “The Marriage of Figaro has definitely been a favorite since high school, so I am looking forward to it, I’m a big fan.” She likes going to opening night because, “I always love seeing people and what they’re wearing, the energy – everyone’s really excited for the upcoming season, and it’s always a good opening night.”

Randy Wostratzky, who came to opening night with his wife, is a part of Lyric’s Young Professional group, and was looking forward to experiencing his second Mozart opera. Previously, Wostratsky had seen The Magic Flute at Lyric. He said that he likes attending opening night because, “there’s nothing like it. It’s really kind of one of the most unique events someone can go to.” He likes being able to come to the Civic Opera House to enjoy a drink and the crowd before seeing “one of the greatest performances from one of the greatest composers of all time.”

Kim and Stefan Zajczenko attended opening night with their two daughters not only to celebrate Lyric’s 61st season, but also to celebrate their 16th anniversary! They come to opening night every season for their anniversary, and this year, they decided to bring their daughters, Natalie and Stephanie, after they enjoyed Carousel at Lyric earlier this year.

Wyatt Steel attended his second opera by going to Lyric’s opening night of Figaro. The first opera he saw ever was Aida at Lyric years ago. What brought him back to the Civic Opera House? “The date! The date was the reason,” he said, motioning to his girlfriend. “We were talking about it. We both had an interest, and it became something that we just put together pretty quickly. For a date night, it’s a great idea. We’re looking forward to the show and the atmosphere is great!” His girlfriend was attending the opera for the very time, and was glad to have an occasion to dress up and hear some amazing music.

Shaheen Ranjha and her husband Alex were glad to attend opening night at Lyric because “it’s been quite a number of years since we’ve been here. We haven’t been to an opening night before. We’ve been away for so long, why not start with an opening night?” Shaheen, who was dressed in a beautiful gown with matching head piece, added, “there’s a lot of energy, you can sense from everyone’s faces that there’s a lot of anticipation, everyone’s excited to be here, everyone’s dressed up for the occasion. It’s a beautiful night!”

Listen to some of the remarks above and the ambience in the Rice Grand Foyer of the Civic Opera House:

Chicago Opera Theater’s Lucio Silla

WHAT THE GENERAL DIRECTOR SAID ABOUT OPENING NIGHT

Down the street from the Civic Opera House, while Figaro was already mid-way through his “day of folly,” another Mozart opera was just about to begin: Lucio Silla at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Andreas Mitisek, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, told me that he selected Lucio Silla because of the “opportunity to have a Mozart opera premiere in Chicago. Our season opener fits in with what the company does. We like to bring people something new and unexpected.”

Lucio Silla, like many of Mozart’s early works, is rarely revived in modern times in comparison to his later operas. “It was written when Mozart was 16,” Mitisek said. “It is a powerful piece with wonderful music that already foreshadows the great music and operas that we already know.” Though Mozart was young when he composed Lucio Silla, Mitisek reminded me that “it was his eighth opera, so he was already an experienced opera composer.”

“You could almost call it La clemenza di Silla because there are overarching themes, both musically and dramaturgically, between this early opera and what he was working on at the end of his life, La clemenza di Tito. Actually when I listen to Lucio Silla, I hear a lot of Così fan tutte and foreshadowing of Don Giovanni.”

WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT OPENING NIGHT

Eric Li decided to attend Lucio Silla because “I know nothing about it,” he said. “When we talk about Mozart, we talk about The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni. We’re used to comedy with Mozart but Lucio Silla is a not necessarily characteristic of what we think of his operas.” Li described himself as “a huge opera fan” and considered going to both COT and Lyric’s opening night. “We were one day too late to get tickets to Figaro,” he said, “but I probably won’t see it because I’ve seen it plenty of times.”

Wendy Silhavy said that she and her husband Michael Silhavy are “very excited that Chicago Opera Theater allows us to see rarely staged and performed works. It’s our only chance to see this work. I’ve never heard it before and no one I know has heard it before.” Michael was glad that he had to choose between “two Mozart operas in one city in one night? That’s a pretty great thing! We’re seeing The Marriage of Figaro in a couple of weeks, and we’re subscribers to both Chicago Opera Theater and the Lyric Opera.”

Tina Engels explained that Google got her to Lucio Silla, almost like a plot twist in a Mozart opera:

I got an email about the Lyric Opera’s Figaro, and I just Googled ‘Chicago and opera,’ and this company came up first. I didn’t know this one existed. When I clicked on the link and I saw that this was playing, I didn’t even go any further, I just bought the ticket right away. But then I realized that The Marriage of Figaro at Lyric is so much more expensive. This was one was much more reasonable. I thought about going to both, maybe I’d go to this one this weekend and that one that weekend. But this has been a big year with a lot of expenses. I’m familiar with the Harris Theater, and it’s easy to get here, and it’s so beautiful down here. And I’ve been here for a Mozart concert, so I’m familiar with the Harris from that.

Engels said that while she hadn’t heard of COT, she was familiar with Lucio Silla. “Mozart was so young when he composed it. You know, I had heard the overture many times, and it’s one of my favorites. But, I’ve hardly heard it performed. And I thought, ‘why isn’t anyone else on board with me? This is great!’ So I’m excited to hear the whole thing not just the overture.”

But while Lucio Silla wasn’t new to her, Lucio Silla was her very first live opera. She said that between Lucio Silla and Figaro, cost and the novelty of seeing something different wasn’t the only thing that influenced her decision to attend. “Since it’s my first opera. Two-and-a-half hours is a better introduction to opera for me.”

Mozart lover Miriam Lahey wanted to see Lucio Silla because “it’s not very well performed, but it got a nice review in the Chicago Tribune today.” Moreover, “It’s Mozart! You don’t have to have anything else when it’s Mozart!” Lahey added, “I came to see what he was doing at 16, to see if it prefigures what he is doing in his writing later in life, or to see perhaps that it doesn’t have any connection to it.”

Bart Collopy, Lahey’s date for the evening, said that they enjoy seeing as many operas as they can. “We also subscribe to the Lyric Opera and we’re addicted to the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts which are beamed into the movie theatres here in Chicago. This season we’ll probably see and hear 17 or 18 operas in addition to this one.” Collopy was curious about this particular production of Lucio Silla because, “it’s being done unusually – the recitatives are being done in English and the arias in Italian. It’ll be interesting to see if that works. It’s a bit strange but it might work wonderfully, I don’t know.”

Lucio Silla isn’t the only rarely-performed Mozart opera Alice and Stuart Creason have seen this season. Alice said, “We were just in Santa Fe last month, so we saw another early Mozart opera there – La finta giardiniera, and Lucio Silla was written just a few years after that. We’re going to see The Marriage of Figaro at Lyric next week. So, it’s fun to see his early style – it’s very much teenage themes and raging hormones going on. But you can also see that hint of what is going to come.”

Alice said she enjoys attending COT performances not just because of the repertoire the company selects but also the singers. “I watched the YouTube video the put online and I was blown away by the female voices,” she said enthusiastically. “I thought, ‘These are some amazing singers, I haven’t heard of them, but they’re amazing!’ It’s nice to hear some up and coming singers, that’s one of the nicer things about going to Chicago Opera Theater.”

Dave Govertsen and John Colemeyer decided that when it comes to Mozart, they both want as much as possible! They attended the opening night of Lucio Silla at the Harris, but listened to WFMT’s broadcast of the first two acts of Lyric’s Figaro during the drive to the theatre. Goversten said, Both of us are excited to see an opera that we’ve never seen before by a composer that we know very well. This is the only night I could see Lucio Silla, and there will be 10 or 12 Figaros and I will get to see one of those, but this one I better see!” Colemeyer added, “I’ve seen about 500 different operas in my lifetime and this is one more.”

Chicago Fringe Opera’s The Turn of the Screw

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WHAT THE PRODUCTION DIRECTOR SAID ABOUT OPENING NIGHT

Chicago’s newest opera company, Chicago Fringe Opera, opened their season with a site-specific production of Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in the Berger Park Mansion on Chicago’s far north side. George Cederquist, CFO’s Head of Production and the Stage Director for The Turn of the Screw said, “Based on the success of our first season, we wanted to open our second season with a big production.  Doing an immersive, site-specific production of The Turn of the Screw certainly is big!”

The company selected this piece, Cederquist said, because, “as part of our mission statement, we produce works that are written in English.  Britten, of course, is a natural choice as a composer. The Turn of the Screw provided good roles for our company members, and also allowed us the option of producing the piece in a non-traditional and immersive way.”

“In conceptualizing the production, I knew I needed a mansion that could be transformed into somewhere suitably spooky, but that also had the infrastructure in place for hosting an audience and a cast,” Cederquist explained. “The Chicago Park District liked our pitch of doing the show at the Berger Park Cultural Center, with the audience moving around the rooms of the Mansion,” he continued.  “The location of Berger Park also allowed us to connect with the Edgewater neighborhood, which has a great arts scene itself.”

[Pictured above is Jessie Lyons, soprano, singing Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw]

WHAT YOU SAID ABOUT OPENING NIGHT

Jonathan Schwart, Stuart Thompson, and Samuel Dewese all attend Lyric performances, but were eager to see CFO’s opening night production. Schwart said he was unaware that Lyric’s opening night was the same as CFO’s, even though he is a subscriber. Thompson, also a Lyric subscriber, said, “Turn of the Screw is a work I’ve always wanted to see and I’ve never seen it yet. The Marriage of Figaro is a favorite, but I’ll see that some other time.” Dewese, like Thompson, said “I like Benjamin Britten a lot and I’ve never seen this opera live.” Dewese added, “I did know that there were other shows tonight, but unlike my friends I am not a subscriber, I buy my tickets a la carte.”

Trina Kakacek, who works in theater said, “I like what Chicago Fringe is doing. I like that they’re on the edge and exploring the art form in a different way and making it accessible to new audiences. I also love promenade-style performances. I do a lot of experimental theater myself, and I love having performers right in your face. It’ll be really interesting to hear singing so close.”

Andra Simon, like Kakecek, is in the arts.  She said, “I work in music and I hadn’t heard about this company before so I wanted to come see their work.” Simon, who attended with her husband James, said she had never seen The Turn of the Screw.  While “I know about the other opera companies in town, I couldn’t tell you what operas they’re doing tonight.”

One audience member, Emily Hasley, found out about CFO’s opening night production when planning her trip to Chicago from Cincinnati. “We heard it was a fringe opera, and we’re from out of town just looking for something interesting to do. We found out about it on the Internet.” She doesn’t consider herself an opera aficionado and didn’t know about Chicago’s other opera companies, but has an adventurous attitude and enjoys “anything with the arts.”


 

I, Stephen Raskauskas, was joined by Michael San Gabino at the Civic Opera House for Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Marriage of Figaro, Sarah Zwinklis and Rebecca Nystedt went to the Harris Theater to attend Chicago Opera Theater’s Lucio Silla, and Estlin Usher and Ximena Conde went to The Turn of the Screw at Berger Park Mansion.

For more information about Lyric Opera of Chicago, visit the company’s website.

For more information about Chicago Opera Theater, visit the company’s website.

For more information about Chicago Fringe Opera, visit the company’s website.

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