By Johnny Oleksinski
Right away I knew something was up at the Civic Opera House on January 5. The lights dimmed and the familiar, soothing British brogue of Lyric Opera principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis boomed its usual, prerecorded message prohibiting the use of cellphones in the Ardis Krainik Theatre. So far, so good. Then Davis announced that a vehicle with the license plate “FLEMING DIVA 1” was blocking Wacker Drive. Wait, what? Moments later, the sprightly omnipresent voice informed us that a wealthy patron’s mink coat checked in the lobby was still alive. Huh? No, this was not opening night of “La bohème” or “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” or even the closing of “Don Pasquale”; this was “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” another exciting product of the fledgling Lyric Unlimited program.
And, at the time, it sure seemed like a one-night-only event. The revue of opera-based sketch comedy, improv and unlikely operatic musical interludes was hosted by soprano Renée Fleming and “Star Trek” actor Sir Patrick Stewart for a sold-out audience of 3,500 people. More significantly, the show was performed outside of the regular Lyric subscription season. Celebrity schedules and individual ticket sales can be awfully harsh mistresses to sustain for very long. However, what Lyric and its audience found on that night was that the special element wasn’t Fleming or Stewart, brilliant though they were, but two indefatigable cultural landmarks coming together. Founded in 1954, Lyric is only five years Second City’s senior, and that feeling of history being made was palpable, along with the total abandonment of the upright rigidity many have come to expect of opera. Then again, it was the fanciest evening of improv I’ve yet to witness.
So, Lyric and Second City are teaming up once again this summer; this time for an entire month of performances. How are they tackling the cavernous Ardis Krainik Theatre? Well, they’re not really. Lyric is bringing the audience up onstage to enable a mood and arrangement closer to Second City’s Wells Street venues, accompanied by some more picturesque scenery. Actor Tim Sniffen, returning from the original run, tells me they’ll situate about 300 people onstage for every show—a seriously unique opportunity for opera-goers to sit where Maria Callas once sang. Plus, “the view looking out on the house is so cool.”
Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant, was actually the catalyst behind the collaboration. After hearing a sample of her voice being used in a Second City revue, the idea came to her and she got the ball rolling with general director Anthony Freud. That CD of Renée Fleming arias was funnily enough a gift to music director Jesse Case from his mom, “so,” actor Tim Sniffen tells me, “the person truly responsible for the show is Jesse Case’s mom.”
Fleming sang Puccini’s “Un bel di” and Gershwin’s “Summertime” during the January performance: operatic escapes from the comedy and warm reminders of the room we were sitting in. Sniffen says that, despite the diva’s absence, such musical moments will still be included in the show with the help of two new opera singers. In fact, as of right now, every sketch seen in January will return to the June run. But there will be tweaking, additions and subtractions nightly as in any Second City revue. What change is Tim most excited about? “The moments of improvisation might be more connected to the audience because when you’re performing to 4,000 people, it’s like performing to an airport. With this, there’ll be a little bit more room for really connecting with people, hearing different suggestions. I think we have a little more improvisation in this new show.”
“The Second City Guide to the Opera” begins on May 31 and runs through June 30 at the Civic Opera House, 20 North Wacker. Visit lyricopera.org for tickets.