When it comes to opera in Chicago, opera-goers have two choices: go with the crowd over to big-budget Lyric Opera and its La Scala West repertoire centered on Italian operatic warhorses, or go with the opera cognoscente over to the smaller Chicago Opera Theater, the more innovative, discerning and adventurous of the two companies whose broader repertoire not only extends well beyond Lyric’s Italian base but spans the dawn of opera up through the twenty-first century.
From its inception thirty-four years ago, COT founder Alan Stone wanted to make sure that the company would not be perceived as a “little Lyric” but as a distinct company with its own identity and approach. Works that were too intimate for the cavernous Civic Opera House or that were either too old or too new for Lyric’s conservative subscriber base became the mainstay repertoire of COT and achieved such extraordinary success that late Lyric general manager Ardis Krainik tried some COT-inspired innovations, including the “Towards the 21st Century” initiative, which featured one contemporary American and contemporary European opera each season leading up to the new century, though Krainik’s successor William Mason ended up abandoning the program and now feels that Lyric’s seasons should have only two unknown (in Lyricspeak, unknown is synonymous with “unpopular,” which equals donor poison) operas out of eight per season, whatever century they may come from. While doing a Handel opera is conservative for Chicago Opera Theater, since Lyric has only discovered Handel in the last decade (unless you count such sideshows as Jon Vickers singing the oratorio “Samson” and Marilyn Horne singing “Orlando”), Handel repertoire is considered “new” and unfamiliar at Lyric.
And this year, though there bizarrely wasn’t a single Mozart opera to be heard all season long over at Lyric, COT is presenting the one Mozart opera to be heard in Chicago this year by opening its season this week with “Don Giovanni” (April 30-May 11) and further beats Lyric to the punch with the first ever live Chicago television broadcast of an opera free to Millennium Park’s Pritzker Pavilion at 7:30pm May 9. “‘Don Giovanni’ is the culmination of the triptych of the three Mozart-DaPonte operas that we inaugurated some years ago with the same creative team [conductor Jane Glover and director Diane Paulus], and something we are all looking forward to,” assesses COT general manager Brian Dickie. “The setting is a high-end New York nightclub where Don Giovanni is the proprietor and we hope that the broadcast will give a larger number of people a chance not only to see some great opera, but to see what this company is all about.”
True, Lyric did John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” this season, but COT brought Adams’ most celebrated opera, “Nixon in China,” to Chicago two years earlier with a production that so impressed its composer that he agreed to come back to COT—not Lyric, mind you—to conduct the Chicago premiere of his latest work, “A Flowering Tree” (May 14-25), based on an Indian folktale which the composer describes as his own take on Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” “John was enthusiastic with what the company did with ‘Nixon’ and audiences so embraced it that this seemed a natural follow-up,” Dickie says. “He wanted very much to conduct with us, but could only do the first two performances because he has another conducting engagement in Europe, but we have his very talented assistant coming in to do the remaining performances who knows the piece inside and out.”
And though Lyric did do Handel’s “Orlando” twenty years ago in a very stodgy and bombastic manner with Marilyn Horne sporting armor in a role written for a male castrato, this year’s COT production (May 28-June 8) will be the first performed by a countertenor (Tim Mead) that is giving attention to eighteenth-century performance practice with British conductor and early music specialist Raymond Leppard at the podium but with a contemporary update done in 1940s film-noir style.
The company’s thirty-fifth anniversary season has already been announced and the once-struggling COT looks to have a bright future ahead of itself, but Dickie is always looking ahead, even beyond the time that he will be running the company. “I’m 67,” says Dickie, “and there are so many opera voids in this town that I will not get a chance to fill, which will fall to my successor. And I’m still struggling with how to get all those core Lyric subscribers to try us out. Once they come, they subscribe, but getting them here is half the battle.” (Dennis Polkow)
Chicago Opera Theater’s season runs through June 8 at the Harris Theater, 205 East Randolph, (312)704-8414.