Instead of the COVID-19 cutting back Chicago’s arts scene, it has inspired more opera and theater performances and more exhibits. Part One spotlights opera. Part two looks at the exhibits on now and opening. Part Three draws curtains back from formerly dark stages.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago will welcome audiences back in 2021 to a refurbished Opera House with crowd pleasing, re-imagined favorites and its first mainstage season Spanish language opera.
The Chicago Opera Theater will be mixing a favorite with new and not heard here before operas in its 2021-22 season.
And let’s have a drum roll for the Opera Festival of Chicago, a newly formed group of artists who are already filling a summer festival void with three productions.
Maestro Enrique Mazzola opens the season with Verdi’s Macbeth Sept 17-Oct 9, followed by Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love Sept. 26-Oct 8. Then Mozart’s Magic Flute will be Nov. 3-Nov. 27 and Catan’s Florencia en el Amazonas, Nov. 13-Nov. 28. More announcements will be made about the second half of the 2021-22 season.
COT, as it’s popularly known, opens with Bizet’s Carmen Sept 16 and 18 at Harris Theater for Music and Dance, followed by Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, Dec. 11, 17 and 19 at the Studebaker Theater. The season ends with Errolyn Wallen and Deborah Brevert’s Quamino’s Map April 23, 29, and May 1, also at Studebaker Theater.
Newly formed to introduce Chicago audiences to Italian operas they likely have not heard before, the artists hope to make the Festival an annual draw similar to those in Spoleto and Verona.
The Festival opened with Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s Il Segreto di Susanna (Susanna’s Secret), July 24 at the Athenaeum Theatre.
Then it will do“Dante 700,” at Artifact Events in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood, July 28 and July 29. Inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the program is a vocal salute to the famed poet, writer and philosopher on the 700th anniversary of his death.
The Festival ends Aug. 5 with Puccini’s Il tabarro (The Cloak) performed at Thalia Hall in Chicago’s Pilsner neighborhood.
Going to different neighborhoods is part of the Festival’s mission statement which reads, in part, “we aspire to: generate an inquisitive operatic appetite within Chicago audiences; make our work – and its cultural context – accessible to a wide audience; provide a stimulating and inspirational environment of Italian opera for artists and audiences alike…
Hear the word Valhalla, and Norse mythology and Germanic tales come to mind or if an opera buff it is Wagner’s Ring cycle with Brünnhilde intoning the famed Valkyrie role. But to the Chicago Opera Theater and the Met Guild in New York City when the word Media is added to Valhalla it refers to the talented company that is bringing COT’s current productions and a Met Guild Masterclass to viewers during the pandemic.
During this past year of arts and entertainment venues closing their doors and turning to streaming live or taped programs just to stay in the public’s consciousness and keep some revenue streams flowing, putting productions on digitally is different but not a surprise. What may arguably surprise the A&E groups who use and may contact them is that Valhalla Media is two opera singers: Alexandra “Lexi” LoBianco and Nikolas “Nik” Wenzel.
To the Lyric Opera of Chicago, LoBianco is the talented soprano who is a frequent guest artist and in demand at opera houses around the world, and Wenzel is a talented bass member of the Lyric Chorus.
So why did two well-regarded opera singers form a company that live streams opera and concerts? And why the name Valhalla?
“You might thing that because Nik and I sing Wagner that it would be the reason. However, this name goes beyond our singing and into so much more,” said LoBianco.
“When we picked Valhalla Media one of the main reasons was because in order to gain access to Valhalla, you must cross the rainbow bridge. Inclusion was at the heart of why we chose the name. The image of Valhalla being a place where everyone was included and that we strive to make the best choices to support organizations that champion diversity was at our core,” she said.
They started the company in 2020 when appearance contracts were canceled and, as LoBianco said, “the rug was pulled out from under the classical music community.”
The idea was to mount their own productions which they did in the Studebaker Theater in Chicago’s historic Fine Arts Building. They started with a recital for Will Liverman with pianist Paul Sanchez on June 26 that showcased African-American composers‘ and a debut Shawn Okpebholo’s new work followed on June 27 by Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Live in Concert.
“Our first production was one of the very first truly live digital broadcasts that weekend, nothing taped. We had Will and his pianist on stage,” said LoBianco.
They pulled in Southern Illinois University Journalism Director Jan Thompson who is known for documentaries to work with them as video director.
“She called the shots. The bulk of her professional career is doing live and classical music. She can break down a score to know when and what shots to do,” said LoBianco.
She recalled that they had a “decent turnout” of viewers thanks to friends and social media. “Then opera companies saw and heard about us,” she said.
That included Chicago Opera Theater. “They said they’d like to work with us to help make their season happen,” said LoBianco.
The recording and staging was at the Studebaker which LoBianco and Wenzel like. “The sound there is good. Sound is an important part of opera, she said.”
Some of those productions are part of COT’s Vanguard initiative for developing new operas and encouraging operatic composers. Others are a regular part of what the 2020-2021 season was supposed to have.
COT’s General Director Ashley Magnus said, “Streaming productions has worked well for us this season, allowing us to produce in a year when no live audience is possible, and expanding our reach outside of Chicago.”
“We are thrilled to be working with COT for the season,” LoBianco said.
Valhala Media will shortly be going over to NYC to work with the Met Guild to do a Masterclass with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo to happen April 22.
“While I wish we could continue to produce our own content, which we plan to in the future, we are immensely grateful to be able to provide the digital backbone through our platform and for the film & audio portion of this new, crazy world.,” said LoBianco.
Talking with the pair by phone from their home in Park Ridge, IL the two partners in work and life explained they both had back stage theater experience so knew it takes more than a fine voice to make a production work.
“Nik and I both come from tech theater backgrounds. We came to this (forming Walhala Media) with the understanding it take more than the singer to put on a production. I’ve been a stage hand and so was Nik.”
Wenzel added, “Alexandra and I talked about forming our own company even before COVID hit. We always had a passion for classical music, and the tech background that comes with that. We’re familiar with every aspect of production.”
However, they still plan to continue in their chosen field of performing.
“I love my job with the Lyric. I have a contract for 25-30 weeks,” said Wenzel
In spite of all the rave reviews and the demand for her in a wide range of roles LoBianco said, “I’m humbled by the amount of work I have. I’m very lucky.”
Many themes in the arts have universal relevance. ‘The Consul,’ currently in production by the Chicago Opera Theater, is a great example.
People from villages, cities, and countries all over the world can identify with this modern opera composed by Gian Carlo Menotti. Based on immigrants and political refugees, the opera takes place in an anonymous totalitarian country.
‘The Consul’ debuted in 1950 and went on to win the New York Drama Critic Circle’s award as the Best Musical Play. Menotti also garnered a Pulitzer Prize. ‘The Consul’ was described by The New York Times as “an opera of eloquence . . . written from the heart.” Andreas Mitisek, the director, reflected on his own experiences as an immigrant which drew him to this opera.
Award-winning Metropolitan Opera Soprano Patricia Racette plays Magda Sorel, the wife of John, played by Justin Ryan, a dissident who escapes from the police, hurries home and explains to his wife that she must apply for a visa in order to leave the country. John tells Magda to take their frail infant and his mother to the consulate and while they are awaiting their visas, he will hide at the border’s edge and join them once they’ve safely crossed over.
At the consul’s office, Magda fills out the paperwork and submits her application to the clerk and then joins the large group of refugees. The secretary gains everyone’s attention and announces that she cannot guarantee that anyone will receive their visas.
While Magda’s child’s health is failing, she is approached by the police who want information about John, but she refuses to answer any of their questions.
The brilliant voices and beautiful music conducted by Kristof van Grysperre are what increases the emotional depth of this exceptional story. After both her child and mother-in-law pass away, Magda cannot bear to imagine any additional losses, as she descends into a morose state of depression.
‘The Consul’ remains relevant today, as Magda sings “Give us back the earth and make us free.” Unfortunately, our world’s refugees do not have the libretto, arias, scenic design and beauty that this opera provides its audience.
In addition to Patricia Racette and Justin Ryan, the rest of the marvelous performers are Audrey Babcock, Victoria Livengood, Cedric Berry, Kyle Knapp, Vince Wallace, Kimberly E. Jones, Kira Dills-DeSurra, Zacharias Niedzwiecki, and Lani Stait.
DETAILS: ‘The Consul’is at the Studebaker Theater, 410 S. Michigan Ave. through Nov. 12, 2017. For tickets and more information, call (312) 704-8414 or visit Chicago Opera Theater.