Lyric Opera goers may not have known what to expect when taking their seats Oct. 8, 2022, for “The Brightness of Light,” a hybrid one-act opera-song cycle by composer Kevin Puts. But it featured popular lyric soprano Renée Fleming and versatile baritone Rod Gilfry, so the house was filled.
It was an extraordinary experience.
For scenery, the program used the gorgeous artwork of Georgia O’Keeffe, the sensuous photography of Alfred Stieglitz and the dramatic letters they wrote to each other compiled in a projection format designed by Wendall Harrigton.
Puts turned to those letters for his libretto. However, it took the still remarkable Fleming voice and artistry and well-matched baritone of Gilfry to pull off Puts’ intense, challenging music.
“The Brightness of Light,” with Fleming and Gilfry was the Chicago premiere. It is worth seeing and hearing again. Unfortunately, this was a one-time program that has been travelling for a few years. It ended the LA Opera season in June.
Some members of the audience left at intermission to catch trains. Those who stayed were entertained by a charming selection of nine Broadway songs ranging from “Almost Like being in Love” (Brigadoon) to “People Will Say We’re in Love” (Oklahoma).
The entire program featured the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Lyric Music Director Enrique Mazzola which is always a treat.
As to how this all started, Puts explained the following in a note:
“In 2015, I received the honor of a commission from my alma mater, the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. The school’s orchestra was planning a trip to perform at Lincoln Center and wanted to include a new work written by an alumni composer to feature an alumni performer. The performer they had in mind was Renée Fleming and—to my great excitement—she accepted the offer, thereby initiating one of the most treasured collaborations of my career.
We wanted to focus on an iconic American woman as the subject, and I happened on a quote by Georgia O’Keeffe: “My first memory is of the brightness of light, light all around.”
That the US premiere of Komische Oper Berlin’s “Fiddler on the Roof” that opened in 2017, is on stage at Lyric Opera of Chicago now through early October.
It does more than merely fit this productions’ large-scale scenery and cast. Judging by comments heard during intermission, audience members who had not attended an opera here were dazzled by the size and make-up of the hall and building. Maybe, they will return for an opera.
Lyric’s production, directed by Barrie Kosky, definitely takes advantage of an operatic stage with its large chorus of villagers, remarkable dancers, its many main cast members and enough other actors to fill the shtetl of Anatevka in the Pale of Settlement in Imperial Russia.
Of course, when talking as writer Sholem Aleichem (the pen name of Solomon Naumovich Rabinovich) did in stories about the challenges dairyman Tevye had with his many daughters and life in a Russian village (Tevye and his Daughters) what became ‘Fiddler on the Roof” could seem operatic in nature.
The voices of the main characters and chorus and the dances choreographed by Silvarno Marraffa, particularly the spectacular “Bottle Dance,” are worth the visit to the Lyric for the show.
What bothered me was that by going grand, the production, at least for me, lost the small-scale, intimate, Dickens-like peeking in the window that gave “Fiddler” the folk-tale, dream sense Jewish Russian artist Marc Chagall pictured in his works about Jewish life and his painting of the “Green Violinist” used on the program’s cover.
But what brings “Fiddler” to life now is how it ends with the Jewish villagers forced to leave back in 1905. Consider how many of the residents of the region which later became part of Ukraine, are sadly part of a war-driven exodus in 2022.
What was meaningful to me and beautifully brought out in the musical’s book by Joseph Stein, music by Jetty Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick was the underlying theme of tradition vs change. You hear it and think about it the song “Tradition” and “Sunrise Sunset” and in Tevye’s musings with G…d.
Note: I should explain that “Fiddler” is personal. My father’s family of several sons and daughters left that region for the United States. His father whom we called Zaidi, was a tailor and they were Orthodox Jews. My father talked about how horrible the Russian Cossacks were to the villagers.
The “Fiddler” family in the Lyric production are Steven Skybell who is a perfect Tevye, Debbie Gravitte who is excellent as his wife, Golde, and oldest daughters Maya Jacobson as Chava, Lauren Marcus as Tzeitel, Austen Bohmer as Hodel and younger daughters, Omi Lichtenstein as Bielke and Liliana Renteria as Shprintzel. It’s the older daughters who are changing the family’s traditions.
As to their chosen mates which definitely went against tradtion, they are Drew Redington as Mote), Adam Kaplan as Perchik and Michael Nigro as Fyedka.
Mention should also be made of Yente, the Matchmaker, nicely portrayed by Joy Hermalyn and the Fiddler, Drake Wunderflich, a fifth-grader who is a member of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra. He starts out with a scooter he trades in the opening scene for a fiddle and is on the roof in most scenes, then appears again at the end.
“Fiddler on the Roof” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, now through Oct. 7, 2022. Running time: 3 hours, 15 min. with one intermission. For tickets and more information visit lyricopera.org or call (312) 827-5600.
COVID protocols are making it possible to hold events at the Lyric Opera, Symphony Center and North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. So, when winter needs a mood changer, try Verdi, jazz, Debussy or Music of the Baroque.
“Verdi Voices” brings joins soprano Tamara Wilson and tenor Russell Thomas with conductor Enrique Mazzola and the Lyric Opera Orchestra to perform favorites from La Traviata, Aida, Otello and some less familiar arias and duets on Feb. 6 at 2 p.m. at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For tickets and more information visit Verdi Voices or 2021|22 Season | Lyric Opera of Chicago.
From jazz and the CSO At the Movies (Casablanca) and from Prokofiev to Rachmaninov, there is a lot going on in different musical genres at the CSO”s Orchestra Hall in February, 2022. Check out the calendar at Symphony Center concert listings.
Music of the Baroque
“The Chevalier,” a concert drama about the first major Black classical composer, Joseph Bologne, (Chevalier de Saint-Georges), will be at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, Feb. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Written and directed by Bill Barclasy with music by Joseph Bologne, the concert drama was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2018. For tickets and mor information visit North Shore Center/event.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago is providing the world with a fine gift in the form of “Pagliacci.” A recorded version of Rugerro Leoncavallo’s iconic opera is available to view online free of charge for an indefinite period of time beginning at once.
It is difficult to say where the first reference to a sad clown who is laughing on the outside but crying on the inside begins but surely the character of Pagliacci is one of the best known. It is a short opera at roughly 90 minutes with a fairly straightforward plot and lyrical melodies that makes it a very good first opera for the uninitiated and a perennial favorite among many aficionados.
“Pagliacci” was indeed my introduction to opera at about age 10 when my mother sang as a chorus member in the Chicago Opera Guild based in the Fine Arts Building.
Of course the great Caruso gave “Pagliacci” to the word in 1907 when the composer himself directed the famed tenor in the first phonograph recording of an entire opera making them both worldwide sensations.
Similar to a number of Shakespeare plays “Pagliacci” is based on a play within a play. The story is centered around a troupe of actors performing a commedia dell’arte performance, a theater style that originated in Venice and features standard character types that included at least three clowns. In the opera’s commedia dell’arte company the character of Pagliacci is played by Canio and his wife Nedda plays Columbine while Tonio plays one of the lesser parts.
In this updated Lyric version Nedda (Ailyn Pérez) is an unfaithful wife whose current love interest is stagehand Silvio (Lucas Meachem). Tonio (Quinn Kelsey) is secretly in love with Nedda but she rejects him. His adoration turns to resentment. Seeking revenge, Tonio leads Canio (Russell Thomas) to witness for himself Nedda’s unfaithfulness. In a rage, Canio pursues Silvio who escapes.
In good theatrical tradition the troupe evidently decides “the show must go on.” In preparation for his performance as Pagliacci Canio sings the famed aria “Vesti la giubba” where he laments that the world sees him as a ridiculous clown when he is in fact a man with deep emotions.
It is no doubt at this point that Canio resolves to redeem his manhood, then during the performance demands that Nedda reveal the identity of her lover. She refuses to give him up and Canio kills her. Silvio, working nearby, leaps to her defense and is likewise dispatched by the enraged clown. Somewhat amused Tonio announces that the “comedy is over.”
The brilliant part of this Lyric Opera of Chicago’s streaming version of “Pagliacci” (directed by Peter McClintock, with film direction by Matt Hoffman and scenic design by Maria DeFabo Akin and Scott Wolfson) is the use of the Lyric Opera House itself as the set location.
The action begins outside the building with baritone Quinn Kelsey singing the prologue as he strolls into and through the building ultimately on to the empty stage where the bulk of the performance will take place. This is a story about actors so the Lyric creative team takes full advantage of the company’s readily available stagecraft apparatus as the backdrop. The performers are in modern dress and the play-within-a- play substitutes iconic commedia dell’arte characters for those of a more modern art form referencing a television situation comedy.
This is where it gets a bit muddy for me. I love the concept but in my view costume designer Scott Marr is missing something by not having Pagliacci in a more comic costume. After all it is Pagliacci’s ridiculous visual persona contrasted with his depth of emotion that is the essence of the character and the story.
Additionally, tenor Thomas who has an outstanding voice, does not give “vesti la giubba” full throttle. No doubt the feeling is that since this a more intimate filmed version he did not want to seem “over the top.” However, the result is a kind of tepid emotion that does not fully convey the character’s torment that will ultimately lead him to murder. This, together with his lack of costume or make-up as a reference flattens the storyline.
There is still plenty to love about the production with its backstage views and enjoyable melodies. The always brilliant Lyric Chorus led by Michael Black seems to be having a great time singing towards the proscenium for an entirely new point-of-view while Enrique Mazzola conducts the thrilling orchestra from some unknown location, presumably a practice room onsite.
Details: “Pagliacci” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is online through January 2022 (at least). Running time is about 90 minutes. Visit LyricOpera
Northlight still puts on its productions at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie.( J Jacobs photo)
Going back to a stage show will feel different fall of 2021. But those folk who really want an in person experience won’t be complaining about wearing a mask indoors. Just expect it to be a requirement, then sit back and enjoy the live action on stage.
Here are a few of the shows opening in Chicago and the suburbs this fall.
Aurora: “Kinky Boots” at the Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd, Now through Oct. 17. For tickets and more information visit Paramount.
Evanston: “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992″ at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. A Fleetwood Jourdain Theatre production, it runs Sept. 11-26. For tickets and more information visit Fleetwood Jourdain.
Lake Forest: “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at Citadel Theatre, 300 S. Waukegan Rd., Sept 17-Oct. 17. For tickets and more info visit Citadel Theatre
Lincolnshire: “The World Goes Round” at the Marriott theatre, 710 Marriott Drive, Sept 15=Nov. 7 . For tickets and more info visit Marriott Theatre.
Oakbrook Terrace: “Forever Plaid” at Drury Lane, 100 Drury Lane, Sept. 17-Nov. 7. For tickets and more information visit Drury Lane Theatre.
Skokie: “Songs for Nobodies” at Northlight Theatre in the North shore Center for the Performing arts at 9501 Skokie Blvd., Sept 23-Oct. 31. For tickets and information visit Northlight Theatre.
“As You Like It” at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier at 600 E. Grand Ave. Oct 6- Nov 21. For tickets and more information visit Chicago Shakespeare Theater
“Macbeth” Sept 17-Oct. 9 and The Elixer of Love Sept. 26-Oct. 8 at Lyric Opera of Chicago 20 N. Wacker Dr. Visit Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“The tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice” Oct 7-Nov. 21 at Court Theatre 5535 S. Ellis Ave. on the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park campus. For information and tickets visit Court Theatre.
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…
he Lyric Opera of Chicago has come up with an amazing substitute for the large-scale musical it produces on its large-scale stage at the end of its operatic season.
Titled “the New Classics-Songs from the New Golden Age of Music Theater,” it is about a 70-minute-long mix of dramatic, sad, wistful and powerful show numbers that some listeners will know but others may not find familiar.
And instead of coming from the Lyric’s grand stage, the production was mostly recorded back stage in an intimate, former Civic Opera space.
Hosted by David Chase who also accompanies the singers along with members of the Lyric Orchestra, the program reintroduces some notable musical theater by notable composers.
Vocalist Gavin Creel opens the program with the obscure Stephen Sondheim “What More Do I Need” from Saturday Night followed by Nikkie Renée Daniels’ wistful rendering of the well-known “The Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon. Norm Lewis then wows with “Stars” from Les Miserables.
Jenn Gambatese changes the mood with “Gimme Gimme” (Love) from Thoroughly Modern Millie and Heath Saunders offers a moving “Something Wonderful” from The King and I.
Jo Lampert puts the best interpretation I’ve heard on “Omar Sharif” from The Band’s Visit and Amanda Castro “flamingo” taps the way to the top of her building with “Raise the Roof” from The Wild Party.
Chase segues to historic references between numbers to the Civic Opera and more show tunes sung by the cast (introduced above) that also include “Love Changes Everything” “I Will Never Leave You,” “Dear Theodosia,” ”Way Back to Paradise,” “I’d Rather be Sailing,” “Popular,” “If Only” and “Rain.”
Guess which shows those songs came from or better yet, click on the production. It premiere this Thursday, June 10 at 7 p.m. CT on Lyric’s Facebook and YouTube channels. For more information visit The New Classics.
During 2020, the main year of our COVID pandemic, much of theater programing has gone on-line and emanated from homes rather than theater stages. It also has moved to unusual formats such as car seating in drive-ins for concerts, and now, to a parking garage. Really.
On April 29-30 and May 2, audiences of the the Lyric Opera of Chicago partnership with the Michigan Opera Theater will be driving inside a Millennium Garage to view Twilight: Gods, a part of Wagner’s Ring cycle.
The scenes are viewed in specific spots and accompanied by music and voices heard by turning the car’s FM radio to designated station spots.
As the Lyric’s general Manager Anthony Freud explained in the program book, “Last year, the pandemic prevented Lyric from presenting the premiere of our new production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and the three full Ring cycles that were to follow. It was wrenching for Lyric to have to abandon the Ring altogether, so we considered every possible way to perform any portion of it during this period of COVID. This led us to bring into the Lyric family the innovative director Yuval Sharon and the rest of the astonishingly gifted team that has created Twilight: Gods.”
The production is a collaboration between Lyric and the Michigan Opera Theatre where Sharon, a winner of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” is artistic director.
“Sharon has radically reimagined Götterdämmerung/The Twilight of the Gods—the climactic fourth opera of the Ring—as a 70-minute series of installations that distill some of the core themes of Wagner’s massive work and concentrate on the central characters, as well as the decaying, corrupt society that they inhabit,” said Freud.
He added, “Experiencing this remarkable event within the sprawling underground world of the Millennium Garages-Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage, with the music coming to you via your car radio, offers a unique and brand-new dimension to our art form.”
Unfortunately, all the time slots are taken. However, there is a film version that will become available. Commissioned by the Lyric and created by Raphael Nash, the film will present the production so that viewers will see it as if they are driving through the garage. The film is slated to be released this summer.
To understand what the drivers will experience visit the orientation video Twilight: Gods program book | Lyric Opera of Chicago You learn that the performances take place at designated car stops, that your car window stays closed but you hear the music and voices on your FM radio and that you put the car into accessory mode so you can turn off the engine.
By radio, you will hear noted Brunnhilde interpreter soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Waltraute, tenor Sean Panikkar as Siegfried, bass Morris Robinson as Hagen and baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Alberich. The production also includes the Rhinemaidens: Ryan Opera Center Ensemble members soprano Maria Novella Malfatti, mezzo-soprano Katherine Beck and mezzo-soprano Kathleen Felty.
On a final note: there will be no honking as applause but drivers can bring signs to hold that say “bravo.”
Another place to hear and see opera this weekend is the the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Rising Stars in Concert, April 29 at 7 p.m. CDT. The program is the annual Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center showcase that features its 2020/21 ensemble. It will be on You tube and Facebook. To learn more and tune in visit Rising Stars in Concert.
For dance, visit Joffrey Ballet which is streaming “Under the Trees’ Voices, that debuts April 20 at 7 p.m. CDT. Choreographed by Nicolas Blanc to Symphony No. 2 by Ezio Bosso, the message is about the power of community durng social distancing. To register and learn more visit Under the Trees’ Voices | The Joffrey Ballet
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.”
If tired of everything Covid and weather related from staying in but wearing a mask and social distancing when going out to weariness of snow tunnels and sloshy streets, look for the free online concert gifted by Lyric Opera of Chicago and Music Director Designate Enrique Mazzola. They think it’s nice to find some sun and love where not expected.
The result is “Sole e Amore” (Sun and Love), a virtual concert of works by familiar Italian composers that will be on U-Tube and Lyric’s Facebook at 6 p.m. Feb. 21, 2021.
Sung by Lyric’s 2020/21 Ryan Opera center Ensemble, Mazzola chose intimate songs—arie da camera, that are not operatic arias, but instead offer new ways to enjoy the genre’s popular composers.
As an example “Un bel dì vedremo” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is generally recognizable but not the song, “Terra e mare.”
The concert also includes relatively unknown works by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Catalani, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and Respighi.
“This concert is a very beautiful step into the romantic Italian world of singing, passion, and love,” says Mazzola.