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.
Normally we would be talking about what productions are coming this fall and winter to the Lyric Opera, Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf, Broadway in Chicago, Lookingglass, Northlight, Court, Music Works, Citadel and several other Chicago area theater stages.
And normally, what’s coming would be divided up by regions because in 2019 there were about 250 theater companies in the area.
Maybe when the coronavirus is under control and artists and patrons feel safe attending live rather than virtual shows, we will know which Chicago theater groups survived the pandemic.
But here is a sample of what we are hearing now about our next theater season.
Calling the season “Our Next Act,” Artistic Director Robert Falls and Executive Director Roche Schulfer announced that the Goodman Theatre would have eight plays in its 2021 subscription (membership) series when safe for everyone. That number doesn’t include “A Christmas Carol” which isn’t a subscription show but details on the popular holiday show are expected to be out soon.
“We’re proud to announce four exciting world premieres, including a Goodman commission – Cheryl L. West’s “Fannie.” Directed by Henry Godinez, it is a passionate rallying cry inspired by the life of famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer that features E. Faye Butler in the title role,” said Falls.
Another world premiere is “the ripple, the wave that carried me home” by Christina Anderson, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. “It is a stunning meditation on protest, legacy and reconciliation; and we’re delighted to welcome back Christina, whose bold, imaginative How to Catch Creation was a memorable favorite last year,” said Falls.
The third world premiere is “Good Night, Oscar” by Doug Wright, directed by Leigh Silverman and starring Sean Hayes (Will & Grace) as Oscar Levant.
Falls added, “Finally, we’ll produce the highly anticipated new musical we postponed due to COVID-19—”The Outsiders” based on the novel by S.E. Hinton and Francis Ford Coppola’s film. A beloved story of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ that defined a generation it is told anew.” (Book is by Adam Rapp, music and lyrics by Jamestown Revival (Jonathan Clay and Zach Chance) and Justin Levine, choreography by Lorin Latarro and directed by Liesl Tommy.)
Three Chicago premiers include “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” by Jocelyn Bioh and directed by Lili-Anne Brown that was interrupted by the pandemic, “A Paris Love Story” featuring the Music of Claude DeBussy that is written and performed by Hershey Felder and directed by Trevor Hay and “American Mariachi” by José Cruz González, directed by Henry Godinez and is a coproduction with Dallas Theater Center.
In addition, Goodman will be doing “The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci” adapted and directed by Mary Zimmerman.
“We can’t wait to welcome back our audiences for our dynamic 2021 Season that exemplifies the very best of our art form,” said Falls. “As we continue to prioritize the health and safety of our artists and audiences, we remain flexible in our planning and will share production dates when the time is right.”
Subscription memberships to the upcoming season are available, including the “Whenever Membership” flexible package. A five-play Membership package starts at $100. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/2021season. Single tickets will be available at a later date.
The Lyric will open a reimagined fall season with “For the Love of Lyric,” a virtual concert from the Lyric Opera House, that will be available for free streaming beginning at 5 p.m. CDT Sept. 13, 2020.
The event is in place of the opening night opera and ball, according to Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director, president and CEO. “…we are proud to present “For the Love of Lyric- a very special concert presentation available to the largest possible audience via streaming,” said Freud.
Renowned soprano Renee Fleming teams up with special guests including Tony and Grammy award-winner Heather Headley (Aida, Lion King), soprano Ailyn Perez, bass Soloman Howard and mezzo soprano J’Nai Bridges.
Formerly called Light Opera Works, Music Theatre Works is moving from its Evanston home at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium to the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, beginning with its 2021 season.
A 40-year-old, not-for-profit company that has produced several highly recommended shows, Music Theatre Works has basically honored the classics with great direction, voices and orchestrations that range from the best “Pirates of Penzance” and “Mame” that I have seen to what other CTA writers say is the best “Anything Goes” and “Into the Woods” that they have seen.
Administration and rehearsals will continue at the Paul S. Mavros Center and Joyce Saxon Rehearsal Hall.
The performance move to North Shore Center’s large and small venues means the organization can do more productions and have longer runs, better parking and more exposure.
“For 40 years, Music Theater Works has been a cornerstone of high-quality professional music theater in the Chicago area. Our history demonstrates our dedication to bringing great music and great theater to our audiences. The community along with the many artists, board members and staff have built the company to what it is today,” said Music Theater Works Producing Artistic Director Kyle A. Dougan.
“Music Theater Works’ move to its new performance home at the North Shore Center is a testament to our community’s support for our art. In addition, this outlet strengthens Music Theater Works’ pledge to explore the full spectrum of music theater with the availability of multiple performance spaces within the North Shore Center,” Dougan said.
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts General Manager Michael Pauken said, “It is very exciting to welcome this well-respected organization and its productions to the North Shore Center as I have long admired them as an audience member.”
Pauken added, “I know Music Theater Works’ customers will find the North Shore Center’s location near numerous restaurants, convenient access to public transportation and free parking to be an enhancement to their theatergoing experience and Music Theatre Works performers will enjoy ample backstage space and the technical capabilities of our facility.”
In advance of its formal move to the Center next year, Music Theater Works presented two sold out performances of “Richard Rodgers’ Greatest Hits,” August 28 and 29, as part of the North Shore Center’s outdoor concert series, “Out Back Summer Sessions.”
Some of us miss seeing a stage performance in person. Some miss going to the Lyric for a grand opera. Other folks miss visiting Chicago’s world class museums. The following opportunities hit these three targets while sitting at home.
Citadel Theatre has a unique experience scheduled for 6 p.m. May 21. Viewers register for what is called “The Defamation Experience.” It begins with a 70 minute film that is a one-act courtroom drama. Then there is the Deliberation. You and your fellow jury members deliberate the case on Zoom to decide the outcome.
After the deliberation and verdict, expert facilitators lead a brief post-show discussion.
Registration is free. A zoom meeting link is provided upon registration.
Hear and watch an opera segment, lecture or tour the Lyric Opera of Chicago building. The Lyric has a weekly newsletter available on its blog. Here is one aria, many audiences will find familiar.
“La donna è mobile” (“Woman is fickle”) is from the fall of 2017 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto featuring Matthew Polenzani as The Duke. It comes in the third act where Maddalena (Zanda Švēde) flirts with the Duke.
With most Chicago theater productions postponed, audiences should start thinking of all the great entertainment that has been moved to later in the 2020-21 and over to the 21-22 season.
Here are just a few of the productions that audiences can put on their reminder calendar.
Lyric Opera of Chicago
According to Lyric General Director Anthony Freud, the rest of this spring’s offering have been canceled so “42nd Street,” a new-to-Chicago, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, production conducted by Stephen Mear, will be on stage next spring.
The Midwest premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s “Blue” has been moved to January 2021 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater from this coming May-June’s dates at that venue. A coproduction of Washington National Opera, The Gimmerglass Festival and the Lyric, it will be conducted by Lyric music director designate Enrique Mazzola.
The Lyric Opera House is downtown at 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For more information visit Lyric Opera of Chicago. To see and hear what’s on the Lyric’s blog including clips from operas, go to Lyric Lately.
“King James” by Steppenworlf ensemble member Rajiv Joseph, a coproduction with the Center theatre Group, has been moved to the 2021-22 season from May 7 2020 and will be directed by Artistic director Anna d. Shapiro. The first episode of the “Half Hour Ensemble Podcast begins on April 7 with co-founder Jeff Perry.
Steppenwolf Theatre is in the Lincoln Park neighborhood at.1650 No. Halsted St. Chicago. For more information, to also see an interesting, historic video and hear a podcast, and to see free virtual sessions, visit Steppenwolf.
Broken Nose Theatre
A pay-what-you-can production group, Broken Nose Theatre has moved its world premiere of “This is Only a Test” to the 2020-21 season from May 2020. Broken Nose theatre is a resident group of The Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.in chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. For more information visit Broken Nose Theatre.
Brian Jagde’s powerful tenor and Ana Maria Martinez’s delicate and expressively lyrical soprano were worth the slosh through the snow for Lyric Opera’s opening of “Madama Butterfly,” Thursday.
No matter how audiences feel about Giacomo Puccini’s anti-hero, US Navy Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, and his callous disregard of a 15-year-old Geisha’s heart, or the disastrous results, it is the composer’s arias, duets and a subtle chorus that make “Madama Butterfly” an opera-house staple and featured in concerts.
However, what original director Michael Grandage’s bare-bones production (revived by director Louisa Muller with set and costume designed by Christoper Oram), does, is to deliberately allow the leads to shine without the distraction of elaborate set changes and people movement.
No question that soprano Renée Fleming, an opera superstar who has sung leading ladies from Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” to Nettie Fowler in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” is a fine fit as Margaret Johnson in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ “The Light in the Piazza.”
Her remarkable voice, joyfully greeting Florence in the opening scene, heartbreaking in “Dividing Day” following a phone call back home when she realizes her own marriage lacks love, and later swelling with a renewed understanding of love versus risks in her final song, “Fable,” makes going to this production at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House worth attending.