Chicago Opera Theater is finally saying good-bye to the Athenaeum. The double production of World War II-era operas Brundibar and Comedy on the Bridge, opening there next week, will be COT’s last fling at the venerable theater that’s been its home for most of its 29 years. For the last three seasons, since Brian Dickie took over as general director, the pairing has made for an extraordinary experience. Patrons have climbed the stairs of the more or less decrepit Lakeview venue (built in 1911 as an appendage to Saint Alphonsus Church), paid $35 to $75 for tickets (half that for students), settled into backbreaking seats in the cozy old auditorium, and had their socks knocked off by world-class productions of Baroque and modern work, some of it pretty obscure. At Dickie’s COT, opera is neither stately nor quaint: it’s sexy, smart, edgy, luscious looking, in-your-face, and–oh yes, musically superb. Coming upon it in this funky, small-scale neighborhood environment has been known to produce a frisson in the patron akin to the one Steppenwolf generated so long ago in its Highland Park church basement. Years from now, people who were at the Athenaeum for COT’s 2001 Orfeo or last year’s Cosi fan tutte or this year’s Agrippina will be talking about the glory of being there. But circumstances like these tend to be temporary. Next season, COT will take up residence in the slick new Music and Dance Theater still under construction in Millennium Park.

Dickie has no regrets about the move. The veddy British transplant (who says he’s a real Chicagoan now) was head of England’s Glyndebourne Festival Opera from 1981 to 1988 and of the Canadian Opera Company from 1989 to 1993. He has 40 years’ experience in opera and connections that have been bringing talent like European conductors Emmanuelle Haim and Jane Glover to town. (The upcoming double bill has a new translation by Tony Kushner and sets by Maurice Sendak.) He went to Toronto on the promise that there’d be a grand new opera house there by 1992. “It’s 11 years later, and they still haven’t started building the thing,” he says. He was snared for COT, the smallest organization he’s ever worked for, on a similar premise: when he came in 1999, the Music and Dance Theater, which had been in the works for over a decade, was supposed to be open by 2002. After he got here it stalled again, lacking funding and embroiled in controversy over whether it would be practical for the midsize companies it’s intended to accommodate. At that point, Dickie had a “moment of deja vu.” Then last year construction was kick-started by a $15 million gift and $24 million loan from Joan and Irving Harris; the theater is now slated to open in November. Of the dozen nonprofit troupes named as founding members, COT will be the major resident and may have the only substantial season there: 10 weeks the first year, 12 weeks in 2005.

It will be a strikingly more expensive venue: COT will go from paying $4,000 per week at the Athenaeum to more than $4,000 per day at Music and Dance. But the payoff, besides improved sound and state-of-the-art equipment, will be an additional 500 seats over the 960 at the Athenaeum–enough, Dickie says, to make up the rent increase in ticket sales alone. He expects the company, with a budget of $2.6 million this year and $3.4 million next year, to boost its ticket sales from $580,000 this year to more than $1 million. And he expects to do this without sacrificing much intimacy: the new theater is wide, he says, with the last row about as far from the stage as the box seats are from the stage at Lyric Opera. While the lowest-priced ticket will drop from $35 to $30 (with the half-price student discount intact), other categories will see an increase. The top ticket price, now $75, will jump to $97: 208 front-and-center seats have been set aside for the “A-plus” subscribers who’ll pay it.

Dickie also aims to fatten the bottom line by expanding the season. Beginning in 2005, COT will produce four operas each year instead of three, including the occasional relatively economical remount. And even with the additional seats, he thinks the company can extend its runs–now a mere five performances per production. “Lyric Opera sells 36,000 seats for each production; we sell 4,000,” Dickie says. He figures that leaves 32,000 opera lovers to pick up. Subscription sales jumped after he joined the company (which was coming off a nearly fatal crisis period and a nearly canceled season in the early 90s), but in the wake of 9/11 they were “off a bit.” Single-ticket sales have been strong, but depending on them is “alarming,” Dickie says: “It’s all last-minute money, and we’re only as good as our last show.” He expects the “new house effect” to reverse the decline–sales are already up for next year. Still, he notes, COT has no endowment and “is very much a hand-to-mouth business.”

The company ran a surplus of about $50,000 last year and is expected to break even or show a similar surplus this year. But like most nonprofits in this economy, “we’ve encountered some [fund-raising] difficulties,” Dickie says. “There’s been an upsurge in people giving $1,000 or less”–he likes to have a broad base of smaller donors–“but no one should think it’s easy. We can control our costs, and we can forecast our revenue from ticket sales, but tickets only account for 25 percent [of the budget]. The other 75 percent–those last hundreds of thousands of dollars–you’ve just got to get it in by the end of the financial year.” He believes the relationship between COT and its new home will be synergistic, their futures intimately linked. “We’ve got tremendous affection for the Athenaeum, but the business model here doesn’t really work for us. Music and Dance is crucial to our success, and we’ll play an important part there. It’s going to be transforming.” That’ll be great. But these are the good old days.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.