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Though between them they have over four decades of stage experience, much of it in Chicago, operatic baritone Robert Orth and cabaret singer and actress Hollis Resnik have never appeared in a show together. But that will change this weekend, when they costar in the premiere of Lovers and Friends (Chautauqua Variations) by Michael John LaChiusa, composer in residence at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. The two leads, with their disparate backgrounds, embody the mixed pedigree of the entire production–a collaboration between the Lyric, which hired the music director and provided most of the singers, and the Goodman Theatre, whose personnel are responsible for the rest of the staging, including sets, direction, costumes, and lighting. This hybridization is part of a trend that’s blurring the traditionally American distinction between opera and musical theater. Though conventional wisdom holds that an opera emphasizes its music and a musical its acting, Stephen Sondheim’s famous rule of thumb is at least as useful–do it in an opera house and it’s an opera, do it in a theater and it’s a musical. LaChiusa himself calls Lovers a musical, but there’s no question that his vocal parts are more challenging and varied than, say, those in the empty-headed extravaganzas of Andrew Lloyd Webber. As part of a like-minded circle of New York-based composers and singers, he aims to return American musical theater to its operatic roots: for his Marie Christine, a loose adaptation of Medea that premiered in 1999, soprano Audra McDonald had to soar and dive, stretching her talents to their limit to convey the story’s extreme emotions. His Lovers is an intimate ensemble drama, about an egotistical poet (Orth) whose friends have come to visit him at his retreat in Chautauqua, New York–the composer’s hometown. LaChiusa, who also wrote the libretto, has said he hopes the entanglements and machinations that ensue will create a Chekhovian ambience. Aside from Orth and Resnik, who plays the poet’s publisher, the cast consists of apprentices at the Lyric’s Center for American Artists, all of whom have augmented their opera experience by acting in musicals; among them are Melina Pyron, Philip Torre, and Michael Sommese. Goodman veteran David Petrarca directs; Bradley Vieth conducts. Friday and Saturday, June 29 and 30, 7:30 PM, Merle Reskin Theatre, DePaul University, 60 E. Balbo; 312-332-2244, ext. 5600.