Andreas Mitisek

It’s been a busy few days on the local opera beat, starting with a little shocker: over the weekend, Chicago Opera Theater announced that its innovative, high-profile artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, will leave the company when his contract expires at end of August.

Mitisek, who has led COT since 2012 and put his personal mark on it, said in a statement released Saturday afternoon that he’s “decided to move on at the end of my contract and pursue some artistic projects I have been dreaming about for a long time.”

Douglas Clayton, COT’s executive director, will become general director when Mitisek goes, and the company will hire a part-time music director.

Clayton, reached by phone this week, said the search for a music director will begin immediately.

Mitisek will have an ongoing relationship with COT as a guest conductor and director. And, according to Clayton, the company “will continue to discuss coproductions with Long Beach Opera,” which Mitisek also heads. (Clayton was managing director at Long Beach Opera before he joined COT in June 2015.)

Cost savings on productions shared by the two companies were promoted as one of the advantages Mitisek brought to CTO when he was hired.

Under Mitisek’s artistic leadership, the 43-year-old company moved boldly into more productions of modern and contemporary work.  It also began producing away from its sophisticated but hard-to-fill home base at the Harris Theater. Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Eurydice was performed in a swimming pool; Frank Martin’s The Love Potion played at the venerable Music Box. The Invention of Morel, COT’s first-ever commission, will open February 18 at the Fine Arts Building’s recently restored Studebaker Theater.

During the last few years, COT also eliminated its debt, established a cash reserve of more than $850,000 (thanks largely to a MacArthur Foundation grant), and took in its largest gift ever, a $1.5 million donation from Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson.

COT board president Henry Fogel said in an interview Tuesday that the company, which recently completed a three-year strategic plan, is in “terrific” financial shape right now, and that the decision to leave was “totally” Mitisek’s own.

Fogel expects the company to save some money, however, by hiring a music director who’s “primarily a conductor.” Clayton has significant stage-directing experience, Fogel said, so the music director will primarily be needed to help plan the season and to conduct “two out of three, or three out of four” of the operas that make up the season roster.

A five-opera season, which had been one of COT’s major goals, won’t be happening in the near future, but, Fogel said, the company will “absolutely” continue to present the adventurous work Mitisek championed.

Next week’s world premiere of The Invention of Morel  might be the best example of that: based on a mind-bending 1940s science fiction novel by Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, it was composed by legendary rock drummer Stewart Copeland (of the Police). Librettist Jonathan Moore is directing, and Mitisek will be on the conductor’s podium.  

On Tuesday, with the Lyric Opera staff still feeling a glow from last  weekend’s Chicago Voices concert, Lyric announced its 2017-2018 season.

The Chicago Voices event, spearheaded and hosted by creative consultant Renee Fleming, was a richly varied stew that paid tribute to the multiple strains of vocal music that flourish here. (If you weren’t at the Civic Opera House for it, you’ll have a chance to catch a one-hour version on PBS March 30.)

Highlights of the upcoming season begin with the opening production— a first-time collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet on Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, choreographed and directed by Hamburg Ballet head (and Milwaukee native)  John Neumeier.

Also on the schedule: Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second opera in Lyric’s new Ring Cycle; Puccini’s Turandot, starring phenomenal Ryan Center alum Amber Wagner; and a postseason production of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.

Find the full eight-opera list, including audience favorites Rigoletto and Cosi Fan Tutte as well as extras like a centennial celebration of Leonard Bernstein, here.

Lyric general director Anthony Freud said he’s hoping that Jesus Christ Superstar “will open our doors” to an audience different from the one drawn by the “classic” musicals it’s been staging (one annually) since 2013. After disappointing ticket sales for Carousel in 2015, South Pacific, once on the schedule, was deemed “too risky” for the 3,600-seat house.

“With a business environment increasingly volatile and unpredictable, our job becomes a juggling act,” Freud said. The challenge: finding “a balance between being one of the world’s great opera companies and a thriving business.”

Lyric conducted its most extensive audience research ever over the last 18 months, and one of the main things they learned is that people like to see operas they’ve seen before, but in new productions. Ergo: the upcoming season offers three brand-new main-stage productions, and three that are new to Chicago.

But the most intriguing item on the schedule won’t be on the main stage.  It’s Fellow Travelers, a 2016 chamber opera by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel about forbidden politics and forbidden sex in the McCarthy era. It’ll be staged under the Lyric Unlimited banner at the Athenaeum, which, before the Harris Theater existed, was home to Chicago Opera Theater.