The curtain should have fallen long ago on the debate over opera supertitles. No one’s forced to gaze above the stage, so why not let others look where they will? But they came up again at last Saturday’s Lyric Opera seminar on A Wedding, when New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini asked if we’ll ever have an American opera without the projected cheat sheets. Lyric general manager William Mason replied that “the audience wants and appreciates those titles”—and got a round of applause fit for a diva.

The symposium, held at the Chicago Cultural Center, offered a mostly geriatric crowd an opportunity to gawk at an equally geriatric panel, including director Robert Altman, composer William Bolcom, and librettist Arnold Weinstein. (Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the U.S.S. Enterprise, in his guise as the merely middle-aged conductor Dennis Russell Davies, was there too.) It also offered an opportunity to see Lyric’s elusive artistic director, Matthew Epstein, in action. While Mason is the genial public face of the Lyric, Epstein has been the company’s behind-the-scenes powerhouse. A former A-list vocal agent and a consultant to the Lyric before he joined its staff in 1999, he’s one of the most influential people in the opera world and considered a casting genius. He hasn’t consented to a solo interview with the press since the New York papers reported more than a decade ago on everything from his HIV status to grumblings about a potential conflict of interest between his casting and agent roles. But he can be spotted at Lyric performances, conducting with an open palm from his aisle seat and rewarding the best work with a sharp bark of “Bravo!” On Saturday it was Epstein who, in another response to the supertitle complaint, pointed out that not everybody can sit in the first eight rows. “In our 3,800-seat theater,” Epstein said, “they’re necessary.”

Acoustics under the Cultural Center’s giant Tiffany dome are muddier than the sound track from the 1978 Altman film that inspired the opera. But moderator David Levin fiddled with the mikes, and Mason got the panel rolling by noting that this is the third of four works the Lyric’s commissioned in a major collaboration with Bolcom. Epstein explained the commissions as part of the Lyric’s 21st-century plan to build the American opera repertoire. Bolcom landed the first (which produced McTeague, based on the Frank Norris novel and also directed by Altman, in 1992) on the strength of his celebrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience and his expertise in opera theater; he brought his longtime lyricist Weinstein along and suggested Altman. After that, Epstein said, “it became clear that we ought to stick to our team.” Bolcom and Weinstein did A View From the Bridge in 1999, and Bolcom’s already at work on the next opera. (Altman, who quipped that he’s counting his future in single digits, says he’s out.) Their partnership with the Lyric doesn’t end with commissioned premieres: Epstein said the company’s equally committed to revivals that “give living composers a chance to rethink their music.” Lyric is close to giving Bolcom another crack at McTeague in the next few years.

This long-term collaboration may, as Epstein said, be comfy as family; still, it’s dicey. Mason initially ducked a question about the cost of mounting A Wedding—previously reported to be more than a million dollars. When pressed he said the physical setup is “in the same ballpark as any opera—$300,000 to $750,000.” But he added that the real cost comes in the “potential reduced box office.” Audiences like what’s familiar; nonmelodic contemporary work is a hard sell. McTeague has had no productions since its Lyric premiere; A View From the Bridge, based on the better-known Arthur Miller play, has had three. Bolcom says A Wedding is a comedy of manners in the tradition of The Marriage of Figaro, and this production, which is well directed, bridesmaid pretty, and cast with 16 handsome voices, has plenty of broad humor. But Bolcom, as he is quick to say, is not Mozart. The vocal music is mostly unmemorable, and his use of what he calls the musical lexicon of the 20th century doesn’t help. A Wedding is peppered with pieces Bolcom considers “extractable”; at the seminar he predicted “some will make you think of Broadway, some of pop music.” They did, but the comparisons didn’t work in his favor.

Meanwhile, ambitions at the Lyric are large. “Overriding everything,” Mason told the crowd, “is the desire to increase the repertoire so 50 years from now there will a body of American work produced in the opera houses of the world.” According to Epstein, “Our work is not complete until the works of Bill Bolcom become standard repertoire.”

But Epstein’s work with the Lyric is coming to an abrupt end. On Wednesday, Mason issued a statement announcing that Epstein’s contract (for $273,000 a year) won’t be renewed after this season, saying, “our visions for the company diverged.” Epstein didn’t return calls, but Mason said the two “had different ideas about how we proceed into the future” and about “the balance of the repertoire and the nature of the productions we do.”

Mason also said it’s unclear at this point whether Epstein’s position will be filled: “Between Sir Andrew Davis, our artistic administrator Andy Melinat, and myself, we know our business.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Kusel, Dan Rest, Lyric Opera of Chicago.