Marla Forbes grew up steeped in the operas that her mother, a trained singer, played at home. But for practical reasons, Anne Forbes discouraged her daughter from pursuing a career as a vocalist. Instead, with a Kellogg MBA in hand, Forbes spent five years at Towers Perrin, an international management consulting firm. Then came marriage, two babies, and a move to Highland Park, where she opted to be a stay-at-home mom. She continued to take voice lessons, sang in the chorus for a Light Opera Works production, and represented a few opera singers. Then, in 1995, she got an idea that wed her passion to her business expertise. It occurred to her that Highland Park might appreciate some hometown opera: not the interminable, $140-a-seat extravaganzas they put on at the Lyric, but something shorter, more affordable, and audience friendly.

So the former management consultant diligently conducted market research and developed a detailed business plan, right? Wrong. Winging it, Forbes marched into the neighborhood bank, a local real estate agency, and the grocery store where she bought her kids’ diapers, wangling enough money–$2,500–to start Opera Theatre Highland Park. In November 1996 her fledgling company opened its first minimally staged opera concert, Puccini’s La boheme, for an audience of about 100 after just two nights of rehearsal. Sporting a neck scarf to signify the fourth bohemian–a part axed to hold down costs–Lawrence Rapchak, then music director of the Chicago Opera Theater, accompanied five professional singers from a piano on the Highland Park Community House’s small stage. “We couldn’t even afford to move the piano off the stage,” recalls Forbes. “Whatever money we had went to the singers.” The vocalists, wearing homemade costumes, pitched in between scenes to move the few tables and chairs that comprised the scenery. While they schlepped, Rapchak strode through the audience offering information about the composer and opera and filling in the plot between arias.

Spending her limited resources on talented singers paid off, Forbes says. By the second season, her company’s abridged productions were drawing capacity crowds. About half the audience were the new opera viewers Forbes had hoped to attract. The other half were die-hard opera fans, many of them longtime subscribers to the Lyric, who knew a good thing when they heard it–especially when they could hear it close to home, park for free, and buy tickets at a fraction of the Lyric’s prices. These days Forbes still spends most of her money on performers, but with an annual budget approaching $100,000 she can afford to compensate them for two weeks, instead of two days, of rehearsals.

On a rainy Sunday evening in early April, a handful of professional singers drew chairs around a grand piano at the community house for their first rehearsal of La traviata. Last Saturday, April 20, they reappeared in costume to perform an abridged version of Verdi’s opera about Violetta, a prostitute with a heart of gold; her naive lover, Alfredo; and his straitlaced father, Germont. This Sunday afternoon, April 28, the group will take their show on the road to Skokie, when they perform for the first time at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. It’s a major move, and Forbes is worried.

North Shore–a state-of-the-art theater with a large stage, an orchestra pit, and raked seating for 870 people–is a far cry from the intimate, wood-floored Highland Park ballroom, which can squeeze in 300 people on padded folding chairs. Opera Theatre’s music director, Francesco Milioto, has been thinking about how to accommodate the dramatic acoustic differences between the venues. At the first rehearsal he cautioned the singers, “The only way for a chorus of eight to be heard and understood in Skokie is if you are absolutely locked together. You won’t be able to count on 50 other voices backing you up. So you’ve got to make yourselves sound like there’s 50 of you.” Filling the North Shore’s cavernous stage poses yet another hurdle. Director Anne Marie Lewis has suggested leaving all the set pieces onstage and lighting up portions of the stage only as they’re used. The vertical space on the new stage also looms large. Lewis and the company’s costume designer, Elizabeth Powell Shaffer, contemplate filling it with large swaths of rented fabric, or purchasing rolls of gauze to dye.

Even in Highland Park the company has had moments of turmoil: it’s opera, after all. During the second season the singer who played Tosca’s villainous Scarpia never bothered to memorize his music and had to perform carrying the score. His voice won a standing ovation, though Forbes maintains she will never hire him again. Last year her previous music director suddenly abandoned Opera Theatre in the middle of final preparations for Madame Butterfly. Fortunately Milioto was available and knew the opera, and a solid new partnership emerged.

Despite these glitches, Opera Theatre has grown steadily. Forbes, who considers the company her third child, estimates it to be “almost school-age.” In 1998, the year Opera Theatre incorporated as a not-for-profit, Forbes began to offer two performances of each production. Currently both operas in the season also feature a shorter, G-rated family matinee. The production values have gradually become more sophisticated, with professional sets and costumes. And the informative lectures of the early seasons have been replaced by dramatic narration that’s part of the action. Actress Marilyn Campbell, cofounder of Writers’ Theatre Chicago, is narrator for La traviata.

But singers remain the company’s highest priority. For La traviata Forbes selected all but one singer from greater Chicago’s deep talent pool. The role of Alfredo, Violetta’s youthful paramour, went to Montreal tenor Dmitri Pittas, 25, who pursues advanced opera studies at McGill University. “When I heard Dmitri’s audition tape,” Forbes says, “I figured I’d better get him while he was young and I could still afford him.” Germont is sung by baritone Jeffrey Ray, who trained at the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, while soprano Kathy Pyeatt, who recently sang with the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, plays Violetta. The leads are backed up by an eight-person chorus, another recent innovation. A string quartet will accompany the piano. And for the first time Milioto will be able to conduct without also having to play.

At an April chorus rehearsal, the Toronto-based Milioto adjusted the singers’ volume, phrasing, tempo, and pronunciation as they penciled annotations into their scores. “You can all roll your rs, right?” Milioto asked. “That will make the Italian sound authentic.” He talked, he sang, he waved his arms, he clapped. And for the party scene that opens the opera, he played the piano–fast. “If you hear this part on a recording, and it sounds like Phantom of the Opera,” Milioto said as he momentarily slowed to a dirgelike tempo, “that’s not where I come from.” He sped up to demonstrate just how quickly they should sing the section. Forbes confided that she finds Milioto’s tempo here a bit fast. But then she added, “It’s his interpretation, and he’s in charge of the music. That’s why I hired him.”

Along the way Forbes has relinquished her directorial responsibilities. Lewis, a soprano who debuted at Opera Theatre as Mimi in La boheme and who directed last year’s Madame Butterfly, says that Opera Theatre is still an “everybody helps out” kind of place, where as director she pitches in to figure out where to find costumes and how to fill the space of a larger theater. She also wrote the dramatic script that will set up each scene’s action by turning the story into a flashback. She says, “For the narrator I chose Violetta’s housekeeper Annina, who, years after Violetta’s death, looks back in her diary to recall the events of the opera.” In mid-April, when Lewis donned her performing hat to make her Carnegie Hall debut, singing the soprano solo parts of several choral works, Forbes pinch-hit as dramatic director for a few rehearsals.

Advance ticket sales predict a good audience for the Skokie show, but Forbes frets about how her chamber production will play there. It didn’t help that she tried to be her own technical director and stage manager before realizing that the North Shore facility isn’t a do-it-yourself venue and hiring for both slots at the last minute. Another unanticipated problem: the company’s set designer disappeared after last fall’s production of Die Fledermaus. So those sets are being pressed into service for La traviata. “Moving to the North Shore presents a huge technical challenge,” Forbes admits. “It feels as if we were running the corner drug store and have suddenly taken on managing a Target.”

So why the move? Audience surveys confirmed the obvious: the intimate community house ballroom had its downside. The unreserved seats were uncomfortable, the sight lines less than ideal. Patrons who choose the Skokie venue, where the tickets cost $32.50 compared to $25 in Highland Park, will be able to enjoy reserved, comfortable seats and excellent sight lines. For her part, Forbes says, “I’m certainly not doing this for the money. I’ll count the Skokie venture a success if I can fill all 500 seats on the ground floor and stage a quality production.”

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