Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung

WHEN Through 5/19: Sun 3 PM, Tue, Thu, and Sat 7:30 PM

WHERE Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

PRICE $17.50-$120

INFO 312-704-8414

When Chicago Opera Theater announced its 2007 season last spring, the second of three offerings looked spectacular: a double bill of Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung, early-20th-century operas steeped in the psychoanalytic currents of their time. Superstar Samuel Ramey as the Duke would open the doors to his dark places for mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo as Judith, and in Erwartung Evanston native and international diva Nancy Gustafson would play the unnamed hysteric, obsessively searching for a lost lover she might have killed. The mastermind behind all this madness would be celebrated bad-boy director Andrei Serban–who two years ago put Faust in plastic pecs, codpiece, and four-foot rat tail at the Met. It was a delicious prospect. But the production at this week’s opening was not his.

In November COT sent out a brief notice that the double bill would be directed by Ken Cazan and designed by Peter Harrison, the same team that put together COT’s acclaimed Death in Venice a couple years ago. Serban and set designer Leiko Fuseya had “withdrawn from the production after Chicago Opera Theater was unable to realize their concepts for the project.” End of discussion, with no explanation of what the unattainable concept had been. Dead wives in bomber belts, perhaps, or video cams and electrodes in the dungeon? And how had the project unraveled? An epic clash between artistic vision and bottom line? Did Serban refuse to compromise? Had he stalked off in a snit? Like Bluebeard’s fatally curious wife, we had to know.

COT general director Brian Dickie says the change was sensible and orderly, a business decision made months before the announcement. “We got [Serban’s] draft designs in May and costed them,” Dickie says. “We spend tiny amounts on sets–usually about $75,000. I was hoping that we would be able to make significant economies with this double bill, since there aren’t many characters or costumes.” But with Serban’s “elaborate” concept, Dickie continues, the cost would “probably have been double” what was budgeted. “He and his designer wanted to do it in a certain way and I said, ‘I’m sorry. It’s just not affordable.'” According to Dickie, it would have been a struggle to turn Serban’s concept into something that could work financially, and Serban didn’t want to simplify it anyhow. It looked like they were too far apart to negotiate, Dickie says, so they “bit the bullet” and “amicably agreed” that COT “would move on to somebody else.”

Serban, reached in Europe by e-mail, had a decidedly less amicable take on the change. He says the decision was a “shocking disappointment” to him. “After the wonderful success with Britten’s Dream at COT two seasons ago, Leiko and myself had been working with great enthusiasm [on the] double bill. . . . Knowing the financial limitations of the company, we searched for a long time . . . for a unique set that will allow both stories to unfold. We came [up] with a simple but stunning solution: a series of moving screens that could create walls, corridors, labyrinths, from where a chain of surprising images would unfold–images of the subconscious, a deeper reality becoming visible. Well, to our distress, we have been told the shocking news that COT has zero money to offer us and even this inexpensive solution could not be afforded.” Serban says he and Fuseya would have been “very flexible” about resolving differences, “but the answer was simply it has to be done with no set at all, just on empty stage. What a pity!”

It doesn’t sound like we’ll be seeing Serban back at COT anytime soon. But Dickie’s fans, including new board president Erika Bruhn, are quick to point out that his relationships with many of opera’s best and brightest and his ability to get them here for a pittance has been a major factor in COT’s extraordinary artistic development in the seven years since he took over. What’s shocking to Bruhn, and what accounts for the relatively bare-bones season budget, is that in its fourth year at the Harris Theater COT remains an “undiscovered treasure.” Lyric Opera patrons, who COT hoped would pour through the doors once the smaller company left the out-of-the-way Athenaeum Theatre for Millennium Park, have come in a trickle instead. Marketing director Colleen Flanigan says that since COT’s been at the Harris they’ve roughly doubled ticket revenue, topping $1 million last year, which is impressive. But part of that increase is explained by higher ticket prices (still modest by Lyric standards). As of last year attendance was one-third greater than it had been at the Athenaeum, but the new auditorium is two-thirds larger–and much more expensive. COT is now filling about 71 percent of the seats at the Harris.

Flanigan’s goal next year is to make it over 80 percent, and she’s moving beyond opera fans in her search for subscribers. “Most of our subscribers also attend the Lyric; they’re our biggest crossover,” she says. But that’s maybe 1,800 people out of 30,000 Lyric subscribers. Unable to continue waiting for the opera crowd to catch on, she’s diverting some of the money COT has been throwing at Lyric’s program book to media reaching what might be a more theater-minded audience–WXRT, for example, and Love FM (WILV). And, since last year, COT’s been advertising its brand more prominently than the individual productions, having decided there’s little reward in flogging Dido and Aeneas or Erwartung to a public that’s never heard of them. COT, which doesn’t have an endowment, managed to shed all its long- and short-term debt last year, thanks largely to forgiving board members who turned loans into gifts. It also reduced its $600,000 operating deficit by more than two-thirds. The budget for this season is $2.8 million; about $25,000 (less than 1 percent) has been spent on the set for the double bill.

Director Cazan, who says he “always gets the psycho stuff,” believes every opera is more about characters and relationships than about sets. So here’s what audiences will see at the Harris: Bluebeard, “a guy with a wall around him,” lives in a big, black, fluorescent-lit box permeated by “a feeling of dank, cold otherworldliness.” The troubled protagonist of Erwartung is inseparable from a giant piece of China silk that drapes her or that she carries. Cazan sees the glob of fabric, which “moves when she inhales,” as the barometer of her interior life. “There are two ways to go,” he says, “either big and spectacular or minimalist. This is a very minimalist approach. These operas are psychological and gut-wrenching. We didn’t want to gunk it up being literal.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Peter Harrison’s minimalist set for Erwartung; Andrei Serban.