Never mind those icy patches on the sidewalk: spring is here, bringing with it our seasonal theater and arts preview issue.
Accordingly, while the global banking system teeters, Xi and Vlad (nukes in their back pockets) rendezvous, and Trump seems poised to take the first-ever presidential perp walk, the issue I’m stewing about is this: why do we get these periodic clusters of opera performances?
Here in Chicago, where opera fans can suffer weeks, even months, of near drought, we now, once again, find ourselves in an opera frenzy—an accidental festival so richly packed, you probably won’t make it to everything.
This raises a question: who’s in charge of this feast-or-famine scheduling? The same dingbats who’ve been supervising the banks?
Here’s what’s coming up this weekend that I know of:
On Thursday, at the Harris Theater, Chicago Opera Theater opens a two-performance-only premiere of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing. Composed by Justine F. Chen, with libretto by David Simpatico, this operatic biography of the scientist known as a father of AI, who helped win WWII by cracking the German military message code, only to be prosecuted for consensual homosexual activity and forced to undergo chemical castration, was (to quote myself) “revelatory” in a workshop performance four years ago; baritone Jonathan Michie returns in the title role. The second performance is Saturday afternoon, after which you could sprint right over to Lyric and catch a 7:30 PM Carmen.
On Friday, the superb Haymarket Opera Company presents a one-night-only performance of La Giuditta, a 17th-century oratorio by Alessandro Scarlatti about the biblical Judith, who saved the people of Israel by seducing the conquering general Holofernes, getting him drunk, and slicing off his head. Performing at DePaul University’s Holtschneider Performance Center, they have soprano Emily Birsan as Judith, and lute legend Nigel North in the chamber ensemble of period instruments conducted by Craig Trompeter.
That same evening, Lyric Opera opens its much-anticipated three-opera cocktail Proximity. This production, directed and mixed by Yuval Sharon (creator of the parking-garage Wagner opera, Twilight: Gods), features work by a starry combination of creators, including composers John Luther Adams and Caroline Shaw, tackling existential challenges like climate change and the alienating effects of AI, and documentary-style playwright Anna Deavere Smith on gangs and guns in Chicago. (Possible real spoiler alert—the cast includes a character named Arne Duncan.)
Meanwhile, Friday and Saturday, Chicago Fringe Opera presents the last of two weekends of a unique staged art song concert, Chicago Currents: Celebrating Chicago’s Waterways (and the city’s history), featuring a large, diverse collection of historical and contemporary composers including Indigenous soprano Kirsten Kunkle performing her own work, along with pieces by the likes of Florence Price and Stacy Garrop.
You wouldn’t know it from this bonanza, but for opera, as for most of the performing arts, these are tough times. Last week brought the announcement from the small but adventurous Third Eye Theatre Ensemble that their next season will be their last. Founder and artistic director Rena Ahmed says that after ten years, the all-volunteer-run group “decided to celebrate what we’ve done and bring it to a close.” COVID was a contributing factor, she said. “Ticket sales for the last couple of shows were not what they had been pre-COVID.”
That’s true across the board. According to Lyric Opera, its ticket revenue for opera productions (excluding musicals) was $11.6 million in fiscal 2022, compared to $18.5 million in pre-COVID 2019. General director Anthony Freud’s announcement last week of the schedule for next season (several titles and numerous performances shorter than seasons used to be) started out by acknowledging that “opera is at a very challenging moment,” with “painful new economic realities.”
Nevertheless, as Freud told an audience of subscribers and supporters at the opera house, some important things were learned during the pandemic—among them, the need to be more “agile” in programming. For example, he said, no postseason musical was included in next year’s announced schedule. (West Side Story is coming up this year, in June.) That doesn’t mean there won’t be one, Freud told me: there may or may not, depending on what becomes available. But, he said, it will have to be a popular enough title to justify the financial risk of producing in a house two or three times bigger than a typical Broadway theater. The operas on tap for 2023–’24 include Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, Janáček’s Jenůfa, Rossini’s Cinderella, Terence Blanchard’s Champion, and Verdi’s Aida.
The Blanchard was a late addition, Freud said—an example of the greater flexibility he’s aiming for and of Lyric’s intention to balance legacy operas with more work about contemporary life. So there’ll no doubt be a Trump opera in our future—that’s a no-brainer. But how about this banking house of cards? Watching the news this morning, I could already see it: Matthew Polenzani as Fed Chair Jerome Powell, and Joyce DiDonato as Elizabeth Warren, killing it with an aria that puts the blame squarely on him.