Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Training Ground: Young Artists Pay it Forward at Chicago Summer Opera’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

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Timothy Madden and William Ottow/Photo: Daniel Johanson

Timothy Madden and William Ottow/Photo: Daniel Johanson

By Aaron Hunt

Chicago Summer Opera advertises itself as another of our city’s startup, storefront, non-profit operatic enterprises; its title promises a spoonful of gastronomical respite as Chicago’s opera gluttons starve their way through Chicago’s heat and humidity to the cooling, autumnal beginnings of the seasons of Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Opera Theater. Its offerings must be considered in those terms.

Yet, a closer look at Chicago Summer Opera’s mission statement proves that it is primarily a training ground for young artists. In fact, Chicago Summer Opera’s singers are all “aspiring” opera singers, with no one among their ranks having made an “important” operatic debut, and further examination finds that, with the exception of some performers who may have been granted a scholarship, these young singers are paying tuition for classes in repertoire, acting, audition technique and diction. Each singer is promised a role in one performance of one of the company’s operas at the completion of their season’s tutelage. In the industry, this financial arrangement is called “pay for play,” and incurs all the potential positives and negatives implied. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Il Barbiere di Siviglia/Main Street Opera

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I went to Palatine Friday night to hear Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.” Telling myself I had no expectations, I had been hoping for at least a fifteen-piece orchestra of solid musicians. That hope was futile.

The orchestra consisted of one decrepit upright piano played by Jason Carlson, a young Northwestern University faculty member. Unfortunately, Carlson had neglected to do a sound check from the back reaches of the auditorium with singers, while one of his students played the piano. Consequently, the singers were often drowned out by the piano reverberating off the front of the stage.

While the singers were competent Rossini executants they could not contend with the banging and jangling of that infernal upright at the front of the proscenium. It was not exactly Carlson’s fault, but rather the responsibility of director Molly Lyons, who is ex cathedra responsible for tutti. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Telephone and Hello Out There/Chicago Theatre-Opera

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David Govertsen, Mary Lutz Govertsen/Photo

David Govertsen, Mary Lutz Govertsen/Photo: Anne Slovin


Who knew the composer Gian Carlo Menotti was a serious, prophetic social critic? Not I. I remember watching his charming fantasy, “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” on black-and-white television as a boy in the 1950s. For decades I avoided looking into his one-act comic operetta, “The Telephone.” Perhaps I should have gotten off the esthetic high horse I was riding to investigate it. Menotti saw—in 1947!—that Americans were device-ridden, tyrannized by the telephone. He showed us obsessed, distracted, driven, controlled by the phone to the point that mutual consideration and conversation, formerly the chief charms of sociability, had died.

Menotti felt the telephone had killed the continuity of existence. Life was now a series of interruptions. Leisure, too, was dead. Politeness, decorum, manners, formality suffered. Casual was king. Yes, it was funny, but it was tragic, too. And Menotti lived long enough to see our sidewalks full of zombies seemingly talking to themselves, eyes fixed downward on a small object in the palm of their hand fifteen inches from their face. Read the rest of this entry »

Opera or Musical? The Eclectic Sound World of Ricky Ian Gordon

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Norfolk, Virginia - March 26, 2011: Ricky Ian Gordon, 55, the ubiquitous composer at Harrison's Opera House in Norfolk, Virginia on Saturday, March 26, 2011 where he is preparing for his latest opera, "Rappahannock County". Its worldwide premier is on April 12 in Norfolk.

Ricky Ian Gordon

By Dennis Polkow

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has written instrumental music over the years, but “there’s no getting around it,” he admits, “I’m most excited by the voice. My mother was a singer, I was her accompanist and a lot of what making music is about to me is my relationship with my mother. Also, when I was eight years old, I became obsessed with opera. But then, I was also obsessed with Joni Mitchell and the Beatles: I was obsessed with words through music. I’m less inclined to go to a symphonic concert than I am to go to the opera. I’m a man of the theater.”

Gordon was writing musical theater pieces early on, “When I thought that musical theater was going in a particular direction. At one point when I was a kid, ‘The Consul’ was done on Broadway. ‘Porgy and Bess’ was done on Broadway—not the recent version that Audra McDonald did, but the actual opera was done on Broadway. Stephen Sondheim’s shows had full orchestras when they originally premiered and were very musically sophisticated. If you listen to Audra McDonald’s first CD, ‘Way Back to Paradise,’ I think it gives you a sense of where we as composers thought the musical theater was going. But that didn’t happen.” Read the rest of this entry »

Review: A Coffin in Egypt/Chicago Opera Theater

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Frederica von Stade/Photo: Liz Loren


The mythical line between opera and musical theater further fades with Chicago Opera Theater’s mounting of “A Coffin in Egypt.” Is it really an opera, as advertised? The composer, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Leonard Foglia, librettist and director, (who based his libretto on American dramatist Horton Foote’s play) have enjoyed storied Broadway careers. The scenic and costume designer Riccardo Hernandez, and lighting designer Brian Nason are Broadway veterans.

The performers address each other face-to-face, turning upstage, rather than cheating out toward the audience. The portrayals are natural, not exaggerated in body language or counterfeit emotion. “Coffin” contains spoken dialogue. This allows the singing to flow out of narrative that can no longer be expressed with mere words. Isn’t this the type of writing that made “Oklahoma” a success? Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Trouble in Tahiti/Chicago Fringe Opera

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Pass through the ornate 1918 façade of the Chopin Theatre, bounce down a few generously carpeted stairs, and you’ll find yourself in the gregarious Pregnant Buffalo Lounge. Chicago Fringe Opera’s evening begins at the bar. For their program called “Voices in the Dark,” CFO immediately weaves a spell with low lighting and sultry jazz music, accompanied by a fine jazz trio, maestro Codrut Birsan at the piano.

When it’s time to swill down those drinks, the trio becomes an orchestra, and you’ll head into the Studio Theatre’s black box for their production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti.”

Premiered in 1952, Bernstein’s darkest opera flexed his jazz muscles, while exercising his distinctive sense for a detached, melancholy vocal line. For the only time in his career, Bernstein wrote the libretto himself. A scathing judgment of disconnected Capitalism, the piece unjustly became the stuff of university mountings, with its small cast and technical simplicity. Read the rest of this entry »

Lend Us a Tenor: Brandon Jovanovich Books an Unusual “Passage”

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Brandon Jovanovich/Photo: Kristen Hoebermann

Brandon Jovanovich has played heroic tenor roles here and around the world but this month is revealing two other sides of himself: playing the role of Walter, a German diplomat and husband of a former Auschwitz guard in “The Passenger,” the rediscovered Holocaust opera by Mieczyslaw Weinberg at Lyric Opera, and singing diverse material of his own choosing on Harris Theater’s final “Beyond the Aria” recital of the season with soprano Amber Wagner and Ryan Center baritone Will Liverman on March 10.

“It’s a heck of a piece,” says Jovanovich of “The Passenger” in his Lyric dressing room, with scores for oratorios he is also working on visible on the piano. “There is a lot of jazz in it, some swing, there’s some funk happening there. There is some dissonance but it is also transparent in a lot of spots. It’s important to let the music speak for itself and not work against it. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Passenger/Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Photo: Michael Brosilow

Photo: Michael Brosilow


The question on my mind as I listened to the second act of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger” at the Lyric Opera Tuesday night was: Am I listening to great musical art?

The answer, unfortunately, was “no.” I say unfortunately because I had hoped for much more. The state of Holocaust education in this country remains dire after sixty-five years of public agonizing. A great work of art can change that listless, dutiful, fitful, guilty public half-resolve to get down to brass tacks on racism. “The Passenger” is the work of an enormously knowledgeable, sincere, very clever, inventive, imaginative artist. But great music?

“The Passenger” falls short for two reasons. One, its subject matter. Two, its subject matter. What do I mean? First, the Holocaust defies Music. It is a true enormity, a breath-bereaving, disgusting, obscene crime of such evil intensity, vastness and finality as to stultify all creative musical thought whatsoever. Second, Weinberg’s undeniable musical genius was not suited to the painting of unrelieved darkness and nihilism—the end of public and private faith, belief and hope forever. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: The Property/Lyric Unlimited

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Jill Grove and James Maddalena/Photo: Robert Kusel

Jill Grove and James Maddalena/Photo: Robert Kusel


The theme of familial loss, with the potential for reconnection and affirmation, is universal, crossing boundaries of place and creed. As Lyric Opera of Chicago presents the holocaust opera “The Passenger,” their cultural outreach program, Lyric Unlimited, is producing the world premiere of Wlad Marhulets’ klezmer opera “The Property,” which follows the journey of a family displaced by the atrocities of WWII, as they search to reclaim their past, and pronounce their secrets.

Adapted from Rutu Modan’s graphic novel by librettist Stephanie Fleischmann and director Eric Einhorn, the story follows a grandmother who has just lost her son, and a granddaughter who has just lost her father, as they travel to Warsaw to repossess the apartment where the grandmother lived as a child. The women discover themselves at cross-purposes, floundering in a sea of memory and longing. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Thérèse Raquin/Chicago Opera Theater

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Mary Ann Stewart, Matthew DiBattista and Edward Parks/Photo: Liz Lauren

Mary Ann Stewart, Matthew DiBattista and Edward Parks/Photo: Liz Lauren


Chicago Opera Theater’s “Thérèse Raquin” is the all-around finest production I have had the pleasure to enjoy in any 2014/2015 season, including those at The Met and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Composer Tobias Picker’s score transcends a compositional legacy that reaches back from Elliott Carter to Nadia Boulanger, revealing the expected atonality and rhythmic complexities while overlaying the soaring melodies that one might anticipate from Barber, Menotti or even Douglas Moore. Conductor Andreas Mitisek’s sensitive yet authoritative reading invites rather than insists; his orchestra answers with affectionate precision.

The source material is Émile Zola’s novel of the same name, a study in theatrical naturalism, revealing human capacity for pure animalistic sex and murder. But this operatic interpretation turns the story on its head. Picker’s heart-wrenching music, combined with director Ken Cazan’s quiet, insightful direction, Alan E. Muraoka’s sparse scenery and David Martin Jacques’ shimmering, simmering blues of near-nightfall and sinister bodies of water take us to surprising places. Read the rest of this entry »

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