The steady expansion of the performing arts in Chicago continues its marvelous pace, with more and better theater, dance, comedy and opera gracing more and better stages each passing year. The upward progression is so steady that epic undertakings—a new campus at Steppenwolf, a bigger chunk of Navy Pier for Chicago Shakes—seem almost business as usual these days. And that is a marvelous thing. This year we again celebrate the lesser-sung heroes offstage who deal with the less glamorous things like building those new stages, and paying those expanding payrolls without which the stars would have nowhere to shine.
Tragedy has been central to theater since the ancient Greeks first staged it, but the last year has brought a disproportionate volume of real-life tragedy to our community. No doubt, the expanding and maturing performing arts universe means that more members of its community will pass on each year, but the number of those struck down long before their expected hour was overwhelming these last twelve months and struck every corner of performing arts, from theater, to dance, to comedy, to opera. Molly Glynn, Jason Chin, Eric Eatherly, Bernie Yvon, Johan Engels, Julia Neary—and others we’ve unintentionally overlooked—we dim our collective marquee for you. (Brian Hieggelke)
Players was written by Zach Freeman and Sharon Hoyer
With additional contributions by Brian Hieggelke, Alex Huntsberger, Aaron Hunt, Hugh Iglarsh and Loy Webb
All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave-Lux, taken on location at Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Brave-Lux Studio Read the rest of this entry »
Shakespeare’s play of the same name came to be called “The Bard’s Opera” because producers would schedule the widely popular piece when revenues were low, giving the players reason to believe that their talents might shortly need to find a new place of expression, striking such fear into their hearts that it was considered bad luck to speak the name of the title character. “Bloch’s Opera” succeeds in a fearlessly visceral way by leaning heavily on the text that shored up the finances of Elizabethan theaters, superstition be as damned as Macbeth himself. Chicago Opera Theater’s production tells the ancient tale in graphic symbolism while using the sort of multimedia gadgetry that allows both a generation steeped in operatic traditions and a newer audience that must be encouraged if the art form is to continue to be riveted.
Given in a series of seven tableaux, with COT’s slightly cut production listed as having a run time of 110 minutes without intermission, Ernest Bloch’s only operatic contribution proves his zeal for the thematic intricacies and rich orchestral scoring of Wagner. Internal melody soars from the pit in reactive counterpoint to the supple vocal lines, both delivered up in instrumental surprises. Bloch’s pulsing orchestral and choral compositions might have prepared us for this singular masterpiece had it followed a lifetime’s work. But the piece was written early in Bloch’s career, premiering in 1910 when he was only thirty years of age. The fact that it is seldom performed, quietly crouching in the shadow of Verdi’s “Green’s Opera,” is a wrong that COT artistic director Andreas Mitisek, conductor Francesco Milioto and Apollo Chorus director Stephen Alltop illuminate. The combined effect of Mitisek’s sexy direction, Milioto’s musical-gumshoe’s instinct for locating and bringing to justice every ounce of romanticism, and Alltop’s unbroken track record for training his chorus to express such varieties of style and color that it rivals any other in the city on this under-appreciated work should cause us all to shake our heads. Read the rest of this entry »
Karen Marie Richardson/Photo: Liz Lauren
Walking through the cinderblock, cement and steel pipes of the parking structure and into the stark modern lobby of The Harris Theater at Millennium Park, I couldn’t help but be reminded that I wasn’t at my Daddy’s Opera House. Chicago Opera Theater opened its fortieth Anniversary Season, serving the greater community as both an addition and an answer to our famed Lyric Opera of Chicago, with a production of “Queenie Pie,” jazz-great Duke Ellington’s unfinished, flawed, but compelling “street opera.” Calling their 2014 season “Illusions and Delusions,” COT continues to exhibit its ambition to bring both a new audience to opera, and to present an alternative to Chicago’s already established opera-loving constituency, by offering a season completely devoid of any of the standard operatic repertoire. Past attempts to mix both expected and unexpected fare notwithstanding, general director Andreas Mitisek, who began his steerage of COT in June 2012, appears determined to sail into new and under-examined compositional waters. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Liz Lauren
One of the problems with being the new impresario in town who conducts, directs and simultaneously runs another opera company on the West Coast is catching your breath long enough to attain some sense of what has happened here before you arrived. Andreas Mitisek said in spoken remarks at Saturday night’s Chicago Opera Theater opening of “María de Buenos Aires”—in a comic faux fundraising letter from its deceased composer Ástor Piazzolla, no less—that Chicago had waited forty-five years to hear the piece.
COT has tempered this claim somewhat by calling the Mitisek production, which premiered in January at the Long Beach Opera which Mitisek also runs, the Chicago stage premiere. But even that is inaccurate, as the City of Chicago presented the piece as its Summer Opera in 2011. Quite often, those have been concert performances, but in this case, the work was staged. (And violinist Gidon Kremer even brought the piece to Symphony Center in a semi-staged version back in 1998.)
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Photo: Liz Lauren
The Andreas Mitisek era has begun at Chicago Opera Theater. Walking across the stage on crutches with a leg cast at Saturday night’s season opening, Mitisek noted that his fall on the ice earlier in the week had given new meaning to the showbiz phrase, “break a leg.”
Unlike the company’s former general director Brian Dickie, who preferred to stay in the background, Mitisek likes to do a stand-up comedy routine as an opera warm-up, last fall reading a mock letter from Mozart, this time around reading a faux Edgar Allan Poe letter from hell where he wondered how Chicagoans could not possibly lend support to such a diverse opera season: “Nevermore.” Read the rest of this entry »
Though we publish a list of “players” every year, we alternate between those whose accomplishments are most visible on-stage (the artists, last year) and those who wield their influence behind the curtain (this year). Not only does this allow us to consider twice as many people, but it also puts some temporal distance between the lists. So, the last time we visited this cast of characters, two years ago, we were celebrating the end of the Richard M. Daley years in Chicago, fretting over a nation seemingly in the mood for a Tea Party and contemplating the possibility of a Latter Day Saint in the White House. Today, we’ve got a dancer in the mayor’s office, the most prominent Mormons are in a chorus line at the Bank of America Theatre and the Tea Cup runneth dry. Call us cockeyed optimists, but things sure look better from here. And so, meet the folks who, today, bring us the best theater, dance, comedy and opera in the nation.
Written by Zach Freeman, Brian Hieggelke, Sharon Hoyer and Johnny Oleksinski
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Sean Panikkar/Photo: Liz Lauren
Several memorable Mozart productions have been directed by Diane Paulus and conducted by Jane Glover during Brian Dickie’s thirteen-year tenure as general director of Chicago Opera Theater. Thus, it seemed a fitting finale to Dickie’s Chicago career that the team would reunite for Mozart’s final opera, “The Magic Flute.” When the Paulus production proved too costly, that creative team fell by the wayside and COT had to start from scratch. Along the way, the Queen of the Night was vanquished by visa difficulties. As if all of that were not enough, timing was such that this would be no less than the third “Magic Flute” production heard here in less than a year. What possibly could make another production worth seeing even under the best of circumstances?
Happily, a great deal. Yes, British director Michael Gieleta gives us an often static and minimalist production, downright stark by the elaborate standards of Lyric Opera’s long-running August Everding production. But thanks to designer James Macnamara and light designer Julian Pike it is an elegant starkness, the blackness of the universe with painted galactic stars and suspended spheres acting as planetary bodies. This refined look almost makes up for such cheesy special effects as a dragon that is basically a rope with Christmas lights around it and costumes that run the gamut from generic tunics to Papageno (Markus Beam) in Nostalgia Critic attire. Read the rest of this entry »
The third time is the charm, as it turns out. Handel’s “Teseo” (“Theseus”), crowning Chicago Opera Theater’s spring season and the penultimate opera of Brian Dickie’s general directorship, is also the last of COT’s Baroque opera “Medea” trilogy that began with 2010’s production of Cavalli’s “Giasone” (“Jason”) and continued with last year’s production of Charpentier’s “Médée” (Medea). Taken as a whole, this cycle stands as one of the most important artistic initiatives COT has brought us.
Medea was last seen in the climax of “Médée” setting fire to Corinth and murdering her two children, but between Charpentier’s opera and Handel’s she has made her way to Athens to seek asylum and betrothal from King Egeo who has no heir since his only son Teseo is unknown to him due to a promise the king made to Teseo’s mother. In Handel’s “Teseo,” the young hero fights for the king without either knowing their identity and with both courting Agilea. The king plots to kill Teseo while Teseo is magically seduced into cohorting with Medea, and so on. If it all sounds a lot like Handel’s “Rinaldo,” seen recently at Lyric Opera though set during the Crusades, only the setting and names are substantially different. Read the rest of this entry »
Sara Heaton and Paul LaRosa/Photo: Liz Lauren
Brian Dickie has certainly given Chicago many firsts and many thrills in his twelve years as general director of Chicago Opera Theater, but Dickie has saved one of his best for last: the professional Chicago premiere of a satirical musical by, of all people, Dmitri Shostakovich.
With Stalin having declared modernism and the avant-garde anathema in 1936, operetta became a regime-approved art form and began flourishing during the Soviet era. Operetta houses were built next to theaters and opera houses, large orchestras and repertory casts engaged, and an entire generation of Soviet composers began writing a new species of still popular Russian operetta that remains largely unknown in the West. Read the rest of this entry »
Gerard McBurney/Photo: Todd Rosenberg
By Dennis Polkow
“Musical” and “Shostakovich” are two words few might expect to hear together. “Various people looked at ‘Moscow, Cheryomushki,’” explains the work’s adapter Gerard McBurney over tea, “but the reaction of most presenters in the West was, ‘Shostakovich? Oh, he wrote gloomy symphonies and string quartets. Not exactly a marketing dream.'”
McBurney—a composer, arranger, broadcaster and musicologist best known in the area for his popular “Beyond the Score” presentations at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra which he has overseen, written and narrated since that program’s inception in 2006—was commissioned in the early 1990s to take the piece’s large orchestration and make it performable for a production in his native England. Read the rest of this entry »