The Chicago opera scene, however, is all up tempo.
The nation's third most populous city has not only preserved its
devotion to opera, it has expanded it, despite hard times for
the art form elsewhere. Opera experts credit creative
programming, solid philanthropic help and a loyal, enthusiastic
"The Chicago opera scene has been unusually vibrant," said F.
Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News magazine, who compared the
enthusiasm at Lyric Opera performances to the excitement at
sporting events. "Chicago has a huge appetite for music."
Nationally, 2.1 percent of the U.S. population attended an opera
performance in 2012, down from 3.2 percent in 2002, according to
the National Endowment for the Arts.
New York City Opera went bankrupt last year. San Diego Opera
announced it would close after the current season finishes in
April. New York's famed Metropolitan Opera, the nation's
largest, reported a budget shortfall.
In contrast, ticket sales for Chicago's Lyric are up 15 percent
for fiscal year 2013, a 14-month period which ended June 30,
2013. It no longer sells out the season on subscriptions, as it
did in the 1990s, but at 72 percent of ticket sales it still has
the biggest subscriber base of any U.S. company, according to
Opera America, a national opera service organization.
The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for
out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie,"
last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general
director Andreas Mitisek.
New companies have sprung up as well. Haymarket Opera Company
specializes in the Baroque era, and South Shore Opera Company
has done shows using African-American casts, including William
Grant Still's "Troubled Island."
"There's a hunger for all these different things," said Mitisek,
who also directs California's Long Beach Opera.
REELING THEM IN
What's going right in Chicago?
One factor is an active, experimental local theater scene,
Mitisek said. So COT can find an audience for shows like Ricky
Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Eurydice," staged last year at public
swimming pools, used as staging for the mythical River Styx.
[to top of second column]
Northwestern, Roosevelt and DePaul universities all have vocal
programs that feed area companies with fresh talent. And Chicago's
generous philanthropic community helps offset the rising costs of
mounting an operatic production, according to opera experts.
Among the most coveted seats in town is on the Lyric Opera's board,
which includes Glenn F. Tilton of JP Morgan Chase's executive
committee; investor and violinist Howard Gottlieb; and Allan B.
Muchin, founding partner of the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman.
"There's a real commitment, which is an informed commitment, not
simply an instinctive emotion," agreed Anthony Freud, Lyric's
general director, who came on in 2011.
Lyric has responded to a tougher job selling subscriptions by
expanding its offerings. In addition to its eight-opera season, it
now offers a musical — next month, it's "The Sound of Music."
Lyric also started "Lyric Unlimited," with projects ranging from
family shows to the world's first mariachi opera. "The Second City
Guide to the Opera," co-hosted by soprano and Lyric creative
consultant Renee Fleming and actor Patrick Stewart, featured comic
sketches and songs.
Opera fans interviewed at a recent production of Dvorak's "Rusalka"
said they welcomed new programming, if it helps bring in more young
people. "When I'm the youngest person in my row, it's scary," said
Wendy Smith, 65.
Lyric is not abandoning the classics. It plans a new production of
Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, starting in 2016-2017. But fresh
programming and $20 seats for college students bring new fans into
Lyric's Art Deco theater, Freud said.
"For too many years, too many arts organizations existed in
hermetically-sealed bubbles..." Freud said. "It's no longer tenable
simply to do what has been done for decades."
(Editing by Gunna Dickson)
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