Backer pulls funding, but Chicago Opera Vanguard will forge ahead with Turnage’s controversial “Greek”

Sun May 31, 2009 at 1:55 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Chicago Opera Vanguard will open Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek Tuesday night.

Granted, opera isn’t always the most decorous of art forms, with adultery, betrayal, and vengeance often common themes.

But if you thought Richard Strauss took opera to the dark side with Salome and Elektra, brace yourself for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek. The English composer’s in-your-face revamp of the Oedipus myth opens Tuesday, presented by the city’s newest and most envelope-pushing company, Chicago Opera Vanguard.

The controversial subject matter of Greek and the libretto’s copious use of the F-bomb and other profanity rarely heard on the opera stage were judged too raw and edgy by one of the company’s main financial supporters. They backed out, leaving a $10,000 shortfall in the show’s budget, which accounts for about a third of the cost of the production.

Still, artistic director Eric Reda is determined to forge ahead with the full six-performance run. The young composer-director-impresario feels a strong sense of mission about Turnage’s opera, and, more broadly, that there is a place in Chicago for this brand of unusual classical repertoire and innovative presentation.

“I don’t want to say we’re expanding the definition of opera,” said Reda during a break in rehearsals. “But we’re trying to create a lot of entry points into opera. We present challenging works in an intimate space that’s highly visual, appealing and fast-paced. We want to be the operatic gateway drug.”

Reda, 33, sees his upstart company as the operatic equivalent of aggressive storefront  theater, presenting modern works and offbeat presentations with an appeal to younger, nontraditional audiences who may be less interested in Verdi or Puccini.

With the St. Paul Arts Center in Wicker Park, Reda has certainly found a suitable venue for this belated Chicago premiere.  The second-floor Lutheran church was founded in 1890 by the community’s Norwegian immigrants—who would likely be rendered mute by Greek‘s subject and libretto. The long-shuttered, crescent-shaped room offers an intimate space of bleak, decayed grandeur apt for Turnage’s blistering depiction of  Thatcher-era social dissolution in London’s East End.

Amid the usual early-rehearsal disorder, a relaxed camaraderie prevails among Reda, the cast and music team at St. Paul’s. The young singers, many current or former Roosevelt University students, are passionate about Turnage’s score, initially daunting though it was.

“At first I was scared to death,” said Justin Neal Adair, who is singing the pivotal role of Eddy, the Oedipus character. “It seemed impenetrable at first. But as we worked on it, you realize [the vocal line] is just an extension of speech. And it’s accessible and really reaches a younger audience.”

Greek marks the 23-year-old baritone’s quick immersion into contemporary opera, and he is grateful for the experience. “It’s nice to sing with a smaller company, and I’m having a great time.”

Soprano Ashlee Hardgrave who sings a variety of characters, also recalls her first impression of Greek as “terrifying.” “When I first looked at the score, I thought, ‘How in the world is this going to work?’ Now that I’m into the music and rehearsals, I realize how good this opera really is.”

“I love it,” said mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney, who has the demanding Jocasta role of Eddy’s wife (and mother). “It uses dissonance in the most perfect way yet has such moments of beauty too.”


The Oedipus myth has inspired composers from the earliest years of opera to the present, from Tommaso Traetta’s Antigona of 1772 to Tobias Picker’s 1996 updating to pre-Civil-War Massachusetts in Emmeline.

But Turnage’s gritty 1988 opera is unique. Adapted from Steven Berkoff’s play, the action is updated to 1980s London where the bizarro family drama plays out against a dispiriting backdrop of mass unemployment, social anarchy and despair.

Commissioned by Hans Werner Henze for the Munich Biennale Festival, the opera created an international impact, putting the 25-year-old Turnage on the map, and going on to an acclaimed production at English National Opera and a BBC telecast.

Berkoff’s original play is an even rougher ride than the opera, and Reda believes the revised libretto by Turnage and director Jonathan Moore is a brilliant piece of adaptation. “They contracted the story and focused on the drama of the story and the pathos and the passion between Eddie and his wife and focused that energy inward.” Turnage and Moore also pared down Berkoff’s lengthy and often polemical speeches to their essence to make, “sharp, beautiful, lyric” arias. “People think of it as being really very harsh, angular and modern but I think, note for note, it’s a much more lyrical piece.”

Greek is the second and final production of Chicago Opera Vanguard’s inaugural “season zero,” which began in January with Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice song-cycle.  The company’s first foray was as a one-off vehicle for producing Reda’s own political opera, Reagan’s Children, but since has also presented concerts, including a fund-raising event that commissioned fifteen new additions to the AIDS Quilt Songbook.

Eric Reda

The energetic Reda seemed destined to launch a challenging theatrical enterprise like Chicago Opera Vanguard. Born in Arizona, he sang for four years with the Phoenix Boys Choir, and toured the world, an eye-opening experience for a kid coming from the wrong side of the desert tracks on the outskirts of Phoenix. “I had to learn to cook after that because I needed to eat all the food that I had abroad.”

The son of “fluffy-haired hippie parents who were very supportive of anything I wanted to do,” Reda’s love for opera was instantaneously sparked when the boy’s choir was taken to a concert by Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland at Arizona State University. “It blew me away,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s just amazing.”

 Young Eric started spending all his money on used opera LPs. “My parents had no idea what to do with me,” says Reda. “In high school the only music I could find more annoying to my parents than opera was Philip Glass.”

There are no professional musicians in his family—though his late uncle, Rex Allen, won fame as television’s singing cowboy and narrator of Disney films. Still, the folk music his hippie parents played around the house definitely made its mark, says Reda, in his consuming interest in opera with a rock or populist bent.

Reda studied composition at ASU and began writing music himself, yet he believes that his multiple interests in theater, opera and direction have naturally coalesced in the last few years, bringing him to launch Chicago Opera Vanguard. With eight cast members, a 19-piece orchestra and six performances, Greek will be the company’ most expensive effort to date at $30,000, a good chunk of its $50,000 annual budget. 

Reda plans an equally adventurous lineup next season, opening with Andy Vorez’s No Exit, a Sartre-ian opera premiered last year in Boston. That will be followed by a theatrical staging of Schubert’s cycle Winterreise for dancer, in addition to singer and piano. The season will close with Per Norgard’s antiwar chamber opera, Nuit des Hommes.

Even with the major funding loss for Greek, Reda says the response and enthusiasm for Chicago Opera Vanguard has been so overwhelming that he is already planning several seasons ahead, and sees the company quickly establishing its niche on the local cultural landscape.

“Thirty years ago we would have been in New York, when it would have been more affordable,” says Reda.  “Maybe forty years before that we might have been in Paris. It seems that Chicago is the right city now for creating this kind of work.”

“We’re the only game in town to dig into this kind of material,” he adds. “We really like to think of ourself in terms of being the off-Loop theater company that just happens to do opera.”

Chicago Opera Vanguard’s production of  Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek opens Tuesday for six performances through June 13 at St. Paul Arts Center, 2215 W. North Ave. 773-747-7364;

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