A call for new Chicago opera

Tue Apr 11, 2023 at 11:32 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Gianandrea Noseda conducted a concert version of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell at the Harris Theater in 2014.

Chicago has an opera problem. 

Yes, there have been and occasionally still are worthy opera nights to be had. But, as long-suffering local aficionados recognize, those are few and far between. 

For the most part Chicago opera has been mired in mediocrity for the past decade—undone by a lack of stars, dull programming, uneven casting, inconsistent conducting, and stage directors who should be institutionalized rather than helming performances.

Lyric Opera, especially, has been deep in the doldrums for most of the endless Anthony Freud era—as another largely dismal, just-wrapped season can attest. That applies not only to the humdrum quality of performances but to a crucial loss of artistic vision and sense of mission. 

Chicago’s largest and most venerable company has gone from doing eight operas a season to just five grand operas in the current season (back up to six in 2023-24). The rest of this season’s lineup offered two Broadway musicals and a hip-hop version of Barber of Seville

Again, there have been isolated successes, even at Lyric, but for the most part these days in Chicago one enters an opera venue with wariness and trepidation more than eagerness and excitement.

The LOC board appears to buy Freud’s excuse that because the company’s subscriptions and ticket sales are in the basement, Lyric must do other things because opera is no longer popular.

The issue is not that Chicago audiences no longer want to attend opera performances. The issue is that Chicago audiences are tired of attending lousy opera performances for all of the reasons outlined above.

An opera company exists for one reason and one reason only: to perform the greatest operas of the past and present with the finest singers of the day, produced on the highest artistic level.

That’s it. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not about Broadway musicals, “mariachi operas,” ballet or hip-hop retoolings of classic works.

Nor is an opera company a political advocacy group or a social justice organization. Based on email and aisle conversations, a good percentage of local operagoers are getting tired of being lectured and preached to—even those that may agree with the woke politics. The current obsessive emphasis on diversity, inclusion and equity (DIE) seems more central to local opera companies’ reason for existence than presenting a compelling and universal drama with first-class music and singers.  

This is not a zero-sum game and a better-managed company could do more than one thing without neglecting quality or its primary purpose. But currently local opera companies seem to be pleasing no one.


What Chicago needs is a new opera company. Make that two or three new opera companies.

I don’t mean a huge LOC-sized organization doing eight operas a season. I mean a company that can start small with one or two performances a year, gain an audience and grow into something solid and sustaining by performing great operas on a high artistic level. 

Haymarket Opera Company is the model. Started on a shoestring in 2010 by Craig Trompeter, the Baroque opera company’s slow but steady growth has gone from one-act pastorals to full-evening Handel operas. In 2021, Haymarket’s streamed Orlando provided Chicago’s finest opera performance of the year and nothing else even came close.

Chicago is blessed with a handful of storefront opera companies in town that have been doing laudable and often admirable work on a smaller scale including Chicago Fringe Opera, Third Eye Theatre and others. 

But what the city currently requires is something in between Lyric Opera and on a more ambitious scale than these hardy troupes.

So, a few modest proposals:

1. Chicago Concert Opera

The Teatro Regio Torino concert performance of Rossini’s epic Guillaume Tell, led by Gianandrea Noseda at the Harris Theater in 2014, delivered one of the most thrilling opera performances of the past decade and showed how with a strong cast and first-class conductor, sets and costumes become irrelevant.

What about a Chicago Concert Opera? This could be modeled on Washington Concert Opera or the long-running Opera Orchestra of New York. Imagine a company that would bring in first-rank singers for Italian or German operas they never get a chance to perform—and that Lyric Opera wouldn’t touch with a barge pole: musically rich rarities like Ponchielli’s La Giaconda, Weber’s Der Freischütz, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, etc. With no sets or costumes, costs would be negligible and the artistic payoff could be just as remarkable as it was with that William Tell.

Sean Anderson and Michael Hendrick in Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men at Sarasota Opera. Photo: Rod Millington

2. American Opera Company.

While there is no shortage of contemporary operas being presented, 20th century American opera is even more neglected in Chicago than 20th century American symphonies. 

How about a company that presented exclusively the finest opera works by American composers—and not just narrowly focused on themes that fit the current political template. One can see an operatic version of something like the National Theatre in London or the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which primarily focuses on the finest English and Irish plays of the past and present.

Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah—arguably the cornerstone American opera—has not been presented at Lyric in over two decades. Nor have local audiences heard recently—or at all—Floyd’s Of Mice and Men or Cold Sassy Tree, Barber’s Vanessa, Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street, Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount, Douglas Moore’s Ballad of Baby Doe or Carry Nation, or Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden. Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra is long overdue for revival as well.

Many of these works have small casts and are modestly scaled and could be produced without exorbitant costs.

3. Chicago Opera Company

What Chicago needs above all is a company that can bring bread-and-butter opera rep with strong casts and idiomatic conducting back to Chicago—Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Rossini, even Smetana and Dvořák. That can mean a mix of top singers and up-and coming local artists, conductors schooled in the rep, and non-Regie stagings. Chicago is awash in gifted conductors and talented singers. One need not look far afield to get a worthy cast and conductor booked.

Again just one or two productions a year would be enough to get started.

For venues Civic Opera House isn’t the only game in town.  There are a bevy of smaller alternate venues better suited to midsize companies: the Studebaker Theatre, the Athenaeum, or the new Jarvis Opera House at DePaul University.

Finally, it should be reiterated that it was not Lyric Opera or COT that delivered Chicago’s best opera performance of the past two years. It was Haymarket Opera, a company devoted exclusively to historically informed Baroque opera, which in its all-Handel 10th anniversary season served up a magnificent production of Orlando.

So if a company can rise from nothing and in a few short years rival the two largest companies in quality, why can’t some enterprising local musicians do the same for Romantic and 20th-century works? The money is here (for now), the talent is here and, God knows, the need is here.

To put it plainly, an opera-mad city like Chicago deserves much better opera than it’s been getting. 

What about it, Chicago? Thousands of opera fans are waiting.

Posted in Articles

25 Responses to “A call for new Chicago opera”

  1. Posted Apr 11, 2023 at 12:27 pm by Marv

    It seems to me that your criticism of LOC has more to do with racial inclusion than actual quality. Your choice of terms like “woke” and apparent disregard for unconventional opera (i.e. black-central opera) outs you as an elitist and racist. Just because an opera doesn’t fit neatly into your narrow definition of the term doesn’t mean it doesn’t have merit. After all, their partnership with the Met on Fire Shut Up in My Bones won the Grammy this year.

    Stop gatekeeping and let Chicago find its own, unique voice in opera; not just the white, eurocentric version you deem as pure opera. If Chicago deserves anything, it’s an opera company that better represents the people who live there. Otherwise, it’ll just die off with the likes of, well, old white people like you.

  2. Posted Apr 11, 2023 at 12:36 pm by Anne-Marie

    I couldn’t agree more with this point of view! After being a loyal Lyric Opera subscriber for over 30 years, I have cut my subscription from 8 to 6 to 3 (pick your own) for precisely the reasons cited in the article. We no longer see and hear the world’s best opera singers such as Jonas Kauffman, Joseph Calleja, Juan Diego Flores, Sondra Radvanovsky, Diana Damrau, etc., but are often the testing ground for Ryan Center artists in training. Productions, especially when directed by hallucinating pseudo artists, are unpredictable as they range from the sublime (rarer these Freud years) to the ridiculous and vulgar (“plat du jour “ in the same era)

    It is insulting to our intelligence and cultural sensibilities when artistic organizations such as the once esteemed LOC uses art to indoctrinate audiences with their political and social views- also known as WOKE mentality, all in the name of diversity and inclusion. It seems that everywhere we turn today we’re being force-fed with this ideology. Opera at the Lyric has stopped being an exciting, anticipated cultural experience and become dreaded as “What butchering of Verdi or Mozart must I sit through tonight?”

    More spiritually and musically fulfilling for me in recent years were the CSO’s concert performances of Verdi’s Macbeth, Othello, Aida et al. The other organizations mentioned above are also commendable in their efforts to revive authenticity in opera.

  3. Posted Apr 11, 2023 at 5:19 pm by jizungu

    I agree entirely with this assessment, including Mr. Johnson’s ode to opera in concert performance. (In addition to the Guillaume Tell, he might have pointed to Muti’s Verdi cycle at the CSO and Conlon’s Mozart series at the Martin Theater). In addition, a few questions and comments:

    To write that the Civic Opera House is “not the only game in town” is an understatement. I find the size of the house one of the main impediments to an exciting experience at LOC, and the vast distance between singers and audience (in any but the most expensive seats) must be tremendously off-putting to anyone not already devoted to the art-form.

    For a short spell, LOC used to regularly produce newly commissioned chamber operas in smaller venues, some of which (Fellow Travelers, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird) were among the company’s most memorable, in a positive sense. What happened to that series? Its last iteration, Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up, was mysteriously canceled and nothing more heard from it since.

    I’m also bewildered by the number of works co-commissioned by LOC that have been seen on other stages but have yet to be seen here: these are by first-rate composers like Missy Mazzoli (“The Listeners”) and George Benjamin, in contrast to the pallid and derivative new works presented on the grand stage, like Bel Canto and Florencia en el Amazonas.

    Given LOC’s steep prices and sub-standard fare, Chicago opera-lovers might explore whether a better investment would be to fly to Philadelphia or St Louis for a weekend in fall or early summer, to attend their festival seasons.

  4. Posted Apr 11, 2023 at 8:01 pm by Steve

    The only world-class opera (and orchestral) performances in Chicago these days are those given by Riccardo Muti and the CSO. If the CSO really wants to maintain its world-class standing, they need to keep Muti as its MD.

    Otherwise, it will sadly end up being just like Lyric Opera today…a substandard, provincial organization.

  5. Posted Apr 11, 2023 at 10:49 pm by Cameron

    I get what you’re saying about the decline in quality and the lack of artistic vision in Chicago’s opera scene, but I think it’s important to remember that focusing on DIE doesn’t have to be an obstacle to artistic excellence. In fact, an opera company can totally address both artistic quality and social issues at the same time.

    Consider this: maybe one of the reasons Chicago audiences are tired of mediocre opera performances is that local opera companies haven’t been engaging with a diverse range of voices and talents. By embracing people from different cultural backgrounds and experiences, these companies might be able to inject some fresh creative energy into their performances and connect with a wider audience.

    Also, I don’t think we should brush off the emphasis on DIE as just political or social justice activism. By including diversity in casting, programming, and creative leadership, we can help make opera in Chicago more vibrant and inclusive.

    I like your ideas for new opera companies and initiatives, but I just wanted to point out that we shouldn’t see DIE as something that gets in the way of quality. Instead, bringing diverse perspectives to the table can help breathe new life into the artistic landscape of opera in Chicago, and it should definitely be a key part of any effort to improve the local opera scene.

  6. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 8:02 am by Alan Hammer

    Agree with concert opera idea. Lyric has never done Der Freischutz (I’ve suggested it to them); it’s a little weird, but great music. Harris Theatre has been a good venue; not only Tell, but the Monteverdi operas a few years ago with Gardiner. Maybe it would be a good part of the solution. Even Lyric did a concert version some time ago of a Massenet opera which featured Domingo; we got to hear him in a non-mainstream opera with minimal cost.

    Loved the Mozart operas with Conlon at Ravinia. CSO has done multiple concert presentations of Bluebeard’s Castle, but Lyric never has staged it, I think. Mathis der Maler also works well in the theatre; I’ve seen it staged elsewhere.

    There’s got to be enough critical financial and artistic mass in Chicago to do better than we’ve done recently.

  7. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 12:01 pm by Otoowoohoo

    Concert opera is not opera. To suggest that the solution to Chicago’s opera woes is concert opera is a solution as ignorant as suggesting that more diversity is the solution.

    The only solution, and I mean the only solution, is better singing. And I’m sorry to report that in that sense Chicago’s operatic doldrums are no worse than anybody else’s.

  8. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 4:27 pm by LC

    Haymarket Opera is a good company. My only problem with them is that if you have seen one of their operas, their other operas look and sound very similar. Similar sets, productions and choreography. No surprise anymore.

  9. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 4:50 pm by Argyle1

    Of course, the elephant in the room here is that, 20 years ago, the role that you’re describing was being filled in many ways by Chicago Opera Theater. But that all ended a decade ago, when its General Director was pushed out by the Chicago establishment.

  10. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 5:55 pm by Sarah

    I appreciate the message that LOC seems artistically rudderless during the Freud years, and their lack of a proper artistic director shows in their programming.

    However: as someone familiar with the state of funding for the larger opera companies in Chicago, I can tell you there is no more donor base here to tap into. LOC and COT are both constantly financially struggling to meet their basic production budget needs. That’s a big reason seasons are shrinking, and artists and arts workers are the ones being hurt.

    Trying to start a new company, if successful, would likely mean siphoning donations from already existing companies. Lack of vision isn’t the entire problem – opera is just really expensive.

  11. Posted Apr 12, 2023 at 7:04 pm by IngridMcNeill

    My husband and I have been subscribers to Lyric for almost 60 years. These last seasons have been enormous let-downs.

    I completely agree with Mr. Johnson, Steve and, especially, Anne-Marie.

  12. Posted Apr 13, 2023 at 1:44 am by Tim

    I wonder how a festival opera season over, say, three or four weeks (perhaps in the summer) at one (or more) of the newer university concert halls (Logan/U of C, Gannon Hall/DePaul, Ryan Center/Northwestern) would go over? It might attract enough opera tourists, along with local audiences, to make it ecomonically viable, if this was something exciting, unique, and worthwhile. Can you imagine a weekend where all three works conjoin and one could attend a performance of each in these three venues? Admittedly, ultimately a major undertaking. But “make no small plans…”

    Something significant of this sort, filling a niche at an otherwise oft opera desert time locally, might be what it takes to establish anything new of significance. If the international puppetry festival, which has rightly gained notoriety, can fill numerous venues around town over two weeks in the worst of winter, why couldn’t an opera festival do something similar in the summer?

  13. Posted Apr 13, 2023 at 9:01 am by J

    The decline in Chicago opera is a management issue. Far easier to replace management and reinvigorate existing companies than to start anew. It’s time for new thinking, new ideas, and thoughtful leadership.

    For example, Lyric could hive off its summer musical into a separate non-profit (or merge it into Porchlight’s entity, as one idea), as the idea that a “West Side Story” audience will embrace “Lucia” is a stretch of logic while wallpapering over the clear shortcomings of its mainstream offerings.

    Embrace of diversity/equity/inclusion is not exclusive of artistic prominence. It’s an “all the above” ethos, and not “either/or”. More stories need to be told. Contemporary opera has no shortage of them, but these stories aren’t being told here. To wit: Opera Philadelphia’s O Festival, Prototype Festival in NYC, Boston Lyric Opera, St. Louis, Detroit, and LA all challenge their audiences in ways not seen here. It can be done.

  14. Posted Apr 14, 2023 at 8:09 am by Bill

    Actually I found Factotum to be the most refreshing performance I’ve seen at the Lyric in ages. If opera is to survive it will have to grow out of its boring, same-oh same-of, plodding Eurocentric roots.

  15. Posted Apr 14, 2023 at 3:39 pm by Laurence Segil

    Yes, concert opera is not the same as staged opera. Instead, the singers are at the front of a stage, much closer to an audience that they always face. Thus, they can always be heard, unlike the situation in so many of the productions staged at LOC and elsewhere, and probably with significantly less strain to their voice.

    Under Muti’s leadership the singers at CSO have the benefit of one of the great operatic conductors of the current age (and many of the CSO guest conductors are operatic conductors of quality and renown at least equal to those that appear at LOC) leading one of the great virtuoso orchestras of the world, enabling the audience to hear nuances of the orchestral score that are lost in the depths of the Lyric Opera House (through no fault of the Lyric Orchestra players).

    I find that I rarely miss the overpriced, ridiculous stage productions that must contribute a significant part of LOC’s financial difficulties, and that not infrequently actually detract rather than add to my enjoyment of an opera. I am very curious as to the relative cost of paying the singers and orchestra players versus the cost of a new (usually vapid and inappropriate) production and the crew required to build it and stage it at every performance.

    Perhaps opera fans of Chicago would finally get to hear some of the wonderful singers that prefer to stay in the smaller venues of Europe, whether because they do not have the voice to project into a hall like Lyric or simply do not want to strain their vocal apparatus trying to do so. Perhaps we can no longer afford the extravagances of LOC performances, but that doesn’t mean that we can no longer afford to hear the finest live opera.

  16. Posted Apr 14, 2023 at 4:06 pm by Kevin T.

    As a seasoned opera lover, I have been impressed with the new company, Opera Festival of Chicago. Last summer they produced two pieces I have never heard live before, L’Inganno Felice of Rossini with the wonderful tenor Kenneth Tarver and Verdi’s Il Corsaro, which was very exciting. The singers and orchestra were terrific. I will keep my fingers crossed for this group.

  17. Posted Apr 14, 2023 at 7:02 pm by Subscriber

    As a LOC attendee since the late 70’s, first as a ticket buyer and later as a subscriber, attending the opera was a grand night out. At one time, outstanding artists performed and for the most part, in beautifully staged productions on the LOC stage, which introduced me to this wonderful art form.

    Unfortunately, in recent years, attending LOC is no longer a grand evening. Once I attended 6-7 productions; now three or four. My reasons parallel those submitted by other commenters and need no repeating.

    However, commentary regarding staging socially relevant productions is submitted. “Susannah”, “The Passenger” and “Dead Man Walking” were three of the best, riveting performances I have witnessed. They had excellent casts, fine productions, and were well presented and highly acclaimed. One left the opera house, with a grand, thought-provoking experience. Although I am a capital punishment proponent, the closing scene of “Dead Man” was highly dramatic and intellectually provoking. With “The Passenger,” members of the audience were observed exiting with teary eyes.

    Yes, opera companies definitely have a role staging contemporary issues when well cast, produced and performed. And when done on a high level, us “old white people” are responsive since having attended classic operas made us aware of fine art.

    Regrettably, much of contemporary work now considered fine art is social, psycho-babble nonsense intended as DIE propaganda.

  18. Posted Apr 15, 2023 at 2:32 pm by Steve B

    Two other reasons for opera attendance decline are the the music itself and the “Eurotrash” far-out productions.

    I find that with so many of the modern operas the plots are superb while the music itself sucks. As Tom Lehrer put it, when you leave the theater “there’s nothing you can hum.” Why these wonderful storylines with so much unlistenable music? Yes, 12-tone and some dissonance is fine for a while, but for 2-3 solid hours? No way!

    As for so many productions these days, who needs bulldozers onstage representing Wagner characters? Both the Met and SF Opera had many problems using these mechanical monsters. And really, for what reason?

    Audiences want to see well-thought-out staging without being so esoteric that one must read a whole treatise to see what this deep, psychological production is all about.

    Not necessary.
    At all.

  19. Posted Apr 15, 2023 at 3:47 pm by Plush

    A very good article. I want to comment that all classical music organizations are on shaky ground these days. Shaky in the sense of financially shaky and shaky for a lack of imagination. DIE is a recipe for going under.

    As to Haymarket Opera–they only present 2-3 performances and then the run is over. That’s because they are shaky financially. 2 performances just doesn’t make it and for that reason they cannot be held up as an example to emulate.

  20. Posted Apr 19, 2023 at 11:37 am by Nancy

    I completely agree. The Rhine maidens with tennis rackets on mechanical platforms were what did it for me. A few weeks earlier we had seen a wonderful production at North Carolina Opera. Totally different. NC Opera produces some of the best productions anywhere these days, always quite traditional. They do it with a small budget but good sensible leadership.

  21. Posted Apr 25, 2023 at 12:37 am by Don Dugal

    ALL opera companies are having hard times with audiences. It is usually not the director’s fault but the general dumbing-down of the audiences. Growing up on video games, fast-paced, explosive TV, and regular attendance at frantic pop music extravaganzas has reduced the attention span of the public by 50% since 1960.

    Opera production values have very often been co-opted by contemporary, post-modern philosophy theorists who, in pursuit of competitive fame, present clever visual images that do not easily relate to the character of 19th century music. A dedicated opera fanatic must choose carefully and travel to see well-sung and -staged opera.

  22. Posted Apr 25, 2023 at 11:10 pm by Richard

    Agreed on how special that Noseda Guillaume Tell was. That was with Meade and Osborn. And wasn’t he supposed to come back the following year, again with Turin, and then they parted ways and the tour never happened. Our loss.

    I also remember many very special opera performances over the years by smaller (and transient) companies. Wasn’t there a concert performance maybe 20(?) years ago of Donizetti’s Poliuto by…hmmm…was it Da Corneto Opera?

    There have been very few special nights at Lyric in the last decade. I now spend more time at the symphony. I was SO looking forward to the Don Carlos last fall. Singing turned out to be a mixed bag. The cheap/cheesy set design was one of the most hideous I’ve ever seen.

  23. Posted Apr 26, 2023 at 2:42 pm by W. L. Weller

    I generally agree with the lack of artistic vision. However, the financial base (individuals and corporate) that supports organizations such as Lyric, CSO, Music of the Baroque and all the rest will gradually go away if City of Chicago leadership does not improve.

    Chicago is a great city. That is not something to take for granted. If people don’t want to come here, it impacts everything, including culture.

  24. Posted May 20, 2023 at 4:12 pm by P. E. Clark

    I totally agree with the author’s description of what Lyric has become which to some extent parallels the Freud tenure. I have been a subscriber for 50 years and have felt let down by recent productions, the over-emphasis on diversity, the absence of major singers, and the emphasis on musicals as opposed to the great operas long absent from Lyric’s stage.

  25. Posted Feb 17, 2024 at 6:23 pm by Sandra

    This is exactly why I have not renewed my subscription since Covid ended. That and the first year Lyric opened again they wanted masks on, and I wasn’t going to do that propaganda anymore.

    I don’t need opera to teach me social justice. My parents escaped a communist country-and they taught me how to be human. So thanks but no thanks DIE pushers; I don’t need your Marxist ideology or lack of critical thinking skills, and masked up ACTUAL racism, let alone Lyric propagating to me.

    Opera is old, maybe white, but it’s really about love, betrayal, comedy, and above all moving. And THAT connects everyone from All over the world regardless of the color of your skin, including the actual racists who are pushing DIE.

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