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The Fat Lady sings: an overview of the opera scene in Chicago

John Rice built the first opera house in Chicago in 1850. After it burned down, he served two terms as mayor. Thus, our city's checkered history of opera and politics was born.

Chicago politics are perennially-checkered, but the checkered history of local opera--peopled with the ghosts of numerous grand opera companies--came to a halt in 1954 with the founding of Lyric Opera of Chicago. A company of international stature, Lyric Opera will begin its 57th season Oct. 1 with Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman. Remarkably, Lyric has had only three general directors (an opera troupe's top title) in six decades, and all three have been home-grown: co-founder Carol Fox and her successors Ardis Krainik and William Mason, who rose from the ranks of Lyric itself.

With world-class productions and a budget of $53 million, Lyric Opera is no mere 900 lbs. gorilla, but the King Kong of local opera. This doesn't mean Lyric has the opera field completely to itself. The checkered history of local opera is peopled with the ghosts of much, much smaller companies, too, among which "the boy who lived" is Chicago Opera Theater, founded in 1974 by the late Alan Stone and now comfortably ensconced at the Harris Theater. Chicago Opera Theater's (COT) 2012 season will be its 39th, beginning next April 14 with Dmitri Shostakovich's comic opera Moscow, Cheryomushki.

From the start, COT established itself as different from Lyric Opera. Repertory occasionally has overlapped (with the operas of Mozart, say), but COT has carved several niches of its own. First, COT productions always are sung in English. Next, COT early-on began to produce contemporary American opera, offering the Chicago premieres of works by composers Lee Hoiby, Carlisle Floyd and John Adams (to cite three examples) long before Lyric programmed their work. In the last decade, under general manager (since 1999) Brian Dickie, COT also has specialized in baroque opera as well as a broader and definitely contemporary world view.

Danielle Knox and William Bennett in 'The Student Prince'
Granting it the No. 2 spot in Chicago's opera hierarchy, COT is not the end of the opera game in Chicago today. For example, Light Opera Works, founded in 1980, continues to produce four shows a year drawing on the operetta repertory of Johann Strauss, Lehar, Offenbach, Friml, Herbert, Romberg, Gilbert & Sullivan and Broadway. Light Opera Works continues its 31st season Aug. 18-28 with Romberg's The Student Prince, an operetta originally produced on Broadway in 1924 which became the longest-running musical show of the decade.

Indeed, the distinction between opera, operetta and Broadway becomes increasingly blurry as composers such as Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and even Richard Rodgers cross into opera house territory (Lyric Opera has Show Boat and Oklahoma on its production schedule), while composers such as Kurt Weill long have existed in the domains both of opera and musical theater.

Still, Chicago has room for new blood, and several youthful troupes have taken up the challenge of opera and operetta in the contemporary world. One such is four-year-old Chicago Opera Vanguard, which has presented--sometimes in bars--musical theater works by (among others) Ricky Ian Gordon, Mark Anthony Turnage and Eric Reda, composer and company co-founder. Tapping into Chicago's Off-Off-Loop esthetic, Chicago Opera Vanguard (COV) has enlisted authors such as Philip Dawkins and David Kodeski to create contemporary new work as likely to feature rock riffs as classical vibes.

Another, devoting itself to turn-of-the-last century operetta, is five-year-old Chicago Folks Operetta, founded by husband-and-wife team Alison Kelly and Gerald Frantzen. This troupe has delved into less-familiar repertory by Kalman and Lehar, among others, even offering a Lehar children's operetta for Christmas, Peter and Paul in the Land of Nod. Indeed, family-friendly Xmas operetta is a signature of the company.

The Chicago Folks Operetta's 'The Rose of Stambul'
Chicago Folks Operetta (CFO) also seems to be making a specialty of Leo Fall, a Lehar contemporary and composer of CFO's current well-received show, The Rose from Stambul, playing at the Chopin Theatre through July 31. A considerable hit in 1916 Vienna, The Rose from Stambul has been seen in the United States only in a highly bastardized 1922 Broadway adaptation. For this production, CFO offers a new, accurate translation of the book and lyrics and a score reconstructed from surviving vocal and piano parts, with original orchestrations created for a superb, youthful 19-piece orchestra. Fall's publisher in Great Britain is talking about a new edition of the work utilizing the CFO materials, and there's talk of a recording, too.

This is good news for CFO, as opera and operetta are difficult and usually expensive to produce—even with non-union musicians and performers—and drawing an audience for traditional operetta and opera is a challenge. All Chicago opera companies, even Lyric Opera, must convince younger audiences that classical works still have life and appeal. The Rose from Stambul has a typical romantic story in the Viennese tradition of "kaffee mit schlag," but Chicago Folks Operetta is betting that excellent musical values and a colorful production will win converts.

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