Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Lately

Matthew Aucoin on SECOND NATURE

Composer and librettist Matthew Aucoin shares his thoughts on Second Nature, the new children's opera coming in 2015 from Lyric Unlimited.

One of Lyric Unlimited's anticipated upcoming projects Second Nature, a new children's opera that will be performed at the Lincoln Park Zoo on August 19 and 20, 2015. Matthew Aucoin is acting as composer and librettist for this commission. The young American composer is also a noted conductor, pianist, and poet. Here are his musings on this work-in-progress: 

On Second Nature

An opera for kids! But is there such a thing as an opera "for adults"? If there is, I don't want to hear it. Opera, by nature, exists in a mythical space—it lives high above and far beneath adult reality. It's sublime and subliminal, it's sacred and obscene, it gives voice and form to the unspeakable and the repressed.

Here's a litmus test for any opera: does it manage to shut down all our rational adult defense mechanisms, so that we innocently submit ourselves to total sensory experience? Are questions of "believability" made irrelevant? Does it speak to us with a voice that cannot possibly be real, yet somehow is?

Opera addresses an ancient innocence in us, and it demands a childlike openness. So to write an opera with kids in mind is just to extend what opera always does. Just like the world of fairy tales, opera is peopled by archetypes-made-flesh, by walking manifestations of our deepest fears and desires. The Queen of the Night. The Grand Inquisitor. The Animal Tamer. The Vixen. Bluebeard and his wives. The androgynous pageboy. The lover in disguise.

One old nightmare of ours seems to be coming true at the moment: Mother Nature is turning on us. Mythology is colliding with reality; it's like all the ancient gods are taking revenge on the human race. Nature, which has always been "the unchangeable," is undergoing a terrible change—at our hands.

Second Nature  is set after the fall of nature. Humankind has found itself in a negative Eden: this time, we're stuck in a virtual "garden" of our own creation. We don't want to deal with big bad Nature anymore. It'll take a couple of kids—born in this bland synthetic world—who have the right blend of innocence, openness and daring to bite the fruit and explore a new world. Actually, those are just the qualities you need to listen to opera...

Photo credit:
  • Matthew Aucoin (credit Social Palates)

IL TROVATORE: A Lyric Photo History

Gypsies! Curses! Brothers switched at birth! A love triangle! Tragic deaths! Verdi's Il Trovatore truly has everything. The opera was a huge popular success when it first premiered, and it today remains one of the top 20 operas performed around the world. Learn more about the history of this work at Lyric.

Gypsies! Curses! Brothers switched at birth! A love triangle! Tragic deaths! Verdi's Il Trovatore truly has everything. The opera was a hugely popular success when it premiered, and it today remains one of the 20 most popular operas performed around the world.

Before you come and see Yonghoon Lee, Amber Wagner, Stephanie Blythe, and Quinn Kelsey in Sir David McVicar's production later this season, take a look at some past productions of this great opera throughout Lyric's history.


Il Trovatore had its company premiere in 1955, the second season of Lyric Theatre of Chicago. This production was conducted by company co-founder Nicola Rescigno and featured an all-star cast that included tenor Jussi Björling. Maria Callas—who had just made her American debut in Chicago in 1954—was making her second of three appearances in the 1955 season as Leonora. Callas had appeared in three productions in Lyric's inaugural season. Her sixth and final opera appearance at Lyric also came in 1955 when she played Cio-Cio San in her only staged performances of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In the photo below, she is greeting Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing after one of her Trovatore performances.

1956 & 1958 

Though there are no pictures of Lyric's 1956 production of Il Trovatore, it was notable in that it was the American debut of Bruno Bartoletti, Lyric's future artistic director and principal conductor. Replacing his mentor, Tullio Serafin, Bartoletti would win rave reviews and the admiration of Carol Fox, who would later appoint him co-artistic director with Pino Donati. 

The 1958 production was conducted by Lee Schaenen and featured Ettore Bastianini and Jussi Björling returning as di Luna and Manrico, with Elinor Ross as Leonora and the great Giulietta Simionato as Azucena.

Pictured below (clockwise from top left): Jussi Björling, Anna-Lisa Björling, and Ettore Bastianini read backstage; Leonora (Ross) and Manrico (Björling); Azucena (Simionato) confronts di Luna (Bastianini) as Leonora (Ross) lies dead.  


This new-to-Lyric production was imported from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where it had been performed a few years earlier. Lyric's stage director was Christopher West and the set and costumes were created by the design group Motley, whose sketches are below. 

Grace Bumbry portrayed Azucena, with Franco Corelli as Manrico (one of his signature roles), along with Ilva Ligabue (Leonora), and  Mario Zanasi (di Luna) completing the leading quartet. Bruno Bartoletti returned to conduct in his first season as co-artistic director.

Pictured above (clockwise from left): Azucena (Bumbry) and Manrico (Corelli); Manrico (Corelli) and Leonora (Ligabue); and di Luna (Zanasi) and Leonora (Ligabue).

This production is also notable for featuring in Count di Luna's army some supernumeraries from Chicago's Kelvyn Park High School, including a young Mike Gross. He would, of course, later go on to achieve huge success as Steven Keaton in Family Ties.


After more than a 20-year absence from Lyric's stage, ll Trovatore would return in a new production from director Sonja Frisell (designed by Nicola Benois) with Bruno Bartoletti on the podium. Pictured below (clockwise from top left) are Giuliano Ciannella as Manrico and Shirley Verrett as Azucena; a view of the set;  Leo Nucci as Count di Luna; and Anna Tomowa-Sintow as Leonora.


This was a revival of Frisell's production, last seen in 1987-88 (this time with conductor Richard Buckley), but these performances of Il Trovatore were notable for featuring the new Verdi critical edition that had just been released by the University of Chicago Press. Dolora Zajick portrayed Azucena—one of her most acclaimed roles—with Chris Merritt (Manrico), Paolo Gavanelli (di Luna), and Lyubov Kazarnovskaya (Leonora).

Pictured above (clockwise from top left): Manrico (Merritt) and Azucena (Zajick); Azucena (Zajick) confronts di Luna (Gavanelli); Leonora (Kazarnovskaya) and Manrico (Merritt); and Leonora (Kazarnovskaya), Manrico (Merritt), and di Luna (Gavanelli). 


A decade after its last Lyric performance, Sir David McVicar updated the action to Spain in the early 1800s, during the Peninsular Wars. The sets, designed by Charles Edwards, were inspired by the paintings of Goya and are grounded by an impenetrable castle wall. Due to the change in period, the gypsies actually have something to do during the Anvil Chorus—they are making weapons for the revolution!

Dolora Zajick reprised her 1993-94 role as Azucena, with Walter Fraccaro as Manrico, Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora, and Mark Delavan as Count di Luna. This production is also notable because it would be Bruno Bartoletti's second-to-last appearance on Lyric's podium. He would return to open the 2007-08 season with La Traviata, his final Lyric appearance.

Pictured above (clockwise from top left): Azucena (Zajick); the Anvil Chorus scene; Manrico (Fraccaro) and Leonora (Radvanovsky); di Luna (Delavan) and Manrico (Fraccaro) duel in front of Leonora (Radvanovsky).

 Photo credits:

  • 1955 - photo courtesy Lyric Opera of Chicago Archives
  • 1958 - Björling/Bastianini backstage photo courtesy Chicago Daily News; production photos credit Nancy Sorensen.
  • 1964 - photos credit David H. Fishman; super photo courtesy Michael Gross
  • 1987-88 - photos credit Tony Romano
  • 1993-94 - photos credit Dan Rest
  • 2006-07 - photos credit Dan Rest, except Anvil Chorus (credit Robert Kusel). 

Opera 101: Who’s in that box? The life of an opera prompter

If you come to see a production at Lyric, you might notice a small, unobtrusive black box that sticks up slightly from the stage, positioned just behind the orchestra pit. Would you believe that a person actually spends an entire opera in that small space? It's the prompter's box!

If you come to see a production at Lyric, you might notice a small, unobtrusive black box that sticks up slightly from the stage, positioned just behind the orchestra pit.

Would you believe that a person actually spends an entire opera in that small space? It's the prompter's box! While the prompter might be hidden from view, it is an incredibly important job. A prompter is the liaison between the conductor in the pit and the singers on stage. Having a prompter is a safety net for singers who have to remember several hours of material, usually in foreign languages.

A prompter's job begins during rehearsals. The prompter works with the conductor and cast of singers throughout the process and, most of the time, in all of the performances. (There is occasionally an opera that will not use a prompter!) A prompter must practice constant vigilance—never diverting their attention from what's on stage just in case a singer needs extra help or attention. And they must know the entire score better than almost anyone else performing, able to provide a few lines, a pitch, or help singers stay in tempo. And they do it all while dodging costumes and errant props like fake blood!

Susan Miller Hult, an assistant conductor and prompter here at Lyric since 1993, takes us inside the box!

What is the rehearsal process like? How do you collaborate with the singers and conductor?

Even though they arrive with their roles fully memorized, at the beginning of the staging process the singers (with possible jet lag) are receiving a lot of new information and input and I often am asked for some help with words, especially if a role is being for performed for the first time, or with a lot of different repertoire in between operas. It's an opportunity for me to find out how I can be of assistance. I often hear "watch me in this section, I tend to forget here" and "please let me know if you notice anything that I can improve," or "you're my best friend, I'm going to need a lot of help in the first few days." I also take notes of musical requests by conductor to pass along to the singers.

Can you take us through a typical performance?

I arrive a half hour before the performance starts to double check my video and sound monitors, lights, and place my music. Then I greet the singers with "in bocca al lupo" (the equivalent of "good luck" in Italian) and see if there are any concerns. I spend some time doing my own vocal warm ups, then a few minutes of quiet to center myself, breathe, and calm my nerves. I, thankfully, have a chair for most performances, occasionally a less-comfortable higher stool. 

I see the conductor via two video monitors, one on each side, and have a sound monitor with which I can hear the orchestra. I know if I have to turn up the volume (usually in sections where the strings are playing very quietly) the singers will have trouble hearing them onstage as well and may need extra assistance. 

During the performances I help the singers stay in sync with the conductor. I'm constantly watching their eyes for a signal that they might have a memory lapse, always ready to help in any way necessary to achieve best possible performance. If requested, I speak the first few words of each phrase in the traditional Italian style of prompting, or I am ready to give a word at the first moment of forgetting so the flow is not interrupted. I try to provide a constant sense of safety and encouragement to the artists onstage.

Exactly how big is the space you're in? Is claustrophobia an issue?

It is about the size of a phone booth, with a ceiling level that can change according to the production. Ergonomics are a constant challenge, as it can be difficult to maintain the healthy posture, movement, and breath support required to project my voice and keep alert and pain free. It's a very tight squeeze to climb into the prompt box from the orchestra pit—that part can feel quite a bit claustrophobic! Lyric's setup is very luxurious, however, compared to the terrifyingly narrow three-story ladder I climbed to the prompt box from the Bayreuth Festival's orchestra pit!

From a prompting perspective, what is your favorite opera? And the most dreaded or difficult to prompt?

Actually, the opera I currently work on is usually my favorite! The three that terrify me the most are Wagner's Die Meistersinger and Siegfried, and Janáček's Makropulos Case.

What is your most memorable moment during a performance?

The day of a performance of Die Walküre I was called to extensive rehearsals for the understudy of Sieglinde who had taken ill, and her understudy from the Chorus who would go on as one of the Valkyries. Then when I came back that night for the performance I found out that Wotan was also ill. It was very exciting and highly nerve-wracking at the same time—a very long 5 hours—prompting is not for the faint of heart!

Have any props ever come close to invading your prompter's space? 

Actually, I leave the box when they throw knives or fire. I've almost been hit by knives, sword blades, a falling chair, broken glass, fake blood (which left a distressingly permanent red streak in my Barber of Seville score), a stray foot when someone "died" to close to the box and couldn't remove it until the curtain fell, diaphanous costume trains, shards and dust from 200 plates smashed at the Götterdämmerung wedding celebration in a Bayreuth production, and I even ejected my glasses from the box once onto the stage in a frenetic moment, which were thankfully perfectly punted back to me by former soccer star, Sir Thomas Allen. 

What is your musical background? Did you have a circuitous route to your role here at Lyric?

I have a Bachelor's degree from Southern Methodist University in Piano Peformance with minors in organ and French and a Master's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Piano Performance. I furthered in Manhattan my studies of languages, diction, and other operatic necessities while coaching, accompanying, and working for regional opera houses. Then followed more study at the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and a fellowship to learn prompting, which is highly specialized, passed from prompter to prompter. I had the great good fortune to study with the highly esteemed Susan Webb, formerly of Lyric Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, who had learned from the great Vasco Naldini of La Scala (of whom Renata Scotto has the highest praise and many great stories). After working at the San Francisco Opera for 5 years I was invited to Lyric in 1993 to prompt Wagner's Ring with Zubin Mehta conducting. I loved working here so much that I was delighted to accept a full time position and have been here ever since.

What is the most unexpected or surprising thing about your job?

The extreme amount of study and preparation it takes. I have to know the operas well enough to sing everyone's part with perfect pronunciation, understand every word, whether it be in English, Italian, French, German or Czech, and conduct an occasional rehearsal if needed. Of course, the rewards of total immersion in the most beautiful music, working with superb artists at this level are greater than I could have possibly imagined. 

Have questions about what you see on stage or what happens behind the scenes at Lyric? Email, and you just might see an answer here on Lyric Lately!

Photo credits:

  • A view from Lyric's stage (credit Dan Rest)
  • Susan Miller Hult (courtesy Susan Miller Hult)
  • Susan Miller Hult peeks out from the prompter's box (courtesy

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