Lyric Opera of Chicago

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Lyric Opera's Got Talent!

What do Lyric chorister Branden James and Chicago’s late-summer weather have in common? Both have been hot, hot, hot!


What do Lyric chorister Branden James and Chicago’s late-summer weather have in common? Both have been hot, hot, hot! James has blazed through elimination rounds of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” this summer, earning a spot in the finals of the national talent show. On Tuesday, September 10, at 8pm CDT , James returns to the Radio City Music Hall stage, competing for a spot as one of 6 finalists—with his sights set on the $1 million prize.

James, a member of Lyric’s chorus since the 2010-11 season, has appeared in 21 operas, concerts, and musicals at Lyric Opera, most recently in the spring 2013 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!.

James’s “Talent”-ed journey began at the Chicago auditions earlier this summer, where he impressed the judges and earned a pass to the next round of competition in Las Vegas. He then advanced to the quarterfinals, which featured the top 60 acts performing live at Radio City Music Hall. James’s performance of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up” earned enough votes from viewers around the country to advance to the semifinals. His operatic rendition of Heart’s “Alone” secured his spot in the Top 12 finals.

Bravo, Branden! Toi toi toi for the finals!

Click here to vote for Branden James starting at 9:55pm CDT.


OTELLO shows us the power that love has in our lives

"Otello: Verdi's potent brew of love and murder returns to Lyric". Article by Jack Zimmerman.


The characters, though, are complex—especially the title character, to whom Giuseppe Verdi in his opera Otello assigned an Everest of a role. “My singing teacher always said, ‘If you can sing Pagliacci three times in a row in one evening, then you can sing Otello,’” declares South African tenor Johan Botha, who portrays the conflicted Moor in Lyric’s season opener.

Botha,Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Lyric (2012-13), has starred in Otello at the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and several major German houses. Cast opposite him in the Lyric production is soprano Ana María Martínez, in her eagerly awaited role debut. “Desdemona is such a gorgeous role,” she says. “I remember being an undergraduate and not yet having a grasp on vocal technique, but wanting so much to perform this music. It’s so incredibly wonderful to sing, and to have it vibrating within you is a balm to the soul.” Martínez, Lyric’s Mimì in the company’s initial series of Bohème performances (2012-13), laughingly notes that all the ladies she’s played at Lyric die. “That’s one of the reasons my son has not seen me do those roles. He’s six, so he now understands that mommy is only pretending to be these characters. If he’d seen me do Pagliacci at age two, forget it—he’d have years of therapy ahead of him!”

The soprano sees a message in Otello: “It shows us the power that love has in our lives. And while love is a life force that at times can drive us to tremendous despair and madness, it remains our greatest fulfillment.”

Heightening Otello’s conflict and drama is Verdi’s orchestration, which is far more subtle than in his middle-period operas. As in Wagner,the orchestra is crucial to the drama, illuminating and shading what is portrayed onstage, butthe Verdian gift of melody is always present. “For me Otello is one of the best examples of balance between the dramatic and the intimate,” says French conductor Bertrand de Billy, who will make his Chicago debut conducting Lyric’s performances. “At the beginning, with the chorus onstage, it’s absolutely crazy. Verdi wrote fortissimo, tutta forza. It’s like a big explosion, but you still have tohear what happens onstage! In Act Three you have the Otello-Desdemona duet with their confrontation, and then Otello’s aria. In a way, Otello is the most complete of all operas, and the challenge in conductingit is to prepare it properly, so you can stay very deeply inside it as it moves from the dramatic to the very intimate.”

Lyric’s production by Sir Peter Hall opened the 2001-02 season. This revival is directed by Ashley Dean in his Lyric debut, with Iago sung by German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann (who triumphed with Botha and Renée Fleming in this opera last fall at the Met) and the important supporting role of Cassio portrayed by Italian tenor Antonio Poli in his American debut.

In March of 1884, Giuseppe Verdi began composing Otello. His previous opera, Aida, premiered 13 years earlier and in the interim he’d composed no stage works. Otello’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, 29 years younger, was a composer in his own right, having written the well-received Mefistofele in 1867. A journalist and recognized poet, Boito had also furnished the libretto for Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. Already in 1881, when Verdi had him revise the libretto of Simon Boccanegra, Verdi found in Boito a true collaborator—a man of letters with immense musical knowledge who also understood opera’s theatrical possibilities.

“Verdi would spend months going over the libretto,” says Botha, “looking for just the right meaning in the text. If he wasn’t happy, he’d send it back to Boito, who would rewrite the whole thing. If you compare the Otello libretto with Shakespeare’s Othello, you realize that Boito really captures the spirit and nuance of the Shakespeare play. It’s amazing that Boito was able to put it in a nutshell.”

An Otello performance generally clocks in at two-and-a-half hours. But within that short space of time, the audience is taken on a journey that traverses human emotion from the heights of love and triumph to the depths of despair. The choice of this particular Shakespeare play for the operatic stage was inspired. It’s streamlined Shakespeare, with no confusing subplots and no episodes that detract from the central action. As George Bernard Shaw pointed out, “Instead of Otello being an Italian opera written in the style of Shakespeare, Othello is a play written by Shakespeare in the style of an Italian opera.” 

The play opens in Venice, where Iago reveals his hatred of Othello and plans to destroy him. Desdemona’s father finds that his daughter has eloped with theMoor and protests to his colleagues in the Venetian senate. Othello and Desdemona are summoned before them to justify their love. They’re soon dispatched to colonial Cyprus, where Othello is to combat theTurkish threat and serve as governor. That’s where Verdi and Boito chose to begin the opera.

Heroes are never interesting if they’re saints; in fact, the more flawed, the more appealing. “Otello is an insecure person,” says Botha. “There are people like that—extremely good at one thing while the rest of their life is a mess. Otello is one of those people—he’s extremely good at fighting wars for the Venetians, but he finds love and goes off the rails completely.”

Those insecurities are played on by the über-villainous Iago, who’s obsessed with control and power. For a time, Verdi considered actually naming the opera Iago. He didn’t, but he assigned the character one of the most complex roles in the baritone repertoire. 

Otello’s beloved Desdemona is his polar opposite. “Otello is very complex and needs someone uncomplicated,” Martínez says. “Desdemona’s strength is in her love and devotion. She’s Otello’s fountain of hope, his grounding energy, and his muse. Otello derives great inspiration from her. What happens is a tragedy, and all because of a misunderstanding.”

What happens is that Iago, Otello’s ensign, plants in Otello the seed of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity. From there, Otello descends into a sea of hate and jealousy. “You really have to pace yourself because the jealousy and hate are so real,” says Botha. “If you get too much into the emotions, you go out of control.That’s the danger of this role.”

When he was only 20, Boito had written the verses for Verdi’s “Hymn of Nations.” But a year later in 1863 at a reception for the composer/conductor Franco Faccio (who later conducted Otello’s world premiere at La Scala), Boito made a brief speech about the current state of Italian music. The speech was soon quoted in the Italian press: “Perhaps the man is already born who will restore art, in its purity, on the altar now defiled like the wall of a brothel.”

Verdi, an Italian composer with many triumphantly successful operas to his credit, read a newspaper account of what was said and was deeply insulted.The last librettist he would ever consider was Arrigo Boito! But eventually the appeal of the yet-to-be composed Otello drew Verdi in, and on November 18,1879, he accepted Boito’s finished libretto. He kept it next tohis bed for almost five years, and at the age of 70 started work on this extraordinarily dramatic yet intimate masterpiece.

“It’s haunting and it always stays with you,” says Botha. “There’s a little of Otello in all of us.”


Download the program for Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park

Feeling in the dark at Millennium Park? Download the program with plot summaries, singer bios, and English translations!

Feeling in the dark at Millennium Park? Download tonight's program with plot summaries, singer bios, and English translations!


Get social with us at Saturday's Millennium Park concert and win opera tickets

Are you surfing social media while picnicking at Millennium Park? Get social with us and win tickets to Lyric’s upcoming season!

Facebook fans: You can participate, too! Follow Lyric Opera of Chicago on Facebook and watch for our “enter to win” posts, live from Millennium Park on Saturday evening.

Are you surfing social media while picnicking at Millennium Park? Get social with us and win tickets to Lyric’s upcoming season!

Facebook fans: You can participate, too! Follow Lyric Opera of Chicago on Facebook and watch for our “enter to win” posts, live from Millennium Park on Saturday evening.

"Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park" General Information

What: Lyric Opera’s annual FREE musical gift to the City of Chicago

Who: Stars of the company in beloved arias plus the renowned Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus in orchestral and choral showpieces. Hear Ana María Martínez in selections from Madama Butterfly, Albina Shagimuratova in the famous “Mad Scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor, and more! Ward Stare conducts.

When: 7:30pm, Saturday, September 7, 2013

Where: Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park. Come early and picnic in the Great Lawn! Pavilion seating is first-come, first-served, and opens at 6pm.

The concert will take place, rain or shine! In the event of severe weather, please watch Lyric Opera of Chicago’s social media channels for updates.

Can't make it to the park? Listen live on 98.7WFMT or! Broadcast starts at 7:15pm CDT.

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