April 09, 2020

Lyric’s RING: An inside look at the week when the stage went dark

On March 12, a group of staff crowded into a Lyric office to watch live coverage of Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot’s press conference on the state of COVID-19 in Illinois. Everyone held their breaths in nervous anticipation as the Governor and Mayor announced the first of many new public health guidelines aimed at stopping the spread of the virus. As they declared an immediate statewide mandate to cancel events that would bring more than 250 people together, there was an audible gasp in the office. In that moment, a team of people who had been working towards a massive common goal realized it was not to be. There was a long silence followed by a unified acknowledgement of what must come next for Lyric.

The Ring of the Nibelungen, the four-opera epic by Richard Wagner, is the biggest work an opera company can produce — and indeed, the biggest and longest live-performance event of any genre. Lyric’s new production was nearly a decade in the making. When Lyric General Director, President & CEO Anthony Freud joined the company in 2011, during his first meeting with Music Director Sir Andrew Davis, they discussed their mutual dream to create a new Ring cycle. Together, they began to plan. A creative team was chosen and artists were engaged, some as early as 2012.

In January of 2016, the company announced that it would create the first new North American Ring cycle since 2012. Lyric’s Wagnerian epic would be led by the extraordinary team of conductor Sir Andrew Davis and director Sir David Pountney. The goal of the international creative team was “to take the Ring back for the theater.” Imaginative designs for sets, costumes, and props were developed with incredible attention to detail and quality. All four operas began to take shape and Lyric’s new Ring was underway.

The last three years at Lyric included groundbreaking, critically acclaimed premieres of the new productions for Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried. “Nothing short of a triumph on all fronts,” raved the Chicago Tribune of Das Rheingold in 2016, “intelligently conceived by the creative team, brilliantly executed by a top-flight international cast.”  Die Walküre and Siegfried also earned wide audience and critical acclaim.

As Lyric prepared to present the final installment of the monumental work, Götterdämmerung, and three full Ring cycles to follow in April and May, the magnitude of this project is revealed in the numbers:

  • More than 240 costumes were designed for the Ring by Marie-Jeanne Lecca, sewn by numerous international artisans, and finished by Lyric’s wardrobe staff.

  • More than 350 artists on stage and technical crew members were involved in the creation and realization of the productions, filled with intricate stagecraft.

  • In 2020 alone, the Lyric Opera Orchestra was scheduled for 113 hours of rehearsals for the Ring cycle, with more than 90 musicians in the orchestra pit for every rehearsal.

  • It took 25 trailers to move all four shows to and from Lyric.

  • Each show individually took about 10 months to construct.

  • The scenery included more than 8,000 yards of hung fabric creating magnificent effects like the water of the Rhine, while the Valhalla scenic walls weighed nearly 5 tons each.

  • Patrons from all 50 states and nearly 30 countries had purchased nearly 40,000 tickets to the Ring and its surrounding festival events.

The decision to cancel the 2020 Ring cycle, while absolutely necessary to ensure the health and safety of our patrons, our artists, our staff, and our city, was heartbreaking for Lyric. On Friday, March 13, Anthony Freud walked into the onstage rehearsal and, with genuine sorrow, announced the cancellation to the people who had poured their hearts and souls into the creation of this work for so many years, the Ring company. After our talented and dedicated family of artists became the first to receive the news with hugs, tears, and broken hearts, the Lyric team quickly moved to share the news with an audience of music lovers who stretched around the world. Lyric’s rehearsal department also sprang into action to secure flights and transportation, adjust housing and meet the human needs for the cast of international artists, creative team members in the limited hours that became essential for planning and travel.

At the same time, due to public health concerns, almost overnight, Lyric staff had transitioned to remote work environments. From living rooms, kitchens, and home offices across the Chicago area, the staff banded together to announce the difficult news. Even the Audience Services call center was able to smoothly transition to offsite operations within 24 hours, providing the best possible customer service for our patrons during this difficult time.

Disappointment ran deep for everyone at Lyric, and for audiences who were looking forward not only to the Ring cycle, but its surrounding festival programming that included informative lectures, panel discussions, music-based events, backstage tours, and the much-anticipated return of Longer! Louder! Wagner!, The Second City’s hilarious, cabaret-style Wagner companion. All told, beyond the toll of the years of hard work that went into making Lyric’s Ring a reality, the impact of cancelations in the last month represents a daunting $15-20 million financial loss for the company.

And yet, during this challenging time, we were immediately reminded that we truly have the best audience in the world as we were overwhelmed by the beautiful, kind, compassionate responses we received from our patrons. An outpouring of heartwarming messages expressed appreciation for keeping audiences safe, and overwhelming gestures of support flooded our inboxes, our phone lines, and our mailboxes. Our audiences and donors—representing every neighborhood in Chicago, states across the U.S. and countries on nearly every continent —are the reason for everything we do. During a time of social distancing, we’ve been constantly reminded that we are all very much experiencing this moment together. We are so very grateful to you for being  with us and supporting us through this difficult time.

We hope this isn’t the end of the road for this Ring cycle—we very much want to bring the completion of our new Ring to Chicago in a future season. In the meantime, we take comfort knowing that we can continue to share the transformative beauty of opera together digitally during this unwelcome hiatus in live performances. And more than ever, we are extraordinarily thankful for the unwavering support of you, our audiences and opera lovers worldwide. We plan to stay close with you throughout this difficult time, and provide as much music and joy as we can. As Lyric favorite, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, said recently:

Much like its home city, Lyric is built upon the shoulders of innovative thinkers, trusting collaborators, and generous patrons who believe in its vision for the future.

The music will return, and we’ll be here with open arms ready to welcome you back.

Photos: Kyle Flubacker, Cory Weaver