October 19, 2022

On the road again

Opera in the Neighborhoods revives this season, bringing works commissioned for young audiences to the places where they live.

"So here's the interesting thing," says Elise LaBarge, a longtime teaching artist with Lyric and now Learning Programs Manager for Lyric Unlimited, Lyric Opera's learning and creative engagement division. "Opera in the Neighborhoods is a project that not only connects us with our community partners, but also every corner of the company. Our artistic department is involved in casting and commissioning. Artists from the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center have often performed. There's a marketing component, and there's a huge technical component — a whole team dedicated to rehearsing, mounting, and moving the production."

Indeed, for most of its existence, Opera in the Neighborhoods offerings have been small-scale touring productions, specially created to be enjoyed by third through eighth graders. Over the past decade, the performances have reached well over 100,000 students. The venues have changed year to year, but in all cases they are in the neighborhoods where the students live and go to school. Though the programs have often taken place in the fall, this year they will move to the spring, says Jill LeCesne Potter, who became Lyric's Senior Director of Learning Programs this past summer, after 18 years with the Urban Gateways arts organization. That's in part to be sensitive to the lingering uncertainty around what's right for individual host locations and school populations.

Family audiences take in a performance of The Scorpions' Sting.

"We're not sure just yet how schools will feel about inviting other school populations into their buildings given the impact of the pandemic," Potter says, "so we are limiting the number of sites this year, geographically focusing our efforts to reach as many students as possible across the city and beyond. After a series of performances at locations to be determined, the final shows will take place in May in partnership with the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on the University of Chicago campus. The center already delivers arts programming to area schools as part of its matinee series, so the venue makes for an especially good fit.

Opera in the Neighborhoods has evolved in numerous ways over the years. Early on, the series consisted of abridged, family-friendly versions of canonical operas, an approach familiar to most arts educators (and to most parents, for that matter). "There would be a mini Magic Flute, a mini Barber of Seville, and so on," LaBarge says. For the 2014/15 Season fall tour, after extensive surveying of all the stakeholders, Lyric decided to commission original works, as well as search out new works, written specifically for younger audiences, exploring themes that resonated with those audiences.

Over the years, the productions have varied greatly in topic and style, all being performed at the professional level required of any Lyric show. In Lyric's 2015/16 season, the commission went to on-the-rise composer (and MacArthur genius) Matthew Aucoin, whose Second Nature, set 100 years into the future, tackled climate change (and kids' relations with pesky adults). The 2019/20 Season offering, premiering not long before the pandemic, was Earth to Kenzie, co-commissioned with Seattle Opera and written by Francis Pollock and Jessica Murphy Moo. That story centered on "a fifth grader with homework, asthma, and a big imagination," as its program notes; when she and her mother have to move into a family shelter, Kenzie finds refuge in the world of video games. The show is lively and entertaining, while dealing with housing insecurity and self-respect. In May 2020, Lyric created an innovative site-specific production of Hansel & Gretel in the Park, directed by Matthew Ozawa (now Lyric's new Chief Artistic Administration officer), with costumes and set design by Lyric's highly regarded Scott Marr and featuring gender fluid casting. Audiences experienced the various scenes of the show — which was also filmed and made available to teachers and students via streaming — by literally strolling through the Walking Stick Woods nature area in North Park Village.

In The Scorpions' Sting, the students must find a way to help their afflicted teacher.

Among the most successful offerings to date is The Scorpions' Sting, which is being revived this year. Premiered in 2017, the work, by acclaimed Canadian composer and librettist Dean Burry, takes as its inspiration the ancient Egyptian legend of Isis and the Seven Scorpions. Geared for audiences aged 7–12, the story follows a group of young archaeology students in a race against time to save their professor, who has been stung by a poisonous scorpion. Set in a world full of wonder and mystery, the opera explores themes about the quest for knowledge and the power of forgiveness.

Stories like these, which capture the imaginations of school-aged children, can increase the multifaceted benefits of arts programs. Educators, Potter says, have seen "two years
not necessarily lost to COVID, but that were compromised by COVID. Opera in the Neighborhoods can not only foster a love of the arts in young audiences, but also help to increase student engagement in school while supporting young people in their social and emotional development."

Learn more about The Scorpions' Sting and other Lyric Unlimited programming by visiting www.lyricopera.org/learn-engage.

Header photo: A grand scene from The Scorpions' Sting, the 2017/18 production of Opera in the Neighborhoods, which will be remounted this spring.

All photos: Michael Brosilow