How opera can change a life: Sophia's Lyric story

One of the pillars of Lyric Opera of Chicago is “training the next generation of artists”—and not just in our Ryan Opera Center, but in every aspect of our programming. Educating young audiences to build a love of music, in fact, has been a longtime and ongoing initiative at Lyric. Eight years ago, Lyric renamed its education department Lyric Unlimiteda division of the company dedicated in part to creating greater opportunities for young people interested in the performing arts. Today, this branch of Lyric is called Learning & Creative Engagement, and it continues to offer innovative ways to experience music to Chicagoland schools, communities, and families, and to provide opportunities for adult learning. Through programs like EmpowerYouth! (which engages 30 Black Chicago teens in a yearlong program to create their own production), Opera Residencies in schools across the city, the Youth Opera Council, community events, Student Backstage Tours, Family Day, and Opera in the Neighborhoods (where a children’s opera is performed in various CPS schools each fall)—the possibilities for young people to fall in love with the arts at Lyric and through Lyric programs are endless.

Just ask Sophia Peterson. As a eighth grader, Sophia felt lost. She was having a hard time finding her purpose, especially when she felt that her interests were so different from those of her peers. She and her mother then came across Lyric’s Youth Opera Council, which her mom Stacey said “changed Sophia’s life.” Sophia entered into a relationship with Lyric throughout her high school years that would set her on a new path.

“I signed up and went in for an interview with the Youth Opera Council, got in, and it was so eye-opening,” said Sophia. “I’ve always loved opera and classical music, but never had an outlet to learn more or friends who shared the same passions. The YOC finally gave me a group of people who geeked out about opera as much as I did.”

The 2019/20 Youth Opera Council on stage at the Lyric Opera House. (Sophia is 2nd right, front row.)

Sophia recalled the first time she was moved by the power of opera, when she was in preschool. “I was in the car, my mom was flipping through radio channels, and she passed the classical radio station. Something clicked in my head and I burst out to go back to the station. I told my mom, ‘This music makes my heart beat so fast!’ My parents always played rock music in the house so my love of opera came as a surprise to them, too!”

With the Youth Opera Council, Sophia and her new friends participated in a lot of behind-the-scenes activities at Lyric. They met with guest artists performing at Lyric, learned about the business side of opera from administrative staffers, had engaging discussions about the lack of diversity in opera and why many young people find opera inaccessible, and attended most of the season’s operas. “As a teenager, it's hard to access and afford opera,” said Sophia. “Getting tickets through YOC with great seats was such a cool experience. I was able to see every performance in the last couple seasons at least once. I had seen two operas before YOC, and now I’ve seen dozens!”

Sophia’s love of music and Lyric didn’t end there. She also auditioned to be a supernumerary for several Lyric productions. (Supernumeraries, or “supers” for short, portray the non-singing, non-speaking characters onstage during opera productions.) “Before I had started supernumerary work, I was so self-conscious performing on stage,” said Sophia. “Through being in six shows at Lyric, I totally lost my insecurities and learned to have fun with it.”

Sophia, on a backstage tour with her Youth Opera Council peers, showing them her supernumerary costume rack.

Sophia backstage and in costume for Verdi's Luisa Miller at Lyric.

Sophia’s first production at Lyric was Rigoletto in the 2017/18 Season. Opening night of the production happened to also be Sophia’s homecoming dance (“I missed the first part of the dance to perform, gladly of course!”). As soon as she was done on stage in the beginning of the production, she came back to her dressing room, where her dressers had steamed her homecoming dress and helped her change into it. “The people backstage at Lyric are incredible human beings—I felt like Cinderella going to the ball!”

Sophia with her dressers for Rigoletto, who pressed her homecoming dress backstage (from L to R: Kim, Dulce, and Lauren).

One of Sophia’s favorite supernumerary experiences was in The Barber of Seville in the 2019/20 Season. “It’s a super-catchy opera with a great storyline,” she recalled. “I was with a group of other supernumerary women who were in the 'Largo al factotum' scene with Figaro. It was such a fun aria to perform in, and we grew so close in the rehearsals. It was fun to be able to get to know Adam Plachetka, our Figaro! He would be visibly nervous before he performed that iconic song, as anyone would be. We would see him calm himself down backstage, jump around a bit—it was fun to watch his process.”

Sophia with Adam Plachetka and other supernumeraries in The Barber of Seville.

Sophia’s experiences at Lyric helped her get into Case Western Reserve University to pursue a dual degree in vocal performance and either forensic linguistics or cognitive science. “When I would visit schools and tell them what I wanted to study, most had never heard of my kind of dual major,” she said. “At the Cleveland School of Music, I talked to a grad student and he said how great it would have been to have an opportunity like YOC to support his love of opera at a young age.

“I probably would have studied something else in college if I hadn’t had the support from the Lyric community. I feel really lucky in that way.”

To learn more about Lyric’s Learning and Creative Engagement programs, visit https://www.lyricopera.org/lyric-unlimited/. To support programs like Youth Opera Council and other Learning & Creative Engagement initiatives, please visit our donation page.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg