August 06, 2020

The thrill of the new

Discovery. That’s an essential part of what opera is all about.

Much as we love the familiar melodies and stories of our favorite classic operas, there’s a special thrill in hearing and seeing something that’s either new to us or completely new.

view a Timeline of lyric's new works 

Most recently, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking profoundly moved Lyric audiences in November of 2019, having triumphed in 60+ productions on five continents over the past two decades. “It is deeply, deeply, deeply human,” says Susan Graham, who created the central role of Sister Helen Prejean and debuted as the death-row inmate’s mother in the Lyric performances. “It touches something in everybody.” The music in this opera, she adds, “is gorgeous, very melodic, full of every emotion from turbulence to lyricism. It’s about the world we live in now, about people working through pain.”

Lyric's 2019/20 production of Dead Man Walking, starring soprano Patricia Racette and bass baritone Ryan McKinny. 

Originally planned for June 2020 and postponed due to the pandemic, the Chicago premiere of the new opera Blue by Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson addresses another facet of American life: ongoing tensions and confrontations between law enforcement and young Black men. Co-commissioned by Lyric, Glimmerglass Festival (world premiere, August 2019), and Washington National Opera, Blue concerns a Black family headed by a police officer and his wife, whose only child is killed by a white police officer. A New York Times review called it “powerful—as well as sadly timely. Drawing on her deep experience in musical theater, her keen ear for elements of contemporary classical music and her abundant imagination, Ms. Tesori has written a strong yet subtle score that avoids the obvious and exudes a personal voice. Mr. Thompson, who also directed the production, has written one of the most elegant librettos I’ve heard in a long time.”

Blue, which premiered at The Glimmerglass Festival in the summer of 2019, is set to make it's Chicago premiere with Lyric in 2021. 

“This is a very exciting time for contemporary opera,” says Cayenne Harris, formerly vice president, Lyric Unlimited - Learning & Creative Engagement. “Important, new stories are being told on opera stages across the country, stories that resonate deeply with people from many backgrounds. Lyric is proud to present these works in Chicago, both on and off the mainstage. We’re offering our audiences and broader communities new ways to connect with the art form.”Harris notes that “there’s a buzz in the air that begins before the performances of these new works. Opera aficionados are there alongside first-timers, some of whom have come because the subject matter speaks to their cultural or individual experience and they are hungry to see that represented onstage. The operas are in English (with projected texts) and the theaters we’re in are typically more intimate, so there’s an immediacy to the experience.

Contemporary operas tend to be shorter than classic ones, so when audiences want to stay to talk about what they’ve just experienced—and they seem compelled to do just that—it feels like a natural extension of the experience. There’s a connection to the stories and characters that feels very personal, and audiences make those connections in their comments.

Harris adds that “the musical language of many contemporary operas is tonal, highly melodic,” and is more welcoming than some may assume.

Families have enjoyed delightfully engaging new operas each fall in recent years. Previous opera adventures for young audiences include Earth to Kenzie, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, Scorpion’s Sting, and Jason and the Argonauts—relatable stories set to lively, exciting music that gets little heads bobbing and feet swinging, and provokes astonished gasps and giggles.

Lyric's 2019/20 opera for kids, Earth to Kenzie, addressed housing insecurity. 

With mainstage world premieres, the excitement really amps up. “Electric! That was the feeling on the opening night of Bel Canto—people were walking into an opera that no one had ever seen or heard,” recalls Mary Burke-Peterson, who observed audience reactions firsthand as a Lyric usher for the past several years. “When we had Q&As after Bel Canto, particularly when composer Jimmy López was there, people were just in awe—how had he done it? What was the creative process like? Renée Fleming [Lyric’s special projects advisor] got lots of props for curating the project and creative team when she served as Lyric’s creative consultant. Book groups talked about the book vs. what they saw and heard onstage.” Based on Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel (inspired by  the Peruvian hostage crisis of 1996/97), Bel Canto exemplifies the energy a brand-new work generates. Fleming searched for the right composer for a year before choosing Peruvian-born composer Jimmy López, who’d been immersed firsthand in the hostage-crisis news as a teen, and whose musical style incorporates indigenous instruments not often found in the orchestra pit. He and Cuban-American playwright-librettist Nilo Cruz worked closely with Fleming and Lyric’s music director Sir Andrew Davis to develop the score. The resulting production packed the Lyric Opera House, captivated audiences and critics, and was later televised nationally on PBS’s Great Performances. 

Lyric's 2015/16 production of Bel Canto.

Lyric’s presentation of An American Dream by Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo at the Harris Theater stirred similar engagement. Audience members for whom the story of wartime displacement was personally resonant found it intensely gratifying to witness a variation of their family histories onstage. Many eyes filled with tears, triggered by a profound connection to the onstage drama and poignant music. Audiences were similarly moved by the recent Chicago premieres of Daniel Schnyder’s Charlie Parker’s Yardbird and Gregory Spears’s Fellow Travelers.

Lyric's 2018/19 production, An American Dream, addressed the incarceration of Japanese Americans in the 1940s. 

Lyric's 2016/17 production of Charlie Parker's Yardbird, starring tenor Lawrence Brownlee and baritone Will Liverman. 

For anyone hesitating to check out a new opera, remember that pushing the envelope of human emotion and experience through drama and music goes back to ancient times. Operas we now consider classic were often shocking or unsettling in the time of their creation. Many of the 21st-century operas presented at Lyric engage audiences with dynamic, relatable stories that reflect contemporary life and concerns, and with melodic, tonal music that propels the stories.

Compelling contemporary operas sung in English have always been central to Lyric’s repertoire since the very beginning. Granted, Lyric’s old nickname was “La Scala West,” referring to the founders’ fondness for Italian operas and singers, but in 1954, the company’s debut season, Lyric premiered the first full-scale staging of The Taming of the Shrew by American composer Vittorio Giannini to great public and critical acclaim—right between the two performances of Bellini’s Norma, starring Maria Callas in her American debut. Lyric’s commitment to contemporary operas has taken many forms over the company’s 66-year history. There have been an impressive 50+ mainstage productions of 20th- and 21st-century operas written or performed in English (including eight mainstage world premieres); six fully staged operas created under Lyric’s composer-in-residence program (1984 through 2002) and presented outside the opera house; and three fully staged chamber operas and five operas for young people presented at outside venues.

Lyric's 2017/18 production of Fellow Travelers.

Additionally, two bilingual mariachi operas (one a world premiere) thrilled new audiences at Lyric and in community venues. Recalls Burke-Peterson, “There was so much excitement and pride, with so many families coming into a place they never thought they’d be in, listening to a style of music they grew up with. It felt like exactly what Lyric was meant to do.” In earlier seasons Lyric presented several 20th-century European operas in English, including Berg’s Wozzeck, Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel, The Love for Three Oranges, and The Gambler; Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and Janácek’s Katya Kabanova.

Lyric's presentation of mariachi opera, El Pasado Nunca se Termina, from the 2014/15 Season. 

Lyric’s “Toward the 21st Century” artistic initiative had far-reaching impact on American opera here and abroad. Throughout the 1990s Lyric produced one 20th-century European and one 20th-century American opera each year as part of the regular season. Within that decade Lyric commissioned and premiered three new works: William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992/93); Anthony Davis’s Amistad (1997/98); and Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge (1999/00). The latter world premiere, based on Arthur Miller’s play about the personal struggles of an immigrant family living in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, was explored in a nine-part series in The New York Times on “The Making of an Opera,” which helped make Lyric the place to be to experience the riveting new work. 

Lyric's production of The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe from the 1990/91 Season. 

Lyric's production of A View from the Bridge from the 1999/2000 Season. 

The accompanying timeline is a source of great pride, demonstrating Lyric’s enduring commitment to presenting a wide range of operatic works well beyond the core repertoire.

As part of Lyric’s overall vision for the future, general director Anthony Freud shares, “We want to be the great opera company of the 21st century, and producing new work is essential to achieving that goal. Now more than ever, audiences are ready to be excited by the new and to make connections between what they see onstage and their own lives.”

These contemporary operas, written in English or performed in English translation, have been produced at Lyric:

1954 The Taming of The Shrew, Vittorio Giannini (American)

1955  Lord Byron’s Love Letter, Raffaelo De Banfield (British)

1959 Jenufa, Leoš Janácek (Czech), sung in English

1961 The Harvest world premiere, Giannini

1965 Wozzeck, Alban Berg (Austrian), sung in English

1966 Fiery Angel, Sergei Prokofiev (Russian), sung in English

1968 Oedipus Rex, Igor Stravinsky (Russian), in English and Latin

1970 Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten (English); Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók (Hungarian), sung in English

1972 Wozzeck, Berg, sung in English

1974 Peter Grimes, Britten

1976 The Love for Three Oranges, Prokofiev, sung in English

1977 Peter Grimes, (Britten) 

1978 Paradise Lost world premiere, Krzysztof Penderecki (Polish)

1979 The Love for Three Oranges

1984 Lyric launches composer-in-residence program

1986 The Guilt of Lillian Sloan world premiere, composer-in-residence William Neil (American), performed by the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (LOCAA, now known as The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center)

1986 Katya Kabanova, Janácek, sung in English

1987 Satyagraha, Philip Glass (American)

1989 The Fan world premiere, composer-in-residence Lee Goldstein (American), performed by LOCAA

1989 Lyric announces "Toward the 21st Century," an artistic intiative to present one 20th-century American and European opera per season for a decade 

 The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, Dominick Argento (American)

1991 Antony and Cleopatra, Samuel Barber (American); The Gambler, Prokofiev, sung in English

1992 McTeague world premiere, William Bolcom (American)

1993 Susannah, Carlisle Floyd (American); Orpheus Descending world premiere, composer-in-residence Bruce Saylor (American), performed by LOCAA

1994 Candide, Leonard Bernstein (American); The Rake’s Progress, Stravinsky

1995 The Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano (American)

1996 The Consul, Gian Carlo Menotti (Italian-American)

1997 Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) world premiere, composer-in-residence Shulamit Ran (Israeli-American), performed by LOCAA: Amistad world premiere, Anthony Davis (American); Peter Grimes, Britten

1998 Mourning Becomes Electra, Marvin David Levy (American); Rise and Fall of the City of MahagonnyKurt Weill (German, later American), sung in English

1999 A View from The Bridge world premiere, Bolcom

2000 The Great Gatsby, John Harbison (American)

2001 Lovers and Friends (Chautauqua Variations) world premiere, composer-in-residence Michael John LaChiusa (American), performed by LOCAA; Street Scene, Weill; Billy Budd, Britten; composer-in-residence program concludes with workshop performance of Morning StarRicky Ian Gordon (American) by LOCAA

2002 Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim (American); Susannah, Floyd

2003 Regina, Marc Blitzstein (American)

2004 A Wedding world premiere, Bolcom

2005 The Midsummer Marriage, Sir Michael Tippett (English)

2007 Doctor Atomic, John Adams (American)

2008 Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin (American)

2010 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Britten

2013 A Streetcar Named Desire, André Previn (German-American); Cruzar la cara de la lunaJosé Pepe Martínez (Mexican), sung in English and Spanish

2014 Porgy and Bess, Gershwin

2015 El Pasado Nunca Se Termina world premiere, Martínez; The Property (chamber opera) world premiere, Wlad Marhulets (Polish); Second Nature (youth opera) world premiere, Matthew Aucoin (American)

2015 Bel Canto world premiere, Jimmy López (Peruvian-American)

2016 Jason and the Argonauts (youth opera) world premiere, Gregory Spears (American)

2017 Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Daniel Schnyder (Swiss); Scorpion’s Sting (youth opera), Dean Burry (Canadian)

2018 Trouble in Tahiti, Bernstein; Fellow Travelers (chamber opera), Spears; Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt (youth opera), John Musto (American)

2019 An American Dream (chamber opera), Jack Perla (American); Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie (American); Earth to Kenzie (youth opera), Frances Pollock (American)

2021: Blue, Jeanine Tesori (American)

This article originally appeared in the Dead Man Walking program in November 2019.

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Photos: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival, Kyle Flubacker, Ken Howard, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Todd Rosenberg