Truth to tell, Andreas Mitisek, General Director of Chicago Opera Theater (COT) since 2012, hated the first opera he heard. That was “The Magic Flute”. He was 15, and to this day he confesses that that opera still leaves him cold.
Instead of the well-worn classics, give Mitisek the more exotic and rarely heard opera repertoire. Or rather, let him give it to you, and with a creativity that engages without the multi-million dollar budgets required by the likes of New York’s Metropolitan Opera or Chicago’s Lyric Opera.
For example, look at the relatively low-budget set design in “Fall of the House of Usher” that was so effective in giving Poe’s work its creepy due.
Mitisek aims to make opera relevant to our lives and to bring strong, rare pieces about big issues to the fore.
Consider the staging of “Joan of Arc” that unfolded as if it were a story of a modern day fundamentalist religious cult, and we, the audience, were part of the church’s proceedings.
In COT’s hands “Maria de Buenos Aires” became a forum to keep a spotlight on the terror of the disappeared in Argentina. Here is a video snippet—
And in the coming weeks, COT will take on nothing less than Nazi persecution, in a double-bill of one-act operas: Viktor Ullman’s “The Emperor of Atlantis” and Carl Orff’s “The Clever One”, opening May 31, 2014. Here is a sneak preview of rehearsals for this performance –
Mitisek explains, “The Lyric Opera focuses on a certain repertoire and COT does works that the Lyric couldn’t do because they wouldn’t sell enough seats. We also educate people and appeal to people who aren’t necessarily opera fans. We create an environment without the pressure of having to know anything about opera. Our idea is that people should come and be who they are…I’m looking for curious audiences of all ages. We strive to appeal to all generations and I’m not sure we’ve found the recipe that everyone is looking for yet, but we’ve found some ways towards it.”
If you saw last year’s free COT opera held in various pools of the Chicago Park District, "Orpheus and Euridice", you would have noticed that the audience is more diverse than one you’d find at the typical big ticket performances in large opera houses. Here is a clip of what audiences in seats at poolside saw--
Finding unusual performance venues like public pools is something Mitisek has been doing in his other gig as Artistic and General Director of Long Beach Opera since 2003 and now also in Chicago. Mitisek seems enthralled that Chicago is such a big city with many promising venues to make operas newly accessible, and he wrangles with the logistical problems of how to use these various settings.
Unusual venues seems to be only facet of Mitisek and COT’s formula. Finding the rare opera with broad appeal is another. For example, Jazz aficionados may not have known that Duke Ellington had written an opera, until COT brought it to the Harris Theater this season.
Also using multi-media add-ons that bring an opera’s relevance to the fore also seems to be part of the engaging COT approach. On May 18 COT presented a film about fascism at Facets Multimedia and on June 1 COT will be presenting Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” at the Music Box Theatre (3733 N. Southport Avenue). Movie-goers get to hear previews from COT singers and get to mull on how satire has set Nazism in its sights before.
COT aims to keep its prices low enough that it is welcoming to as large a swath of the city as possible. It shares Mitisek with Long Beach Opera (LBO), a company similar to COT in that it lives in the shadow of the Los Angeles Opera much as COT dwells in a Chicago opera world that is classically defined as the terrain of the Lyric. That might seem a daunting challenge to some but to Mitisek this is exactly where the opportunity lies. He says, “These two opera companies – LBO and COT—get to make unusual productions and be trailblazers for change. We offer a new look at the art form.”
Indeed, any thought you have that you are or are not an opera fan is more or less irrelevant. Chicago Opera Theater is boldly exploring how art speaks to the larger issues of our human experience and how opera in specific marries song, sets and story to explore new terrain.
Can one really satirize Nazism? Come to be a part of the conversation, stay for the songs.
For information on season tickets call 312 704 8420 or visit the Chicago Opera Theater website.
Photos: Liz Lauren