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Chicago opera scene hits high note with loyal audiences

By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The plot summary of U.S. opera in recent years has unfolded like the last act of a Verdi tragedy: New York City Opera, dead; Opera Boston, dead; San Diego Opera, on its final aria.

The Chicago opera scene, however, is all up tempo.

The nation's third most populous city has not only preserved its devotion to opera, it has expanded it, despite hard times for the art form elsewhere. Opera experts credit creative programming, solid philanthropic help and a loyal, enthusiastic audience.

"The Chicago opera scene has been unusually vibrant," said F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News magazine, who compared the enthusiasm at Lyric Opera performances to the excitement at sporting events. "Chicago has a huge appetite for music."

Nationally, 2.1 percent of the U.S. population attended an opera performance in 2012, down from 3.2 percent in 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

New York City Opera went bankrupt last year. San Diego Opera announced it would close after the current season finishes in April. New York's famed Metropolitan Opera, the nation's largest, reported a budget shortfall.

In contrast, ticket sales for Chicago's Lyric are up 15 percent for fiscal year 2013, a 14-month period which ended June 30, 2013. It no longer sells out the season on subscriptions, as it did in the 1990s, but at 72 percent of ticket sales it still has the biggest subscriber base of any U.S. company, according to Opera America, a national opera service organization.

The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie," last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general director Andreas Mitisek.

New companies have sprung up as well. Haymarket Opera Company specializes in the Baroque era, and South Shore Opera Company has done shows using African-American casts, including William Grant Still's "Troubled Island."

"There's a hunger for all these different things," said Mitisek, who also directs California's Long Beach Opera.

REELING THEM IN

What's going right in Chicago?

One factor is an active, experimental local theater scene, Mitisek said. So COT can find an audience for shows like Ricky Ian Gordon's "Orpheus and Eurydice," staged last year at public swimming pools, used as staging for the mythical River Styx.

Northwestern, Roosevelt and DePaul universities all have vocal programs that feed area companies with fresh talent. And Chicago's generous philanthropic community helps offset the rising costs of mounting an operatic production, according to opera experts.

Among the most coveted seats in town is on the Lyric Opera's board, which includes Glenn F. Tilton of JP Morgan Chase's executive committee; investor and violinist Howard Gottlieb; and Allan B. Muchin, founding partner of the law firm Katten Muchin Rosenman.

"There's a real commitment, which is an informed commitment, not simply an instinctive emotion," agreed Anthony Freud, Lyric's general director, who came on in 2011.

Lyric has responded to a tougher job selling subscriptions by expanding its offerings. In addition to its eight-opera season, it now offers a musical - next month, it's "The Sound of Music."

Lyric also started "Lyric Unlimited," with projects ranging from family shows to the world's first mariachi opera. "The Second City Guide to the Opera," co-hosted by soprano and Lyric creative consultant Renee Fleming and actor Patrick Stewart, featured comic sketches and songs.

Opera fans interviewed at a recent production of Dvorak's "Rusalka" said they welcomed new programming, if it helps bring in more young people. "When I'm the youngest person in my row, it's scary," said Wendy Smith, 65.

Lyric is not abandoning the classics. It plans a new production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle, starting in 2016-2017. But fresh programming and $20 seats for college students bring new fans into Lyric's Art Deco theater, Freud said.

"For too many years, too many arts organizations existed in hermetically-sealed bubbles..." Freud said. "It's no longer tenable simply to do what has been done for decades."

(Editing by Gunna Dickson)

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