Philip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher, opening February 23 at Chicago Opera Theater, is a turning point for the company. This marks the real end of the era of now-retired general director Brian Dickie, who raised COT's artistic profile and moved it to Millennium Park. And it's the first full season for his successor, Andreas Mitisek, the new guy in town.
Or, more precisely, sort of in town.
Mitisek, who's 50, took over the company last summer with the understanding that he'd retain his other full-time job as head of Long Beach Opera, a smaller but compatible company. Now the Austrian native is spending 50 percent of his time on the sunny California coast, the other half in Chicago slush.
For COT's board, the moonlighting was part of Mitisek's appeal. The two companies have produced a number of the same operas over the years—adventurous works like Nixon in China and Glass's Akhnaten—making Long Beach Opera look like an ideal partner for coproductions that can reap savings on outlay. And in a decade there, Mitisek had tripled the budget, increased the number of annual productions from two to five, and instituted a growing subscriber base.
Meanwhile, COT was struggling after several years of declining revenue and climbing debt. Earned income, which topped $1 million in 2007, had fallen to about half that by 2010, while donations and grants had also dropped off. Board president Gregory O'Leary, who took office that year, puts much of the blame on the recession.
"With an opera company, you plan years in advance, and you have huge fixed costs," he says. "We couldn't cut production costs as quickly as people cut their ticket purchases. And we had all these seats at the Harris that we couldn't fill."
But, says O'Leary, that was then. COT finished fiscal 2012 in the black, and its debt has been reduced from $784,000 at the start of that year to about $500,000. One reason the company's been able to pull through is two back-to-back $500,000 grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the most recent awarded last June, right after Mitisek came on board. The budget for 2013 is just under $3 million.
Now subscriptions are bucking the general trend. As of last week, there were 1,864, up 200 from last year. And here's something striking: 722 of those are new subscribers.
Mitisek's first move was to rejigger the calendar. Chicago Opera Theater used to wait for the Lyric Opera's season to close, then cram its own into what would otherwise be a spring opera vacuum. Now Lyric itself is producing into May—this year with no less a box-office juggernaut than Oklahoma! But Mitisek, who sat down with Lyric general director Anthony Freud to talk it over, has embraced the overlap.
"I think people who love opera want to see lots of opera," he says.
This time COT will close out its season in September, with Verdi's Giovanna d'Arco. The other two offerings are Long Beach imports: Astor Piazzolla's Maria de Buenos Aires, set for April 20 through 28, is a remount of a production from last year; The Fall of the House of Usher opened there last month to positive reviews.
Never commercially recorded and seldom produced, Usher is a rarity that pairs Glass's spooky, trance-inducing music with Edgar Allan Poe's gothic tale of a haunted house. Director Ken Cazan—who also directed Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle for COT—gives the story a push in the direction of sexual repression. According to the flyer, "Incest, homosexuality, murder and the supernatural hang in the air."
So will this make Chicago Long Beach East? Mitisek says no: in the future, just one of the three annual operas at the Harris is likely to be a coproduction. What audiences can expect, he says, is work that's "a little edgier and more contemporary."
"We love old movies, but people want to come and see new movies. And I would love to have the same attitude toward the things we do in opera. . . . But nowadays, most of our opera consumption is dead composers."
The biggest changes might be offstage. Mitisek describes himself as a "proactive" fund-raiser, an area where he says there's room for improvement. And he's not afraid to make "the ask." O'Leary says Mitisek has already met one-on-one with company supporters, bringing some folks who'd lost interest back into the fold.
"He's everything I thought he'd be and more," O'Leary adds.
And then there's the kind of energetic, no-job-too-small collaboration that beats the bushes to build audience. Sunday, after a Siskel Center screening of The Raven, a 1915 silent Poe biopic, Mitisek took to the piano, playing the score of Usher while a trio of COT performers delivered excerpts from the opera.
Upcoming events include a screening of Koyaanisqatsi, a 1982 film with a score by Glass, at Facets Cinematheque (Sun 2/17), and a discussion, "Who is Usher?," between Mitisek and University of Chicago professor Eric Slauter, at the school's Reva and David Logan Center for Arts (Tue 2/19). New subscribers can still nab a 50 percent discount on season tickets.