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Pass the Helmet: Bringing Opera to a Bar, Church, or Cabaret Near You

A new crop of scrappy troupes is making opera accessible--for both audiences and aspiring singers.

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Erin Thompson was about to turn 11 when her family moved from Aurora to the little rural town of Waterman, Illinois, in 1994. The transition got easier when they found the Northern Illinois Children's Choir—a "wonderful program" that "became my home," she says. By the time Thompson, a mezzo-soprano, was 16, choir director Carol Stubbs had taken her on as a private student and encouraged her to develop an opera repertoire and enter competitions. Thompson won a couple of those (placing first in the state and second in the nation in the Music Teachers' Association high school competition) and then enrolled at Northern Illinois University as a vocal performance major. Holding down three part-time jobs to pay for college, she got through two years of it and then, broke and exhausted, dropped out. She followed a boyfriend to Chicago and got a job. Now the boyfriend's history and she's a full-time accounts-payable clerk. But she's never given up on her dream of becoming a professional singer.

"I'll sing for the rest of my life, whether it's in church basements or at the Met," says Thompson, who turns 26 next Friday—and she's not ruling the Met out. Since "with opera, your voice doesn't fully mature until you're in your mid-30s," all options are—at least theoretically—still open. She's continued her training in private lessons, done community theater, and auditions for professional companies whenever she gets the chance. That's netted her a few chorus gigs with groups like the DuPage Opera Theatre and the Savoyaires—and brought her a fair amount of frustration. "I really love this city, and believe that the classical music scene has a lot going for it," she says. "But it's very hard to feel like you're making a start here."

Thompson was thinking Chicago could use a networking and support system for singers, and more opportunities for the kind of performances that might reach new audiences, when she heard about a New York-based bootstrap effort called Opera on Tap. In May Thompson became the founder and "managing diva" of Opera on Tap Chicago, and tonight at Angelo's Taverna on North Sedgwick, for the price of a couple beers, you can catch their second show: 15 divas and divos paying tribute to their favorite operatic villains by belting out their arias. Thompson will be channeling Delilah.

For years opera in Chicago has mostly meant Lyric Opera—with its megabucks full-dress productions presented in a 3,500-seat house—and the annual trio of more adventurous shows by Chicago Opera Theatre, in residence at the midsize Harris Theater. If their seasons were over, you might trek to the suburbs for something like Light Opera Works—familiar fare, presented in school auditoriums—but other than that, you were pretty much out of luck.

But now Chicago has a new crop of stereotype-busting little opera groups playing at bargain prices in intimate venues—including the neighborhood pub. Faced with the traditional opera world's shrinking ticket sales, dying audiences, and dearth of opportunity—a situation that's driven countless singers to chuck the dream and settle for the day job—these artist-entrepreneurs are looking to crack that world open and cozy up to the masses.

As a result, in Chicago this week—while Lyric and COT are both silent—you can take in Opera on Tap and see the American premiere of an 85-year-old Viennese operetta in a 340-seat theater. Next month there's a concert of opera favorites—featuring a 45-voice chorus and a roster of local and international performers—in a church, and in the fall, an opera version of Sartre's No Exit at the Center on Halsted. It's like an ongoing grassroots festival.

Here are some of the players:

Cloclo - ROB SIDIO
  • Rob Sidio
  • Cloclo

Chicago Folks Operetta Soprano Alison Kelly and her husband, tenor Gerald Frantzen, founded CFO in 2006, upon coming home to the midwest after a decade of New York-based professional travel. During a long stint in Germany, they fell in love with the operetta genre, which Kelly defines as about 75 percent singing, 25 percent talk.

Kelly and Frantzen specialize in new translations (by themselves and local linguist Hersh Glagov) of rarely seen German-language works dating from about 1880 to 1920. Their current production of Franz Lehár's Cloclo uses musicians from the CSO and Civic Orchestra and a production team headed by staff from Lyric Opera and COT—all working "for very little money," Kelly says. Still, Cloclo's $25,000 budget is their biggest so far, and the production's running in their largest theater yet. A day before the opening last week, she noted that "in this economy, that's a little scary. We just hope to God people come."

If they do, they're in for a treat. The show is a scrupulously produced, three-and-a-quarter-hour hoot. Written by Lehár nearly 20 years after his success with The Merry Widow and infused with a twinkling, surprisingly diverse score, it's a Sex and the City for Paris in the 20s—and Cloclo (Roosevelt University undergrad Amanda Horvath) is the Carrie Bradshaw of the Folies Bergere, complete with the mouthy attitude and drop-dead wardrobe. The libretto and lyrics—salted with references to Bernie Madoff and AIG—have the merciless cynicism of true farce, as does August Tye's witty choreography. E. Loren Meeker directs an excellent cast that includes Frantzen as Cloclo's true love and Kelly as her very funny maid.

Cloclo
Wed 7/22, 2 PM, and Thu-Sat 7/23-7/25, 7:30 PM, Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, 777 N. Green, 312-733-6000, chicagofolksoperetta.org, $25-$30.

Álvaro Ramírez of Da Corneto - PETER BELL
  • Peter Bell
  • Álvaro Ramírez of Da Corneto

Da Corneto Opera The oldest of these young groups, Da Corneto was founded in 1997 by another husband-and-wife team, mezzo soprano Kelli Finn and bass Álvaro Ramírez, with the late Alfred Glasser, after he retired as Lyric Opera's director of education. Finn and Ramírez, who met as students at Northwestern, were frustrated by the lack of local opportunities. In 1996 they produced a concert in honor of Ramírez's mother's 70th birthday, "borrowing" a church sanctuary and chorus, recruiting schoolmates to perform opera excerpts, and charging $5 a ticket. When 400 people showed up, says Finn, they thought, "Maybe we should try having an opera company."

Da Corneto performs complete operas in concert, accompanied by piano or orchestra. Eschewing a trend toward greater visual spectacle, Finn and Ramírez focus on "beautiful music" and on providing opportunities to singers, including themselves.

They've been operating with an annual budget of $120,000 or more, but lately, Finn says, fund-raising has been an uphill battle. She's anticipating that 2009 income will be down by at least 25 percent. On Monday, less than three weeks before the scheduled opening of their major event of the year—a concert performance of Gounod's Faust, with a 50-piece orchestra led by Mexican maestro Enrique Patrón de Rueda—Da Corneto announced a substitute program of piano-accompanied "opera favorites." Facing the loss of an expected grant and a visa delay for their lead tenor, Finn said, they decided to cut their potential losses. Patrón de Rueda is still on tap to conduct, and Da Corneto is also hosting five days of master classes that are open to the public, August 17-21, followed by a participants' concert at the Church of St. Hilary on August 22.

Opera Favorites
Sun 8/9, 4:30 PM, Church of St. Hilary, 5600 N. California, 847-662-2694, dacorneto.org, $10-$15.

Fri 8/14, 7:30 PM, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, 847-673-6300, dacorneto.org, $15.

Sun 8/16, 4 PM, Wentz Concert Hall, North Central College, 171 E. Chicago, Naperville, 630-637-7469, dacorneto.org, $10-$15.

Da Corneto singers also perform on the third Friday of each month 7:30 PM, Via Veneto restaurant, 6340 N. Lincoln, 773-267-0888, free for diners.

Eric Reda and Philip Dawkins of Chicago Opera Vanguard
  • Eric Reda and Philip Dawkins of Chicago Opera Vanguard

Chicago Opera Vanguard "We think of Chicago Opera Vanguard as the gateway drug to opera," says founder Eric Reda. Reda, a composer, and Philip Dawkins, a playwright, started organizing the company a couple years ago as a vehicle for Reda's opera-oratorio Reagan's Children, which they produced at Martyrs' in 2008. "Administratively we're structured like an off-Loop theater company—one that just happens to present opera," Reda says. "We're highly visual, very intimate, and monetarily very accessible." While other opera companies "are thinking of themselves as conservators, trying to be the Lyric," he adds, "we want to create much more visceral experiences," using contemporary material or "really contemporary takes" on older work.

Their most ambitious production so far, the Chicago premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's punk take on Oedipus, Greek, drew raves in June at St. Paul's Cultural Center in Wicker Park, with a top ticket price of $40 and student rates as low as $5. They're planning three shows for the upcoming season, starting with No Exit by Boston Conservatory composition chair Andy Vores, which opens October 16 at the Center on Halsted and moves to Northwestern for Halloween weekend. A deconstruction of Schubert's song cycle Winterreise is also on the schedule. "We're thinking big," Reda says. But for now the annual budget is about $50,000, and he's hanging on to his gigs as an independent marketing consultant and Web designer.

No Exit
10/16-10/18: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sat 3 PM, Hoover-Leppen Theatre, Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, 773-747-7364, chicagovanguard.org, $25.

10/31-11/1: Sat-Sun 8 PM, Wallis Theatre, Northwestern University, 1949 Campus Dr., 773-747-7364, chicagovanguard.org, $25.

Opera on Tap In the two months since Thompson founded it, OOT Chicago has attracted 25 singer-members, along with a couple of "brilliant" pianists, and launched monthly shows at Angelo's (the first, in June, drew an SRO crowd, says Thompson). Officially affiliated with the New York group—there are also chapters in New Orleans and Bloomington, Indiana—it continues to audition new members and accompanists, and Thompson has visions of expanded programming, including a staged production.

The mission, she says, is "to say to people opera is completely accessible, and to raise money for scholarships for our singers." (They pass a horned helmet for contributions.) Nobody gets paid, and the only thing they rehearse as a group is the closing sing-along with the audience. "We want people to understand that opera often follows the same kind of plot lines as soap opera: there's drama, there's magic, and there's all these things that still resonate in everyday life."

As for her own everyday life, she says, "I feel like I've stopped waiting for other people to make opportunities for me."

Opera on Tap
Thu 7/23, 7:30 PM, Angelo’s Taverna, 1612 N. Sedgwick, operaontap.com/chicago, two-drink minimum.

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