Like so much else at Lyric Opera during the last few years, the Chicago Voices project started with the company's creative consultant, Renée Fleming.
When Fleming, a New Yorker who's become the popular face of Lyric, introduced this ambitious experiment a year ago, she explained that the idea for it came from a smaller American Voices festival she'd spearheaded at the Kennedy Center a few years earlier. She hoped that the Lyric version, which seeks to spotlight Chicago's vocal talent in all its forms, would have staying power: "My dream is to create a platform that will continue," she said.
But it won't be continuing here. Except for one facet of the multipart project—its Community Created Performances, which will get one more go-round—Chicago Voices is concluding with a flurry of activity during the next few weeks, culminating in a benefit concert at the opera house on February 4.
Between now and then, there are panel discussions on opera and hip-hop at the Chicago History Museum (January 24 and 31), three neighborhood photography exhibits (through February 4 at Homan Square Community Center, Old Town School of Music, and Ancien Cycles & Cafe), and a weekend of master classes and expert advice for nascent professionals at Columbia College (February 2 through 4). The February 4 concert will be a genre-jumping hometown-virtuoso showcase that'll feature folk singer John Prine, blues queen Shemekia Copeland, gospel and R&B singer Michelle Williams, Broadway star Jessie Mueller, tenor Matthew Polenzani, and indie duo the Handsome Family, along with Fleming.
Chicago Voices is a project of Lyric's five-year-old outreach and educational arm, Lyric Unlimited. Like all of Lyric Unlimited's work—which includes Millennium Park concerts, school-based programs, and, this spring, a production of Charlie Parker's Yardbird at the Harris Theater—it's in part a search for opera's future audience. The days when Lyric could report more than 100 percent of tickets sold (a feat accomplished by reselling subscribers unused seats) are gone, the existing audience is aging, and younger people, with a dizzying array of entertainment options, are mostly unfamiliar with the classical repertoire.
And grand opera is hugely expensive to produce. In 2016, according to its annual report, Lyric withdrew more than $8 million from a support fund to report a break-even year on operating expenses of about $78 million. In addition, it saw a drop in the value of its investments—at the end of the fiscal year, net assets were down $22 million. (Lyric's finance department says, via e-mail, that its investment loss is "reflective of broader market performance" and that "Lyric's portfolio fluctuates, as all do, from year to year.")
In an interview last week Lyric Unlimited director Cayenne Harris and Lyric president and CEO Anthony Freud (two titles newly added to his previous title of general director in spite of the financials) said they're aiming to connect with people who aren't part of the traditional ticket-buying opera audience. "We're working hard to grow our demographic," Freud said, "working in unexpected venues and unexpected musical disciplines, understanding that opera, when you distill it down to its basics, is telling stories through words and music."
Community Created Performances had an inspired show that packed the Harris Theater for a single performance in September. Three groups, chosen by public vote from online video profiles, presented original one-act musical theater pieces created by them and based on their own lives and cultures. They were Croatian and Serbian musicians (the Kirin-Gornick Band), actor-singers from shelters and community centers in some of the city's most impoverished neighborhoods (Harmony, Hope & Healing), and an unforgettably talented troupe of performers with disabilities (Tellin' Tales Theatre).
Applications for the second and final round of Community Created Performances are being accepted through January 27. Again, three winning groups will each get a production stipend of $10,000 and 16 weeks of development work with a creative team. The completed shows will be presented in the fall.
After that, Harris says, Lyric will apply what it learned from this experiment in "putting creative control in the hands of community groups" to a new project with the Chicago Urban League. "We'll be working with a group of African-American teens in the city to do something very similar," she says, "which is to share their true life experiences and use those as a basis for an original piece." v