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Music Notes: golden boys of opera

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Lawrence Rapchak and Carl Ratner form a mutual admiration society on the local opera scene. After more than a decade of working together--from the early days of Chamber Opera Chicago to the latest incarnation of the Chicago Opera Theater--each knows what makes the other tick.

"Carl is witty, affable, extremely intelligent as a director," says Rapchak, Chicago Opera Theater's music director. "He has a much greater ability to sort out options than I do."

"Yes, I'm easygoing and relaxed," says Ratner, the company's artistic director, "whereas Larry is very organized and intense. We keep each other in line."

The two met in the early 80s when Rapchak, who studied under James Levine in Cleveland, took on a directorial assignment with Chamber Opera Chicago, an outfit cofounded by Ratner to mount low-budget studio productions of operas in English. "The idea was to fill the niche of introducing in a friendly way opera classics to new audiences," says Ratner, who came to Chicago to work at the Lyric Opera after a stint as an assistant to composer Gian Carlo Menotti.

Rapchak was invited to join Chamber Opera Chicago, and soon a collaborative pattern formed. "Larry wanted operas that had reducible scores, I went for the stageable ones, and the producer asked for what were salable," Ratner says, chuckling. Though relying mainly on a repertoire of Mozarts and Verdis, the team also tackled lesser-known works, neglected masterpieces, and even a world premiere--Rapchak's own The Life and Work of Juan Diaz. Despite the obvious handicaps of their presentations--piano accompaniment and variable singing quality--they were praised for their ingenuity and keen musicianship, and their teamwork caught the attention of the Chicago Opera Theater.

Also dedicated to less pricey, intimate productions in English, Chicago Opera Theater had been plagued by financial problems. In early 1993 its board called off the season to regroup. At about the same time, Ratner and Rapchak were debating their own future. "We decided that we were ready for new frontiers," says Ratner. "The COT board came to see our last shows to check us out. They knew by hiring us we could put together a season quickly."

The two joined the Chicago Opera Theater in August 1993--Rapchak as resident conductor and Ratner as artistic administrator. Wanting to signal a new era, they picked less well-known works as well as 20th-century American operas, including Douglas Stuart Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe. The company struck pay dirt last season with a visually playful revival of The Magic Flute directed by Mary Zimmerman. This season the Court Theatre's Charles Newell came aboard for a presentation of The Jewel Box, an oddball compilation of arias and ensembles Mozart wrote for other composers' operas. And Rapchak and Ratner collaborate again in Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers. "You should see what Carl has done to update this wonderful piece of fluff," Rapchak marvels. "In our version, Mustapha looks like a certain Iraqi leader."

Chicago Opera Theater's version of The Italian Girl in Algiers plays at 7:30 PM Friday and 3 PM Sunday at DePaul University's Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo. Tickets range from $12 to $60. For more info call 292-7578.

--Ted Shen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Lawrence Rapchak and Carl Ratner by D. Lee Landry.

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