The artistic graveyards of Chicago are filled with promising start-up companies that didn't make it. Evanston's Light Opera Works has survived by being crowd pleasers, performing a wide range of operettas, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Johann Strauss. Operettas are generally romantic comedies, with hummable music and fluffy plot lines that dont invite much pondering of the greater significance of it all.
"You could call us the Rodney Dangerfield of opera companies," says Philip Kraus, the company's artistic director. "We don't get no respect." The Chicago Tribune, for example, has sent four different reviewers over the years, none of whom, says Kraus, have any affinity for light opera, and who have given reviews ranging from hostile to condescending. A foundation money man asked Kraus and his cofounder, managing director Bridget McDonough, "Why should we spend money for fluff in the suburbs?" But audiences love them: since the company's founding in 1980, when they plunged into debt with their second production, ticket sales have risen steadily. Now 70 percent of their operating budget of $350,000 comes from ticket sales--according to Kraus and McDonough that percentage is higher than that of any other professional opera company in the country.
"Our basic reason to start another opera company in Chicago was that we had a very distinct, limited repertory in mind," says Kraus. "There were no previous [professional] light opera companies in Chicago--it was all done by community groups, on an amateur level. . . . We are probably one of the most misunderstood companies, intellectually, in the city. A lot of serious musicians just don't know what to make of the genre of light opera," Kraus explains. "One camp thinks of it as musical comedy for longhairs, and thinks it should have the same kind of production values as a Harold Prince musical; the other camp thinks it's an offshoot of opera buffa, and should be treated with more quiet reverence, if you will."
With the enthusiastic backing of the first two groups, along with what Kraus calls "the nostalgia crowd, people who grew up with this music," Light Opera Works has established its niche. "No one else is doing this literature," he says. "You just won't see a Naughty Marietta at the Lyric--when they do operetta, they do the most popular shows, the ones with the most audience appeal--Fledermaus or The Merry Widow. We're doing major revivals, where it's been 50 years or more since it was performed [in this area], and U.S. premieres.
When Light Opera Works presented Jacques Offenbach's uproarious send up Orpheus in the Underworld, it was the first time it had been performed here since the late 1800s. "We did the American premiere of the original version of The Chocolate Soldier, and pretty much resuscitated that operetta from total obscurity--it was very popular in the early years of this century, and has pretty much vanished from the stage. We did the Chicago premiere of The Beautiful Galatea, by Suppe. And we were the first company in Chicago to do a new performing version of Victor Herbert's operetta Naughty Marietta. There's been something like that almost every season--dredging up something new."
The Naughty Marietta production addressed some of the basic problems with operetta: ludicrous plot twists and outdated--and sometimes offensive--material. "The Rothman version, which was [developed] for New York City Opera, tied together some plot material that was silly, and took out several bad racist moments," says Kraus. "We go for the best translations--I spend a lot of time in the library, going through them all--the original orchestrations, we restore music that's usually cut, and we're very good about doing ballet music, which many others cut."
As artistic director, Kraus chooses the operettas that make up LOW's seasons and the singers who perform them. "Light Opera Works has taken up the mantle of what Alan [Stone] started with Chicago Opera Theater of using fine Chicago and midwest talent--let's face it, COT has gotten to a point where most of their [stars], anyway, come from New York. [Our performers] have to sing like opera singers, dance like musical comedy people, and act out libretti that are many times not the quality of grand opera. I don't think a lot of people realize how difficult it is to stage these pieces." He should know: a well-established baritone with a good reputation in Chicago himself (he has sung five roles with Light Opera Works in nine seasons), Kraus directs two shows a year, turning over the third to a guest.
Some performers are critical of Light Opera Works. "They don't pay you enough money for the hours they expect," says one local singer, who prefers to remain nameless. "And they have a system where you're fined if you're late to a rehearsal. And if you get really sick, so you can't perform, you have to pay them an outrageous amount of money [to hire another singer]."
Kraus explains, "Because we're still paying off a debt, our fees for singers are the best we can do for the moment. I think the days of fining are over--for a while, people were not taking their commitment with us seriously. All our contracts come with a full, detailed rehearsal schedule, so they all can see what kind of commitment in time they're expected to make, and accept or reject it with no hard feehngs." And, unlike some companies, he says, "We always make sure our people get paid."
He defends these practices further by citing LOW's success. "The same year Light Opera Works was founded, the Orchestra of Illinois was founded--and the Orchestra of Illinois is gone. We're still here because of very conservative budgeting of money by our managing director. We're the only professional company in Chicago giving local singers the chance to do leading roles onstage in a 1,200-seat house with a full orchestra."
LOW rents Cahn Auditorium, on the Northwestern University campus, for its performances and can be reached at 869-6300. Kraus anticipates a sellout for the first show of the 1989 season, Johann Strauss's Vienna Life, whose German title is Wiener Blut, or "Vienna Blood." "The original sounds like some sort of blood sausage, or something from a Rambo movie," observes Kraus, explaining the name change. It opens June 23, and will be followed by Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience in August, and a major production of Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark this December. LOW will be the first company in this country, "and possibly the first anywhere," to do a new, critical edition of the work complete and staged. Until recently, the orchestration was unavailable; LOW has been working with the Kurt Weill Foundation in New York to make it possible.
"We founded Light Opera Works to fill a gap in the Chicago musical scene and to give my peers a chance to get onstage and show their stuff. There's been a lot of personal sacrifice, a lot of monetary sacrifice, and dealing with ridiculous boards of directors--there's been a lot of pain about it. But our audiences really love what we do."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.