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Opera Overhaul/Haute Bette/The Secrets of Cirque's Success

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Opera Overhaul

The recently dormant Chicago Opera Theater announced last week that it had finished paying off more than $500,000 in debts and is about to start fund-raising efforts in hopes of mounting a season as early as spring 1994. Getting rid of that much debt would be big news for any company, but Chicago Opera Theater did it exceptionally fast: when the troubled company abruptly canceled its season last spring for financial reasons after producing only one of its scheduled operas, it expressed hopes of being back with a full season by 1995. Last week's announcement, therefore, put the company a full year ahead of schedule, and while COT officials didn't offer an explanation of how they made such a quick recovery, sources familiar with the company link recent developments to two entities: Chamber Opera of Chicago and its chief financial supporter, philanthropist Barre Seid.

Though he avoids the spotlight, Seid (who did not return a phone call to his house) has generously contributed to the Civic Orchestra and various other Chicago arts organizations. But his favorite beneficiary, sources say, has been Chamber Opera of Chicago. "He loves opera," notes one source. For a decade the company has produced as many as three modestly staged operas a year at the Ruth Page Auditorium and has shown itself to be a well-managed company that pays employees and vendors and delivers what it promises--not always the practice at the old Chicago Opera Theater.

No one has speculated that Seid made any sort of outright cash contribution to COT; rather, sources say some sort of merger between Chamber Opera of Chicago and COT may be in the works, with a possible transfer of financial assets from one to the other. Newly appointed COT chief operating officer and board member Don Dadas firmly denies the possibility of a merger but indicated that he had talked to Seid. Other COT executives, however, were noncommittal. "I can't comment because it involves another organization," said board president Charles Angell. "Why don't you talk to the folks at Chamber Opera?" Messages left on the answering machine at Chamber Opera of Chicago's offices last week prompted no response. But rumor has it that Chamber Opera artistic directors Larry Rapchak and Carl Ratner have moved over to COT offices. "They are helping us pro bono," maintains Dadas.

Though published reports suggest that COT is no longer interested in producing at the Athenaeum Theatre in Lakeview, the opera company has in fact put down a $5,000 deposit to hold eight weeks next spring at the theater. Dadas said any decision to produce in 1994 would hinge on how quickly the company could raise the money needed to cover production expenses. "The key point is that the deficit is gone," emphasizes Angell, who has provided the opera company with a rent-free, fully furnished suite of offices, rehearsal facilities, and audition space near Fullerton and Pulaski. But even Angell's assertion was not precisely the case as of last Thursday, when the big announcement was made; until Friday the company still owed the Athenaeum $948. In order to retire a number of its other debts, sources say COT offered creditors 10 cents, or in some instances 25 cents, on every dollar it owed.

Meanwhile the COT board has taken artistic director Alan Stone out of commission. Stone, one of the company's founders, remained involved in the organization's decision-making process through the last several turbulent years despite severe health problems. He has been renamed artistic director emeritus, and will have no managerial authority in the restructured company, says Dadas. Stone was out of town when COT made its announcement.

Haute Bette

Queen of camp Bette Midler comes to town this weekend with the most expensive show in Poplar Creek's history. Top tickets are pegged at $77, a price sources say only Luciano Pavarotti and Frank Sinatra have come close to matching. Even so, almost all of the seats sold out as soon as they went on sale in July; only lawn seats at $22 a head were available earlier this week, as well as some restricted-view pavilion seats that will not be reduced from their original price of $52, so strong is Poplar Creek management's belief in Midler's drawing power. This is the seventh stop on her national tour--the first in ten years--which began on August 20 in Minneapolis and moves on to Radio City Music Hall for an extended run in mid-September. Perhaps half joking in a recent interview on NBC, Midler indicated that in her performances she would eschew the very quality that in large part made her famous because it's so abundant these days. "I've never seen so much bad taste," she said, "but I never go with the herd."

The Secrets of Cirque's Success

Cirque du Soleil's third appearance in Chicago has proven by far the most successful for the Montreal-based circus. Saltimbanco played to well over 90-percent capacity for its five-week run, even with tickets priced as high as $35.50. Pre-opening-night ticket sales were three times higher than they were for Cirque's second visit here two years ago; the only reason the current engagement failed to sell out was difficulty in getting rid of some 200 restricted-view seats behind tent poles. Cirque du Soleil executives think the strong ticket sales reflect Chicago's increasing familiarity with the company's theatrical approach to circus production. It probably hasn't hurt that the circus has become a finely tuned marketing machine, able to put together sponsorship deals with the likes of the Tribune and WLS radio. And weeks are spent deliberating over the name of each new show; this tour's dramatic-sounding Saltimbanco is Italian for acrobat.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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