Bringing opera out to the public

By Luke Wilusz

It was a typical day at Chicago’s French Market, 131 N. Clinton St. Shoppers wandered the aisles as the aromatic scent of slow-roasted chicken and freshly baked bread wafted from the stands, mingling with the smells of an assortment of herbs and spices. Diners crowded the tables in the back, chatting idly and eating fresh-cooked food as their lunch breaks ticked by.

Suddenly, music began playing over the market’s PA system. Singers Leila Bowie (soprano), Darik Knutsen (baritone) and Matthew Newlin (tenor) stepped out of the crowd, dressed in plain clothing, and performed pieces from “The Pearl Fishers,” an opera by French composer Georges Bizet. The diners gaped in confusion. Some stood and left. Others watched, fascinated by the scene playing out unannounced before their eyes.

This bizarre public display of the operatic arts was one of a series of Pop-Up Operas performed by the Chicago Opera Theater as part of National Opera Week from Oct. 29–Nov. 7. Opera Week is coordinated by the service organization Opera America as an effort to raise public awareness about opera. The goal is to debunk the idea that opera is for the rich or elite and convince everyday people to give the art form a chance. The theater partnered with the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs to present these performances in addition to a double-bill performance of “Savitri” and “The Telephone” at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St., on Nov. 2.

Knutsen said the public aspect of the pop-up performances gave him a unique method of affecting his audience.

“I think it’s a lot of fun,” Knutsen said. “I think some of my colleagues would probably disagree, but there’s nothing quite like singing really loud behind someone who isn’t expecting it… There was a guy sitting down at a table eating his lunch. I was about 5 feet behind him and I started singing pretty loudly. I think he might have coughed up some of what he was eating, which is not what you intend, but it’s always nice to get a reaction.”

The theater presented four Pop-Up Operas in all: one at the Lake Red Line stop during rush hour on Oct. 29; one at the French Market at lunch time on Nov. 1; one at Macy’s, 111 N. State St., on Nov. 3; and one in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Wing, 111 S. Michigan Ave., on Nov. 6. The Chicago Opera Theater posted hints about the locations of the performances on Twitter but kept the specific details secret to ensure people would be surprised.

After the market performance, Knutsen said the venues each provided their own unique challenges to the performers.

“We’re lucky here at the French Market they were able to broadcast the accompaniment over the entire PA system so we could walk around,” Knutsen said. “In the el, a guy just held a boom box next to our ears, and we had to pay off some of the panhandlers who were playing music, to tell them to wait 15 minutes while we did our thing, and then they could come back.”

Colleen Flanigan, director of marketing and public relations for the Chicago Opera Theater, said the main function of the pop-up performances was to catch people’s attention and show them opera can be an enjoyable and accessible art form, a fact she said many people seem unaware of.

“I think they’re shocked at first,” Flanigan said. “I think a lot of people are surprised at how beautiful it is. I think when people who aren’t familiar with opera think about opera, they think about the fat lady singing in these big opera houses. What we know in the opera world is opera singing in a small, intimate space is absolutely stunning to hear and behold.”

Knutsen said a major issue keeping the mainstream public from enjoying opera is the language barrier. He said many of the best-known operas are in languages other than English, and many people are deterred by that.

“This is a major hurdle that opera has to climb,” he said. “Many opera companies do operas written originally in other languages in English here in the [U.S.]. In Germany, a lot of the Italian operas are done in German.”

However, Knutsen said most companies project an English translation of the opera above the stage so audiences can read the translation and understand what’s happening onstage. He said he prefers this method more than translating the lyrics themselves into English.

“The music is written in such a way that it really is geared to fit that language,” Knutsen said. “So if you were to translate it into English, while that would be good for the public listening to it, it would detract a lot from the musical line of what the composer originally intended.”

National Opera Week was started last year by Opera America, a service organization comprised of opera professionals who meet regularly to discuss developments and advancements in the opera world.

“It’s like anything else,” said Brian Dickie, general director of the Chicago Opera Theater and a member of Opera America’s board of directors. “Orthopedic surgeons all get together and exchange views and new information about bone surgery. Well, we get together and share what we have learned individually [about opera] with each other in a way I think serves the profession.”

Dickie said the organization sponsors awards for opera companies nationwide and raises money to support various projects and initiatives. He said the collaboration between so many opera professionals allows for a large amount of creative growth and development.

“There are many, many ways in which we can learn from each other,” Dickie said, “be it in the area of fundraising or marketing or artistic endeavors of one kind or another. We work together, we get to know each other and we share ideas on a regular basis.”

Chicago’s Lyric Opera—the largest opera company in the city—was unable to participate in National Opera Week because of conflicts with its season schedule.

“Unfortunately, the timing of the week [didn’t] quite work in terms of Lyric’s schedule,” said Magda Krance, manager of media relations for the Lyric. “We just closed two productions, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Carmen,’ over the weekend. We’re in rehearsals this week for ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ which opens [Nov. 5]. We’re enthusiastic supporters of the concept, but we’re not specifically participating in opera week.”

However, Krance said the Lyric is open to the idea of participating in future National Opera Weeks.

“If the events and dates of our season coincide with opera week in such a way we can do something more involved, we would certainly consider that,” she said. “Because all of our resources when we’re in season go into producing our operas, it’s hard to do ancillary stuff.”

Ultimately, National Opera Week is all about dispelling popular notions opera is only for the elite. Knutsen said people would definitely find something to relate to if they gave opera a chance.

“They should come out and take a look because it’s not quite what they expect,” he said. “It’s actually dealing with real human emotions. It’s not just divas [with a] long wig and horns wailing away about something not relevant to their lives. That’s one of the things about art I like a lot, is that it reflects things about yourself and your own life that you can connect to.”″>″ type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true” width=”560″ height=”340″>