Lyric-Goodman Project Strengthens Opera's Reputation as Ultimate Theater

Article excerpt

Byline: Bill Gowen

When Mozart composed "The Marriage of Figaro" in the mid-1780s, he was writing a theater piece.

Opera was - and always has been - the ultimate form of musical theater.

Now, in an unprecedented partnership announced last week, Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Goodman Theatre will join forces to create a pair of world premieres, which will be staged at the Goodman (hopefully, in its proposed new North Loop home).

"This is a unique partnership," said Lyric Opera General Director Bill Mason, who jointly announced the initiative with Roche Schulfer, executive director of the Goodman.

"We believe it's the first such partnership between a major theater company and a major opera company, and most likely the first time two composers-in-residence have been engaged at once for separate projects."

And that's what makes this project so exciting. Two of the theater world's most brilliant young composer-lyricists, Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, will each bring a new work to the Goodman stage under the sponsorship of Lyric's Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. Composer-in-Residence program.

Lyric Opera will "workshop" the new stage works, using the talented singers in residence at its Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. The works will subsequently receive their formal premieres at the Goodman.

"The composer-in-residence program has featured such names as Shulamit Ran, Bruce Saylor, Bright Sheng, Lee Goldstein and William Neil," Mason said. "This initiative has allowed these five highly talented young composers to write their operas within the nurturing environment of a major opera house. Each received one to four performances in venues of up to 1,500 seats."

Mason added that by working with the Goodman, these new works will now be able to be offered to the latter's large subscriber base, with a potential audience in excess of 10,000. Lyric's subscribers will also be given an opportunity to attend, further widening the potential audience.

"First productions of new works are usually not the problem," Mason said. "The challenge is getting second - and additional - performances in the future. With the combined resources of Lyric and Goodman, we feel these new pieces have a chance to reach much wider audiences."

But will they be "Broadway"-styled shows, rather than opera?

"The difference between the two art forms has become less distinct over the years," Mason said. ' "Porgy and Bess' (George Gershwin), 'Candide' (Leonard Bernstein), 'The Consul' (Gian Carlo Menotti) and 'Street Scene' (Kurt Weill) all had their start on Broadway and moved to major opera houses. We're looking for composers who can create works that can go from the opera house to Broadway."

Mason added that as general director of one of the world's major opera companies, he remains "passionately committed" to opera, but that if it is to survive as an art form in the long run, contemporary works must become a part of the standard repertoire.

"This will only occur if these works attract a large enough public to justify the enormous costs of creating and producing them," he said.

"Accessibility and musical excellence are not mutually exclusive. If they were, the works of Puccini, Verdi and a host of others would long ago have disappeared," Mason said. …