Great Opera-Tunities Small Opera Companies Provide Good Value. and If You're an Opera Addict, They'll Keep You Going When Lyric's Doors Are Shut

By DeFiglio, Pam | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), April 23, 2004 | Go to article overview

Great Opera-Tunities Small Opera Companies Provide Good Value. and If You're an Opera Addict, They'll Keep You Going When Lyric's Doors Are Shut


DeFiglio, Pam, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Pam DeFiglio Daily Herald Staff Writer

Of all the passionate heroes in opera, the most courageous is the one who says, "You know, I think we could start up a little opera company here in the Chicago area."

Such idealists throw themselves into the task with a furor unrivaled by any love-struck tenor or suicidal soprano.

One such brave soul, Sasha Gerritson Brauer, borrowed costumes and commandeered the lumber in her parents' garage to build sets for "La Boheme," which she staged with three fellow opera graduates in 1996.

The production, financed by her mother, grew into the company L'Opera Piccola.

Kelli Finn and Alvaro Ramirez, who met while studying opera and then married, pressed friends into service and "borrowed" a church choir when they threw a birthday party/recital for Ramirez's mother, a former soprano, in 1996.

But when tickets to the birthday concert sold briskly, they found themselves starting up da Corneto Opera Company.

These entrepreneurs took the risks, but audiences are reaping the benefits in the form of a thriving group of small opera companies. They're affordable for people who can't plunk down almost $2,000 each to buy choice tickets to the venerable Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2004-2005 season, plus its special performances of Wagner's Ring Cycle next spring.

Granted, that will be a star-studded international event, and the Lyric is a civic treasure. But you can buy a decent ticket to L'Opera Piccola for just $10. You won't see superstars, but you'll see very good, often delightful younger singers.

"We believe opera should be for everyone. Our catch phrase is opera-tunity. There shouldn't be financial barriers," says Gerritson Brauer, now L'Opera Piccola's general manager.

Often you won't need to go downtown to see these productions either, which saves time and parking fees.

The smaller opera companies also stage their productions after the Lyric's September-to-March season. You can attend "I Pagliacci" next weekend or "The Marriage of Figaro" in August.

"I like the idea of extending the availability of opera," says Brian Dickie, general director of Chicago Opera Theatre. "Opera lovers are addicts, junkies. They can't get enough."

It turns out that Gerritson Brauer, Finn and Ramirez aren't the only hopefuls who started an opera company on a wing and an aria.

One person's dream gave rise to smaller companies throughout the Chicago area. Each of them established a board of directors and bloodied their knuckles rapping on doors for money.

They've also established artistic standards, seeking high- quality singers and musicians. Many have received praise from critics and audiences.

"There's an amazing talent pool in the Chicago area," says Harold Bauer, music and artistic director of DuPage Opera Theatre.

Like most of the other smaller companies, DuPage taps singers who graduated from voice programs at Chicago-area universities.

"And many of the Lyric Opera choristers are wonderful soloists," Bauer said.

The companies come in at differing budgets and track records of various lengths.

"This is just my opinion, but I'd say Lyric is at the top level of size and budget. The second tier is Chicago Opera Theatre, and they're kind of alone at that level, although I'd put Light Opera Works closer to the Chicago Opera Theatre category," says Gerritson Brauer.

From there, she says, the smaller companies make up a third category. Gerritson says L'Opera Piccola, with budgets ranging between $200,000 and $300,000, is among the larger ones in this category. Bowen Park Opera, which performs in a 100-seat house with only a piano for accompaniment, is on the smaller end.

Chicago has been known nationally as a rich theater town, but fans of Verdi and Wagner are increasingly singing its praises as a grand opera city. …

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