As Pandemic Retreats, Chicago’s Lyric Opera Plans Epochal Restart

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Moved to the Italian seaside, ‘The Elixir of Love’ will be conducted by Lyric’s new music director Enrique Mazzola and slimmed down to 150-minute single seating. The Daniel Slater co-production with San Francisco Opera was originally created by Opera North in the UK. (Photos courtesy Lyric Opera)

CHICAGO – The prospect of the 2021-22 season meant an epochal turning point for Lyric Opera of Chicago even before the pandemic obliterated this season, the last in the 21-year tenure of Andrew Davis as Lyric’s music director. Now the company’s reopening in September becomes trebly celebratory as an emergence from something akin to nuclear winter, the ascendancy of new music director Enrique Mazzola, and the unveiling of new seats top to bottom at the Lyric Opera House.

In his first Lyric season, music director Enrique Mazzola will conduct Verdi’s ‘Macbeth,’ Donizetti’s ‘Elixir,’ and the Chicago premiere of ‘Proving Up’ by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek.

With great fanfare, even figurative brasses no doubt socially distanced, Lyric announced on May 19 that it was wholly committed to an almost-normal season, beginning Sept. 17 as Mazzola leads off with Verdi’s Macbeth. Ensuing productions of Donizetti’s rustic comedy The Elixir of Love and Mozart’s transcendent The Magic Flute promise an autumn at the opera house that should bear a familiar aspect. Unless you notice the details.

In an interview, Lyric general director Anthony Freud conceded that making audiences feel comfortable with the idea of reassembling in large numbers required a few practical adjustments. All autumn productions will be limited to two and a half hours, each opera trimmed to fit, with only brief pauses – not intermissions for snacks and drinks. Anyone dashing to the restroom would have to deal with the company’s late-seating protocols.

“We have been surveying our audiences in conjunction with other arts organizations constantly for six to eight months,” Freud said. “As the progress with the vaccine process has been so great in recent weeks, we saw a dramatic change in confidence levels and a stated willingness to return. While we have to keep abreast of public health directives and guidelines, and adhere strictly to the overriding priority to protect the well-being of the public, the staff, and the artists, there comes a point at which, if we did not make a decision to announce a season, there would never have been one. We are cautiously optimistic that what we are announcing will be possible to deliver.”

Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s ‘Florencia en el Amazonas,’ starring Ana María Martínez, is to be the Lyric’s first Spanish-language opera presented in the mainstage season.

What Lyric announced was at once reassuringly familiar and also expressive of a new social consciousness that has altered the profile of performing arts organizations across the country, not least opera companies. The Lyric season brings Missy Mazzoli’s chamber opera Proving Up, to be staged at nearby Goodman Theatre, Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas and Black composer Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones conducted by Daniela Candillari. Another woman, Eun Sun Kim, music director-designate of the San Francisco Opera, will conduct Lyric’s Tosca in January 2022.  

Mazzola, a Spanish-born Italian maestro known especially for his bel canto and French repertoire, is also an advocate for contemporary composers.

“We are very passionate about diversifying the range of stories we are telling at Lyric Opera, and the range of storytellers, and to a certain extent with the range of artists we are presenting,” Mazzola said. “Our intention is for this to be a growing part of our artistic identity.”

While the season was dark, Lyric undertook a complete rehab of the Opera House interior – widening aisles, improving air circulation, and installing new seats at better viewing angles.

The Lyric took advantage of its COVID-mandated down time to complete a thorough upgrade of the audience experience, installing new, spacious seats with good back support and staggered seating for better viewing angles. Previously some of the best seats acoustically, at main floor house center, were the most frustrating visually. The aisles were widened, too.

The entire operation was managed by a retired Air Force general who was functioning as the opera company’s interim general manager, probably a good thing: The seats were built in Brazil, and getting them to Chicago involved complex logistics as conditions affecting everything from container ships to trucking schedules steadily deteriorated. And as the old seats were coming out and the new ones going in, the Lyric also redid its air circulation system – a critical element against contagion in any season – and brought its assisted-hearing wireless technology in line with current capabilities. The notorious hillocks in cross aisles and other pathways also were smoothed out.

Somewhat muted by the pandemic, and the hoopla of finally getting opera back on the stage, was the exit of Andrew Davis, who first watched his Ring cycle sink before his eyes as it was about to launch in the spring of 2020, then lost the two operas that were to have been his songs of farewell, The Marriage of Figaro and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Also on his Lyric leave-taking docket was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony.

While Figaro and Rake were partially salvaged as highlights in a virtual concert under Davis’ direction that’s still available for viewing, the Beethoven Ninth has been preserved intact and live with Davis at the helm in a performance now scheduled with the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus for April 1, 2022.

The conductor surely will be back in the Lyric pit for opera – but, he adds with seeming conviction, he’s otherwise finished with the queen of the arts.

 “Opera is time-consuming, and I want to spend a lot of time not conducting,” Davis said. “I’ll visit the Toronto Symphony, my first band, and Melbourne (where he was also music director), but guest appearances with orchestras are different from the commitment of opera. I have other things I want to do. My wife and I bought a house in the mountains of North Carolina on a lake last March. I want to do some gardening.”

That and polish off a little project of his pandemic idleness: a verse translation into English of Virgil’s Latin epic The Aeneid, a tale of the founding of Rome.

“In high school, I studied Latin and Greek,” the English-born conductor allowed with a small chuckle. “The Aeneid consists of 12 books – 9,896 lines. I’ve completed 11 books, translating into iambic pentameter. It’s been very rewarding, and not totally unlike what I usually do, only looking for color in words instead of sound, to capture the emotional climaxes, the power and the grandeur. Virgil’s work was commissioned by Augustus to celebrate Rome’s history, but there are parts where Virgil is quite sarcastic about that.

“Anyway, that’s what I started doing a year ago, my retirement project. It’s huge, and not something you can rush.”

At least Lyric patrons will get their chance to give the conductor a proper sendoff the night of his Beethoven Ninth. Nicht diese Töne, indeed. Rather, Ave atque vale.