CHICAGO – Seemingly adrift in Proximity, an opera triple bill now playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, are the children of a tough Chicago neighborhood, two lovers thwarted by technology, and even earth itself, majestic in the universe but endangered in slow burn. It’s a lot to take in as the stories overlap each other in a high-tech triptych with a youthful vibe, directed by Yuval Sharon and with projections by Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras.
But Sharon has a persistent habit of disrupting structure in a playful way; at least this time the seats were inside. His last directive effort in Chicago was in an underground parking lot back in 2021 as Covid raged. Audience members then drove from scene to scene to experience a drastically shortened, re-ordered Götterdämmerung riff first produced at the Detroit Opera, called Twilight: Gods. Another production that year at The Industry, an experimental California-based company that Sharon founded, had audience members moving among various locations at Los Angeles State Historic Park, to tell the story of Tongva Native Americans in their first encounters with settlers from the East.
Proximity is an ambitious project involving three composer-librettist teams. It was Renée Fleming, the Lyric’s longtime creative consultant, who first assembled the creators for Lyric’s world premiere Bel Canto, and she’s known for making it hard to say no. Among those she tapped was the award-winning playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who has dealt powerfully in the past with problems emanating from the school-to-prison pipeline.
Fleming wanted an opera that shed light on the thorny issue of gun violence in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. Smith’s ear for the exact way those kids and their parents talk, their many phrase repetitions, the beat of their expostulations, is a hallmark of The Walkers, the largest opera in the Proximity trilogy. It energizes five of the Proximity segments, including a young mother’s heartbreaking attempt to describe a random shooting that killed her child.
Haitian-American composer Daniel Bernard Roumain, who was born in the Chicago area, created the music of this tightly balanced tragedy, a chaotic tale riddled with tension and braggadocio. His musical vocabulary is a natural for this form — an elegant panoply of neoclassical, pop, jazz, rock, gospel, rap, hip-hop, and call-and-response tools smartly employed to tell a story of love and crossfire.
Gangs nurse their grudges, adolescents play at war, and some boys come back from jail to face a wall of closed doors as the small team of Walkers tries to engage kids and redirect their focus. Several characters are based on real activists; excellent tenor Issachah Savage played Curtis Toler, the former gang member now at CRED, an agency that helps angry young men de-escalate.
Others characters are fictional but just as sharply drawn, notably baritone Gordon Hawkins as Preacher Man, and baritone Norman Garrett as Bilal, a young ex-offender, back home and shaken. Through the opera, murder and mayhem continue. Young mother Yasmine Miller (the Ryan Center alumna Whitney Morrison) stammers out the details of her boy’s death, shot through their car window on an ordinary day.
Kazem Abdullah conducted beautifully throughout. But as the three interwoven operas wore on, Sharon’s interspersing directorial treatment of The Walkers’ storyline began to take its toll. There are two other works subsumed within this production, quite different, both substantial.
I’d like to experience the other two operas again, on their own. One is really more like a tone poem as oratorio, called Night, by John Luther Adams. Inspired by a contemporary poem of John Haines, it’s in the voice and color of an ancient Greek Sibyl. The work is dark, gentle, and mysterious, and it may well find its way onto symphonic programs.
The prophetic Sibyl does not promise an existence for the earth beyond the night that is setting. On stage at the Lyric, the projections are panoramic and otherworldly, but the galactic glitz fights against the poem’s dark vision and stunning uncertainty. As I imagine the music, my eyes are closed, remembering Adams’ elegiac lines and the gorgeous sound of the mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung as she sings of a dawn she cannot see.
The notion of “proximity” got a bittersweet ironic spin in Four Portraits — basically four scenes of increasingly epic phone fail. A hapless couple named “A” and “B” try to stay connected. This touching and often very funny two-hander, with winsome music by Caroline Shaw and a libretto by Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke, proceeds like the bad dream most of us will eventually have.
Countertenor John Holiday (A) and baritone Lucia Lucas (B) keep trying to be in touch as their smartphones suffer a series of mundane service anomalies, subway blackouts, and other recalcitrant quirks. At the last, B is now driving in a car and using Google Directions, heading for a quiet rendezvous with A in a forested area.
But does B’s mind wander? Or is that Google talking back? The scene is hilarious, the singing very fine, the music drolly elegant. And although Lyric’s “three shows in one” directorial conceit was almost too whimsical to work in this case as envisioned, Four Portraits is a welcome premiere, likely destined for a long life on its own.