Lyric Opera to work with Second City for first time next season

Renee Fleming

Renee Fleming (July 18, 2012)

The very notion of Lyric Opera and The Second City performing together, even for a one-night stand, would strike most folks in Chicago as slightly absurd. The city's venerable impresario of grand opera making beautiful music with the town's famous factory of funny?

Surely you jest.

But it's no joke. Lyric announced Wednesday afternoon that it will collaborate for the first time with the world-renowned theater troupe early next year on a comedy and musical revue titled “The Second City Guide to the Opera.”

And it all came about because the celebrated soprano Renee Fleming, Lyric's creative consultant, heard one of her recordings being played in a Second City skit she happened to be attending last fall.

Fleming, who's been known to kid her diva image, along with her art form, on such shows as NPR's “Prairie Home Companion” and PBS' “Sesame Street,” will have a featured role in the show, which Lyric will present Jan. 5 at the Civic Opera House. Members of Second City, other singers and musicians also will take part.

The as-yet-unscripted “Second City Night at the Opera” is one of two new community-engagement and audience-building projects the opera company is developing as part of a broader, long-term initiative, Lyric Unlimited, which was announced last week.

Lyric's other special event next season will be “Popcorn & Pasquale,” an introduction to opera pitched to children ages 5 to 12 and their elders. Chicago actor Ross Lehman will host fully staged scenes from Donizetti's comic opera, “Don Pasquale,” as performed by the stars of Lyric's mainstage production, with the Lyric Orchestra.

Rather than a precis of the opera, the 70-minute program will include interviews with the singers and is intended to illuminate how an opera production is put together. The Chicago Tribune Media Group is the presenting sponsor for the family-friendly program, set for Dec. 2 at the Opera House.

Both projects were unveiled at a news conference Wednesday in Second City's Wells Street complex. Fleming did not attend, but there were introductions from Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera, and Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City.

The assembled media members got a preview of the Jan. 5 event with Second City-produced video sketches of opera's Hansel and Gretel and also Mimi and Rodolfo, undergoing couples therapy. (“You need to get that cough checked out,” someone tells the consumptive heroine of “La Boheme.”) Two other Second City performers presented a madcap musical melodrama, this one live, about a singer from Lyric and an actor from Second City who fall instantly in love and nearly suffer a tragic parting.

“When Renee proposed bringing Lyric and Second City together, I thought it was a great idea,” Freud said in an interview Tuesday. “This is exactly the sort of collaboration between important Chicago cultural and community organizations I'm so passionate about. For us to enter into a creative association with one of the world's great comedy institutions feels like a great fit to me.”

“All of us at Second City are always looking for ways to make what we do appear more legitimate in the eyes of the public,” Leonard said Wednesday. “That's why we have partnered with everyone from regional theater groups to Major League Baseball to the U.S. Army. We feel this new association with the Lyric is another means to help us remind people that comedy is a legitimate art form."

Second City is a partner in the Tribune's “Chicago Live!” stage and radio show, which is produced in the complex's UP Comedy Club.

“I think it's more than simply a device to grow audiences,” Freud said of the Lyric-Second City venture. “Of course we want to reach new people. But we also want to explore how our art form can develop in new and unexpected ways. I think this program could really be a lot of fun. Hopefully it will surprise people in the right sort of way.”

According to Freud, the improbable liaison between Chicago arts institutions came about as the result of Fleming's attending one of Second City's shows in September when she was in Chicago with her then-new husband, Washington attorney Tim Jessell, for meetings at Lyric.

“Both Renee and Tim are big Second City fans,” Freud said. “They were enjoying the show when all of a sudden Renee heard her own singing voice in a recording that had been incorporated into a skit. She knew nothing about this beforehand. Rather than call her lawyer, she thought, ‘Wouldn't it be a great idea to see if we can take this further?'

“So, right after the performance, she went up to the musical director and introduced herself. I think he turned a little white when he realized they were using her recordings (without permission). But that's how the dialogue began. A few weeks later, we met with the Second City people and Renee joined us on the phone. We've had many conversations since then. They are an incredibly inspiring organization to work with.”

Freud, who hasn't passed up an opportunity to widen the audience base for opera since taking office in October, has a kindred spirit in popularizing opera in Fleming.

In March, the soprano joined cellist Yo-Yo Ma, her creative counterpart at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in an impromptu jam with CSO musicians for delighted passersby at the Thompson Center. In November, via Skype, she began a series of master classes with selected high school-age students at the city's community-based Merit School of Music. Her glamorous portrait, complete with wind-blown hair, adorns posters plastered all over town as part of the splashy “Long Live Passion” ad campaign that Lyric launched in September.

Freud said that both the collaboration with Second City and the family-friendly “Pasquale” are experimental ventures that could lead to longer-term partnerships if successful. Because costs will be low, the shows will be largely self-sustaining. Neither project will receive funding from the $2 million grant Lyric was awarded recently by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, he added.

Tickets for next season's special events will go on sale to Lyric subscribers beginning Wednesday and to the general public beginning Aug. 1, along with individual tickets to Lyric's mainstage season and post-season performances of “Oklahoma!”

Chicago director Gary Griffin will stage the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. Castings have yet to be announced.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein


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