In contrast with the greatest hits programming Lyric Opera has announced for next season, the alternative opera schedule with which Chicago Opera Theater is inaugurating the Andreas Mitisek era, beginning this weekend, promises to be anything but safe and standard.
Indeed, COT's new general director has built a reputation for putting on opera seasons that are eclectic in repertory, unconventional and even provocative in performance. It's not for nothing that Opera News magazine last year named the Austrian-born Mitisek, 50, one of 25 people who will be major forces in opera over the coming decade.
His adventuresome track record as artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera in southern California – a position he has held since 2003 and will continue to hold alongside his duties in Chicago – in fact strongly recommended him to COT's board leadership when it came to selecting a successor to Brian Dickie, a savvy and progressive impresario in his own right.
Mitisek is declaring his intentions right out of the starting gate. His calling card for COT's 2013 season – marketed around the catchphrase "Power of Love/Love of Power" – will be the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass' "The Fall of the House of Usher," which will receive the first of four performances beginning Saturday night at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park.
The general director himself will conduct, as he did last month in Long Beach where the production by director Ken Cazan, a longtime COT standby, was seen for the first time. The first Glass opera to be mounted by COT since "Akhnaten" in 2000, "Usher" will mark the start of an annual series of collaborations whereby Chicago will share productions and production costs with its sister company in Long Beach.
"It is a really worthy piece that should be done more often," Mitisek says of Glass' 1987 rarity, which the minimalist guru and lyricist Arthur Yorinks based on the famous Edgar Allan Poe horror story. All of the principal singers – Suzan Hanson, Lee Gregory, Jonathan Mack, Ryan MacPherson and Nick Shelton – will be making COT debuts.
"Usher" will kick off the first COT season in more than a decade when the company will perform its operas in a winter-spring-fall sequence rather than as a spring festival pegged to the close of the Lyric season. Mitisek's strategy is to keep the company on the audience's radar for longer periods throughout the year – and, not incidentally, to move more tickets as a result.
The new COT chief will double as conductor and stage director for COT's second production of the season, Astor Piazzolla's "Maria de Buenos Aires," a show that originated in Long Beach in January 2012. Mitisek has set his gritty staging during the 1976-83 "dirty war" in Argentina, when tens of thousands of people were abducted, tortured, murdered or simply disappeared. "No red-dress tango cliches" here, he promises. "Maria" will have four performances, April 20-28, at the Harris Theater.
Giuseppe Verdi's rarely heard early opera, "Giovanna d'Arco" ("Joan of Arc"), will close the COT season Sept. 14-22. The winner of the company's People's Opera fundraiser in 2010, the work represents COT's contribution to the Verdi bicentennial celebration.
It bodes well for Mitisek's new-broom regime at COT that the Chicago opera public began embracing his bold artistic vision for the company months before his debut season would even get underway.
Last year, the company sold a total of 1,666 subscriptions, 192 of them new. To date that tally has risen to 1,915 subscriptions sold, 765 of them new. COT also has made a significant dent in its accumulated deficit: The company's debt load dropped from $784,000 in 2011 to $572,000 last year to about $500,000 so far this year, according to the general director.
"My strategic plan with COT for the next five years is growing the season to five operas year-round, on a budget of $5 million," he explains. "This is very important to me, because it will help us to balance and diversify the repertory even more, while increasing our audience and our visibility."
Meanwhile, Mitisek is planning on adding an as-yet-unnamed fourth production to COT's 2013 schedule, which he hopes to present in October at an alternative Chicago location to be determined.
Bringing smaller, site-specific operas to various nooks and crannies in the Greater Los Angeles area has been a cornerstone of his audience-building strategy at Long Beach Opera. To date the company has mounted shows in such unlikely spaces as an Olympic swimming pool, a municipal aquarium, an abandoned warehouse and the boiler room of the Queen Mary, the retired Cunard liner now docked in Long Beach harbor.
"Our public tells me they enjoy the adventure of going to hear opera in places they don't know and even have difficulty finding," Mitisek says.
And if both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera can venture out of their comfort zones to bring classical music to new audiences in new venues, he reasons, why not Chicago Opera Theater?
Already Mitisek is making like a good Chicago politician when he says, "It's very important for me to get to know our audience. Their feedback helps me drive the company. I look forward to our making this journey together.
"In Long Beach we have built a brand people trust. They may not always like what we produce, but they know there will be a quality behind it that will make it worth experiencing. That's my goal for what we will be doing at Chicago Opera Theater."
Chicago Opera Theater opens its 2013 season with Philip Glass' "The Fall of the House of Usher" at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. The show runs through March 1 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Drive; $45-$125; 312-704-8414, chicagooperatheater.org, or 312-334-7777, harristheaterchicago.org.
Gordon, Hagen operas to have local premieres
Two of the most acclaimed American operas of recent years are about to receive their first performances in Chicago, courtesy of the opera departments at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music and Roosevelt University's Chicago College of Performing Arts, respectively.
"The Grapes of Wrath," composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Michael Korie's adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic 1939 novel of the same name, will have its Chicago premiere at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston. Hal France will conduct, and Michael Ehrman will direct. Heading the large student cast will be baritone Robert Orth, recreating the role of Uncle John he portrayed in the opera's 2007 Minnesota Opera premiere. The show runs through March 2; $18, $8 for students; 847-467-4000, pickstaiger.org.
"Amelia," with music by Daron Hagen and libretto by Gardner McFall and Stephen Wadsworth, will be presented by singers and instrumentalists from Roosevelt's CCPA professional diploma in opera program. Free performances will be given at 7:30 p.m. March 1 and 2 at Benito Juarez Community Academy, 1450 W. Cermak Rd., in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood. The work, which had its world premiere at the Seattle Opera in 2010, is based on McFall's book about the loss of her father, a Navy pilot during the Vietnam era. James Paul will conduct, and Andrew Eggert will direct the student cast; 312-341-2238.