It is Wednesday - so I am continuing my potted history of my thirteen years as General Director of Chicago Opera Theater. And October 2000 was really the watershed moment, the crucial turning point that set us on a new direction.
I had spent much of my my first year getting the planned shows on, and building my team. But crucially I was designing a plan to bring the company to the point that it would be a top class contributor to Chicago's operatic scene once we arrived at the Harris Theater which would be come our performance home in 2004.
Valerie McCarthy (Euridice) and Laurence Dale (Orfeo) and ensemble October 2000
We opened the season in October with Monteverdi's Orfeo, the earliest opera to have established a place in the operatic repertory, written when opera as a burgeoning new art form was just 10 years old. It seemed a good choice to mark the beginning of something new. It was the first opera to be performed in Italian by COT - by the company whose tag line was "Opera in your language". All productions had been in English up to this point. So that was a hurdle to be crossed - quite easily negotiated given the surtitle revolution which years before had made the obligation to translate redundant.
Having selected the title the first trick was to find the team. Jane Glover was an obvious choice, and indeed was really involved with the Orfeo decision. She was a colleague of many years standing as well as an internationally respected Monteverdi and Cavalli authority. But the choice of director was crucial. Only too often one encounters situations where conductor and director seem to be working on different planets. The disastrous results are there to be seen.
With a little luck and some judgement I found Diane Paulus (seen with me here at an early Orfeo rehearsal). I had known her in Nice where she had been André Serban's assistant on a production when I had been there. She was now a rising star on off-Broadway and I got her and Jane together. The met, they saw eye to eye about everything, and they were thrilled to work together at COT for the next eight years!
Orfeo marked the debut in Chicago of Jane who was then snapped up by Music of the Baroque to succeed Tom Wikman as Music Director of this excellent orchestra. Last week she celebrated her 10th anniversary with a great Haydn and Handel program.
Jane's work at COT with Diane Paulus with whom she did the three Monteverdis, the three Mozart da Ponte operas, as well as the Turn of the Screw, was a major defining feature of our development.
That opening night of Orfeo in 2001 was unforgettable. Completely new sounds were heard, and with that opening fanfare a new world of music theater opened up for our audience, and they loved it. And so did the press - here is John von Rhein in the Chicago Tribune:
Chicago Opera Theater is taking something of an esoteric gamble by presenting Claudio Monteverdi's "Orfeo," an early Baroque work that is considered more a connoisseur's opera than a standard crowd-pleaser--one that requires careful scholarship as well as special commitment from performers to breathe musical and dramatic life into it. Also, let's face it, Monteverdi is far from the easiest sell in a town that prefers its opera familiar, hummable and starry.
Yet general director Brian Dickie's enterprise paid off handsomely Wednesday at the Athenaeum Theatre, where COT began its 27th season with a stunning new production of "Orfeo." Incredible as it may seem, this 1607 masterpiece had to wait until now to receive its first professional staging in Chicago. But this is exactly the sort of specialized repertory the city's second opera company should be doing. And it was worth the wait to have a production, conducted by the British scholar-musician Jane Glover and directed by off-Broadway's Diane Paulus, that resonates so stylishly to the sounds Monteverdi would have heard, yet lives so fully in the present.
From the moment the trumpets and sackbuts stationed in the theater's side boxes call the house to order, to the final tableau of rejoicing at Orfeo's apotheosis, we are transported to a world not our own but one whose basic emotions are very much our own. The timeless tale is simplicity itself: Boy marries girl, boy loses girl, boy again loses girl, boy regains her in immortality. Monteverdi's music, with its serene, quivering vocal lines and madrigal-like choruses for vocal ensemble, colors the words from a discreet distance. Plenty of musical and dramatic blanks remain to be filled in by resourceful artists, of whom COT has assembled a bumper crop.
Paulus, in her operatic directing debut, sets the aboveground action in a brilliant all-white drawing room where the passionate lovers (Laurence Dale and Valerie MacCarthy) are surrounded by masked revelers at a high-society ball. After Orfeo travels down to Hades to rescue his dead wife, he finds her at the banquet table of Plutone (Andrew Funk), dressed in a red silk smoking jacket. With the vocal ensemble never far from the center of the action, the stage is alive with fluid, stylized movement that takes its dramatic cues from the gut strings and valveless brasses in the pit.
"Orfeo" marks the debut of COT's original instruments orchestra, created in conjunction with the Newberry Consort by that ensemble's director, Mary Springfels, who plays viola da gamba, along with harpsichordist David Schrader, violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock and other stalwarts of the region's rich talent pool of period instrumentalists. It was fun on Wednesday to see the two theorbos poking their giraffe-necks from the pit, and wonderful to hear what subtly colored sonorities, crisp articulations, expressive phrasings and flexible tempos Glover--working from her own musical edition--secured from these 24 skilled and caring musicians.
Glover's conducting breathed with the singers, danced and wept with the drama. It was as if she and her colleagues were creating the opera on the spot, and we were the original Gonzaga court. What a rejuvenator for the city's early music movement it would be if we could keep her here on a permanent basis! (Music of the Baroque, are you listening?)
So it was an exhilarating and confidence reinforcing start, and undoubtedly we felt on track to complete the transformation project.
This was the first pre-Gluck opera to be performed by COT and set us on course to mount productions of Monteverdi's other two full length masterpieces, as well as to explore other early music territory starting with Handel. Of course we went on to Purcell, Charpentier and Cavalli as well, with still many further opportunities for the future left undone.
The rest of the season consisted of a splendid production by Harry Silverstein of Robert Kurka's The Good Soldier Schweik, a title I had happily inherited from my predecessors together with a grant from Opera America and support from the NEA; and another early piece Handel's Acis and Galatea. Criticism of two "baroque" choices was muted once I pointed out that Handel's piece was written 111 years after Orfeo a whereas Tosca was written a mere 110 years after Cosi fan tutte!
Next week - consolidation in 2001-02