So today I begin my brief review, year by year, of my 13 years in Chicago. I will be posting these weekly, on Wednesday morning London time, and we should be done 13 weeks from now! I hope to have it richly illustrated - I do of course my own collection of photographs going back to around 2004. I will be "borrowing" whatever is available on the internet for the earlier years.
The Athenaeum Theater, Lakeview, Chicago in 2011
I came to Chicago as plans for a new theater to be built in downtown Chicago were really crystallizing into reality. There really was going to be space suitable for a company that would do work to complement that of the Lyric Opera, to a very high standard. The Lyric's eight productions a year was not enough for the opera addict - and COT could provide more, but it had to be good.
So that was my strategic objective - to get COT to a level at which it could realistically stand beside the first class, internationally recognized, organisations to be found in downtown Chicago, such as the CSO, the Art Institute, the Goodman Theater, and of course the Lyric Opera. It was a daunting task and was probably felt by many to be impossible. So that is where this story starts.
I began work at COT on September 7 1999. Within a few weeks the first performances took place – of a new production of The Barber of Seville. They had nothing to do with me but I did all I could to see that they were credit-worthy! And so they turned out to be with accomplished performances from Tracey Watson (Rosina), William Powers (Basilio) and Philip Kraus as Bartolo. COT at that time performed in the charming though dilapidated Athenaeum Theater in Lakeview. It was more or less clean front of house, although the seating needed major repairs, and downright slum like back stage. There were recent external improvements to the building but the interior appears to remain much the same - only more so.......
The director was the English director /designer John Pascoe. John did a fantastic job in, for him, extremely unfamiliar circumstances. He was, and remains, a trouper – but it was tough. The first notable achievement was that we actually got the curtain up on time on the opening night. A major sponsor considered this such a remarkable achievement that he upped the grant to the company…..my first fundraising success!
And we had a glittering opening night audience including Renée Fleming (and her 8 or so year old daughter) and Chicago legend Studs Terkel.
The second production of the season was in the spring of 2000 – an idea of typical ingenuity from the then Artistic Director of the Memphis Opera, composer and impresario Michael Ching. This was a double bill of Gianni Schicchi (Phil Kraus again in the title role) together with Michael’s Buoso’s Ghost which used cast, set and costumes from the Schicchi production of course – it was the sequel! It had a lukewarm reception from the Chicago Tribune’s John von Rhein.
I had spent a certain amount of time during my first weeks trying to figure out the budget for the season. The fact is that there really wasn’t one. But after a good deal of investigation and analysis I came to the conclusion that there was a major problem – we really could never afford the final production of the season as then configured. This was the co-production with Boston Lyric Opera of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten.
The chorus was much larger than needed, and the “deal” was much too generous to BLO. So this was my first exercise in “creative minimalism”, something that became a pattern over the ensuing years. Of course there was a limit to what could be achieved.
The director was the celebrated Mary Zimmerman, and the thing had been designed and built by this point for it opened in Boston first, in February of 2000. But we got it done, we had full houses, Philip Glass was there as a generous participant in all the hoopla, and the season finished on a welcome high.
I had hoped to track down some pictures of these productions but I have completely failed in my “googling” efforts to go back that far! How the world has changed!