Why is Chicago’s Opera Scene Thriving as Others Go Belly Up?

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March 24, 2014; Reuters

NPQ has documented over the past few years the demise of operas in New York City, Boston, and now San Diego. Even the Met, the nation’s largest opera is reporting budget shortfalls. The National Endowment for the Arts reports that the percentages of the U.S. population nationally who had attended an opera performance declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent ten years later. One might begin to think that opera is on its way out…until you look at Chicago. At the Lyric Opera, ticket sales are up by 15 percent, while at the Chicago Opera Theater (COT) subscriptions have grown by 20 percent. There are other, newer companies also, like the Haymarket Opera Company, which spotlights the Baroque era, and the South Shore Opera Company that stages productions with African-American casts.

F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News magazine, calls the Chicago opera scene vibrant and says, “Chicago has a huge appetite for music.”

So why Chicago? Apparently, the magic is in the combo of creative programming, consistent philanthropic support, and a loyal audience whose enthusiasm was liked to that of the bleachers at sporting events. COT’s general director Andreas Mitisek attributes the health of opera in Chicago to an appetite for the experimental. For instance, last year COT staged Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Eurydice at public swimming pools, which stood in for the mythical River Styx.

Lyric recently presented the world’s first mariachi opera, but it is still attentive to the classics, planning, for instance, a presentation of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. All of which results in an audience mix that many city operas would give their eyeteeth for.—Ruth McCambridge