Chicago Opera Theater To Mount Trio Of Premieres In 2020/21 Season
"Coming off its finest season in a decade... Chicago Opera Theater may be entering a golden age in its history," writes Chicago Classical Review. This resurgence of artistic quality and audacious programming has been driven by the company's Orli and Bill Staley Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya and Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson General Director Ashley Magnus, who announced the 2020/21 season on Wednesday evening via a digital reveal on Facebook and YouTube.
"The 21st century has redefined American opera through an exceptional creative surge," said Yankovskaya. "COT is quickly establishing our place at the vanguard of this movement. In our 20/21 season, we uphold our commitment to presenting new work of many different voices, subjects, styles, and languages, alongside masterworks that have yet to be heard in Chicago."
Under the award-winning leadership of Magnus and Yankovskaya, COT will present three Chicago premieres:
- The Invisible City of Kitezh - considered by Rimsky-Korsakov to be his finest masterpiece, Kitezh explores remarkably timely themes: a society coming together to fight off a threat while debating personal sacrifice for others
- Taking Up Serpents - new production of Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye's chamber opera, following the daughter of a Pentecostal snake handler in the American South; first COT mainstage by female composer
- Il Postino - Daniel Catán's Spanish-language account of the personal postman to exiled Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; based on the Oscar-winning film of the same name
Subscriptions are available now, with single tickets on sale August 1.
"Next season, COT will continue to do what we do best - bringing Chicago audiences musical experiences they can't get anywhere else," said Magnus. "Our programming demonstrates that opera isn't just one thing, and we're proud to be showcasing composers of color and work that deserves mainstage recognition. As we travel to Russia, Italy, and Appalachia, I suspect people will be surprised by how much they relate to characters whose experiences seem very different from their own."
For the first time in nearly 20 years, Rimsky-Korsakov's masterpiece will appear in the United States, slated to open in November 2020 at the Harris Theater in the work's Chicago premiere. The Invisible City of Kitezh will mark the third opera in COT's Russian series, which launched alongside Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya's tenure and has introduced Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Rachmaninoff's Aleko to Chicago audiences.
With its mystical exploration grounded in massive orchestration, Kitezh is most often performed in excerpts by symphony orchestras. The U.S. premiere is claimed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who played the full piece in a 1932 runout concert to Ann Arbor, Michigan. COT's production, which was intended to be the work's first fully staged Russian-language performance by an American Opera Company, will now be adapted for a concert format to allow for any quick changes necessary to accommodate evolving COVID-era health guidelines.
"Kitezh is an incredible piece that American audiences really should know," said Yankovskaya. "The opera showcases the height of Rimsky-Korsakov's exceptional orchestration and vocal writing, but its dramatically demanding roles, magical realist plot, and complex dialogue make it very challenging to mount. We believe this rarely performed masterpiece, and its themes - a community coming together to fight off a threat, while weighing the conflict between sacrifice for the greater good and short-term personal gain - are likely to resonate especially poignantly today."
Yankovskaya will conduct, with a large fully professional chorus expected to be socially distanced across the stage. Raquel González, a Kansas native and recent winner of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence, will make her company debut opposite Russian-born tenor Viktor Antipenko, who has performed in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and Dallas Opera. Chicago-based tenor David Cangelosi, who regularly performs on stages from the Lyric to the Metropolitan Opera, will sing the tour-de-force role of Grishka Kuterma - including a rare tenor mad scene.
Following a roaring success at Washington National Opera, Taking Up Serpents was hailed by Washington Classical Review as "a major contribution from an intriguing new compositional voice." Supported by an original story from preeminent Chicago-based librettist Jerre Dye, that voice belongs to Indian-American composer Kamala Sankaram, whose work spans traditional opera to virtual reality experiments and even a recent opera set in a Zoom video chat.
In Serpents, Sankaram juxtaposes highly Romantic musical writing with unusual instrumentation - including electric guitar, whirly tubes, and waterphone - and Appalachian shape-note singing to delve into the psyche of Kayla, a charismatic preacher's daughter who is finding her relationship to family and faith. In a rarity for both contemporary opera and chamber works, the score calls for large-scale dramatic voices, which are sure to provide a visceral thrill in the intimate Studebaker Theater.
Yankovskaya will conduct a newly expanded version of Serpents, co-commissioned with New York City's On Site Opera, which will be the mainstage offering of COT's Living Opera Series in February 2021. The Alison Moritz production will star two Chicago-based artists: soprano Alexandra Loutsion, who sings heavy-hitting diva roles like Turandot and Elektra, will make her company debut as Kayla, and mezzo Leah Dexter will be Kayla's mother, who serves as the family's rock as their fragile relationships unravel. They'll be joined by COT debutante Michael Mayes, who has built an important career playing troubled men, from Rigoletto to contemporary American works. Mayes has earned particular acclaim for his Joseph De Rocher in Heggie's Dead Man Walking, which, opposite superstar mezzo Joyce DiDonato in London and Madrid, was praised by The Independent and The Times as a "searing performance" of "stunning strength" and - most thematically apt for his Serpents role as a fire-and-brimstone preacher - a "revelation."
The "undeniably beautiful" (San Francisco Chronicle) and deeply lyrical Il Postino marks the Chicago debut of the work of Mexican-American composer Daniel Catán, who died suddenly in 2011, less than a year after the opera's world premiere at Los Angeles Opera. Like Heggie's Moby-Dick, which was presented by COT in 2019, Postino is a major classic that has entered the operatic canon without appearing in Chicago.
Mexican native Iván López Reynoso will conduct the lush score, which draws from the rich sound world of the Mexican classical music tradition, and focuses on the nature of friendship and the importance of art during times of social upheaval. Set in Italy and sung in Spanish, the production is by bilingual American director Crystal Manich, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, and will feature a largely Mexican cast that includes several performers who worked with Catán on the development of the piece at LA Opera.
World-renowned tenor David Lomelí, who sang leading roles with the Glyndebourne Festival, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Deutsche Oper Berlin before becoming the first Latino casting director at a top-tier American Opera Company, will make his triumphant return to the stage as beloved Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Tenor Daniel Montenegro will appear in his signature role as the titular postman, with both artists making their company debuts on the stage of the Studebaker Theater in April 2021.
With another season of new and rarely performed operas on the docket, Chicago Opera Theater leadership confirms that the company is looking ahead with optimism.
"Even as the world remains in a holding pattern, we are moving forward with the belief that opera truly is a living, resilient art form," said Magnus. "COT's next season embodies conviction, hope, and a renewed sense of connection in the face of adversity - values we are proud to both portray onstage and live as part of our community."
Subscriptions ($95 - $450) to Chicago Opera Theater's 2020/21 season are on sale now. Subscriptions can be purchased by calling 312.704.8414 or via cot.org/subscribe. Single tickets will go on sale August 1, 2020.