What You Need to Know About the World Premiere of PROXIMITY at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Proximity is on stage at the Lyric Opera House for five performances only, March 24 – April 8, 2023.

By: Feb. 21, 2023
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.




Existing user? Just click login.

What You Need to Know About the World Premiere of PROXIMITY at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago will present the second of two Chicago-set world premieres in its season: Proximity, a trio of new American operas that confront head-on some of the greatest challenges affecting modern society: the devastating impact of gun violence on cities and neighborhoods, yearning for connection in a world driven by technology, and the need to respect and protect our natural resources. In an innovative production by director Yuval Sharon that is searing in its intimacy, revolutionary in its structure, and groundbreaking in its technical wizardry, Proximity is on stage at the Lyric Opera House for five performances only, March 24 - April 8, 2023.

Curated since its inception in 2019 by Lyric's Special Projects Advisor Renée Fleming along with Lyric's General Director Anthony Freud and Sharon, Proximity brings together some of the leading creative thinkers in American culture, all in their Lyric debuts. Daniel Bernard Roumain, the acclaimed Haitian-American composer, and Anna Deavere Smith, the legendary playwright and actress, have written The Walkers, an opera that gives voice to families grappling with gun violence in Chicago. Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer and Grammy-winning composer, has teamed with writer Jocelyn Clarke for Four Portraits, an opera about the impact of technology on society. And Pulitzer and Grammy-winning composer John Luther Adams has written Night, a short opera on the fragility of the natural world, set to a text by the late poet John Haines.

The three operas are spliced and shuffled to create an entirely new work that zooms in and out from the scale of the individual to the community to the cosmic. Proximity, the synthesis of these three works, offers a compelling snapshot of 21st century life with all of its complex intersections and reveals our everlasting capacity for hope.

A daredevil director's bold vision. Familiar to Lyric audiences from his immersive drive-through production of Twilight: Gods in 2021 and its resulting film, director and Chicago-area native Yuval Sharon provides the unifying vision for Proximity. Sharon is a MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship winner who is widely acclaimed for the work of his Los Angeles-based experimental opera company The Industry as well as Detroit Opera, which he has led as Artistic Director since 2020. Sharon is known for his unconventional body of work that seeks to expand the operatic form. "The ultimate irony in working on a project called Proximity is that most of it was made in the era of social distance," says Sharon. "We chose the name Proximity because it succinctly captured one of the opera's fundamental ideas: we are closer to our fellow humans than we are often made to feel."

A creative team that expands what is possible in opera. The sweeping visual ideas of director Sharon are realized by Proximity's pathbreaking design team. Production designers Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, who worked on Lyric's Twilight: Gods, have created a stage design on a scale and complexity never before attempted in opera - a curved quarter-pipe video wall, 40 feet wide by 26 feet high, made of 140 LED panels and 240 black marble LED panels. Complemented by a robust on-set system of responsive cameras and other interactive features, the set design for Proximity affords audiences a new immersive way to experience opera.

Proximity also features the costume design of Carlos J. Soto, the sound design of Jody Elff, and the choreography of Rena Butler, all in their Lyric debuts.

Three distinct yet seamlessly woven sound worlds. Leading Proximity's musical forces is conductor Kazem Abdullah in his Lyric debut. Abdullah is a passionate advocate for new music who recently conducted Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels's Omar at LA Opera, where he was a member of its Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program. Abdullah will guide the 69 players of the Lyric Opera Orchestra in bringing to life the three unique soundscapes of Proximity's three composers. The 43 members of the Lyric Opera Chorus will be led by chorus master Michael Black.

* * *


The Walkers


Music by Daniel Bernard Roumain and libretto by Anna Deavere Smith

Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain is known for his signature violin sounds infused with myriad electronic and African-American musical influences. He is a composer of solo, chamber, orchestral, and operatic works, and has composed an array of film, theater, and dance scores. His previous work in opera includes the interdisciplinary chamber opera We Shall Not Be Moved, written with librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, which premiered at Opera Philadelphia in 2017. He has worked with artists from Lady Gaga and Philip Glass to Bill T. Jones and Marin Alsop and has published more than 300 works.

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, playwright, teacher, and author. She is credited with creating a new form of theater by looking at current events from multiple points of view. Her theater combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance. Plays include Fires In the Mirror (a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize), Twilight: Los Angeles (nominated for two Tony Awards), House Arrest, and Let Me Down Easy. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. Like Proximity director Yuval Sharon, she is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship. The Walkers is her first opera.

After Lyric connected Anna Deavere Smith to Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Diversity), an anti-gun-violence organization co-founded by Arne Duncan and Laurene Powell Jobs, Smith created the libretto following a series of interviews with Chicagoans whose families had experienced gun violence. Several of the characters in the opera are people she interviewed, including Arne Duncan, CRED counselor and former gang member Curtis Toler, and Yasmine Miller, the mother of a toddler who was shot and killed only months before the interview took place. Other characters are an amalgam of real people who work as counselors and people who have been helped by the organization. Smith's libretto uses the actual words of people to create monologues and dialogue.

At the start of The Walkers, we hear about the history of Chicago gang violence from Arne Duncan and Curtis Toler and we meet Bilal, who has been released from prison and is experiencing PTSD. We meet the fictional character of Lil' Bunchy Bates, a child who deflects attempts to be recruited to gangs until he is shot and killed while playing basketball. Violence breaks out at his funeral, targeting the suspected perpetrator. Across the city, Yasmine Miller is shot in a drive-by shooting that kills her toddler. The story ends with a message of cautious hope that the epidemic of gun violence and the related crises of segregation, police abuse, and gang violence will all one day end, and that the community will finally find peace.

Leading the cast of The Walkers are soprano Whitney Morrison as Yasmine Miller and baritone Norman Garrett as Bilal. Morrison is an alumna of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, Lyric's acclaimed artist-development program. Last season at Lyric, she starred in Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons's Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Garrett has appeared with Lyric in Fire Shut Up in My Bones and in the recent world premiere of Will Liverman and DJ King Rico's The Factotum. The cast also features baritone Gordon Hawkins as Preacher Man, tenor Issachah Savage as Curtis Toler, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown as Chief's Daughter #1, and mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as Chief's Daughter #2.

The cast also includes several current members of the Ryan Opera Center Ensemble: bass Ron Dukes is Chief's Son #1, tenor Martin Luther Clark is Chief's Son #2, and soprano Lindsey Reynolds is Very Loud Girl. Rounding out the cast are tenor Jamion Cotten as Lil' Bunchy Bates and actor Jeff Parker as Arne Duncan. The children's chorus in The Walkers features 20 members of Uniting Voices Chicago under the direction of Josephine Lee.

Four Portraits


Music by Caroline Shaw and libretto by Caroline Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke

Composer Caroline Shaw is a musician who moves among roles, genres, and mediums; her recent work involves compositions for film, television, dance, and now opera. She was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Partita for 8 Voices and has received three Grammy Awards. She has written more than 100 works in the last decade, and has worked with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma, Rosalía, Renée Fleming, and Nas. Her work as a vocalist or composer has appeared in the recent film Tár, the Showtime television series Yellowjackets, and the Netflix documentary of Beyonce's Homecoming. Shaw's co-librettist Jocelyn Clarke is dramaturg at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. and has recently served in the writers room for the Starz television series P-Valley. His work abroad includes time with the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin's Abbey Theatre.

The first three of Shaw and Clarke's Four Portraits show a couple grappling with the disconnection of modern life - a fragmented telephone call with a bad connection, a crowded train of strangers, and a nighttime car trip with GPS. In the final scene, which begins with the first face-to-face conversation in the opera, spoken language recedes and acquiesces to the sonic landscape of the forest in a hopeful nod to a future unencumbered by technology.

Four Portraits stars countertenor John Holiday as A and baritone Lucia Lucas as B, both in their Lyric debuts. Holiday, winner of the Kennedy Center's 2017 Marian Anderson Vocal Award, was recently seen in the Metropolitan Opera's world premiere of The Hours and gained widespread fame for his appearance in Season 19 of NBC's popular competition series The Voice. Lucas, an in-demand baritone who has sung at the Met, English National Opera, and across Europe, was featured in the recent documentary The Sound of Identity, which chronicled her journey as the first transgender woman to sing a leading role in a standard work at an American Opera Company.

Sopranos Kathryn Henry and Lindsey Reynolds, tenors Lunga Eric Hallam and Alejandro Luévanos, and bass Ron Dukes - current members of the Ryan Opera Center Ensemble - co-star as the Passengers, a group that also includes mezzo-sopranos Kathleen Felty (a Ryan Opera Center alumna) and Stephanie Sanchez and baritone Darren Drone. Mezzo-soprano Corinne Wallace-Crane sings the role of the GPS.


Night
Music by John Luther Adams and libretto by John Haines

John Luther Adams began his career as an environmental activist and transitioned into composing upon realizing that music had a better chance of changing the world than politics. Since that time, he has become one of the most widely admired composers in the world, receiving both the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music and 2015 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Become Ocean, among many other honors.

For his contribution to Proximity, Adams was inspired by the work of his friend and longtime neighbor in Alaska, the late poet John Haines. One of Haines's very last poems, Night offers a dark and troubling vision of the Earth's future, but Adams was drawn to its ultimate notes of hope and promise in the next generation, a theme that runs throughout each of Proximity's three works.

Night features mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams as an omniscient Greek sybil who launches the work's spiritual interrogations. Reams was seen earlier this season at Lyric as Ragonde in Rossini's Le Comte Ory.

* * *


Lyric strongly reinforces its commitment to new work. Following the extraordinary success of the world premiere of The Factotum earlier this season, Proximity continues to push boundaries for what is possible in and for opera. It brings a new kind of musical and theatrical experience to Lyric, to the city of Chicago, and to the world. Experience the world premiere of Proximity - only at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Important to know

  • Five chances to see Proximity: March 24, 26 (matinee), 29, April 5 (matinee), and 8.
  • A world premiere commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago: Proximity includes The Walkers, composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain with libretto by Anna Deavere Smith; Four Portraits, composed by Caroline Shaw with libretto by Caroline Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke; and Night, composed by John Luther Adams with libretto by John Haines.
  • Proximity addresses adult themes and contains some adult language.
  • Sung in English with projected English titles.
  • A total running time of 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.
  • Tickets and more information: lyricopera.org/proximity.
  • For updated information about Lyric's ongoing health and safety protocols, visitlyricopera.org/safety.



Videos