3 new-to-Chicago operas you should see this week

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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Opera lovers rejoice: three operas never-before-seen in Chicago come to town this week in performances by Chicago Fringe Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Mark Morris Dance Group in collaboration with Silk Road Ensemble. Learn more about these works from their creators to help you decided which one to see. Or if you can’t pick just one, attend all three!

“The Great God Pan”

The Great God Pan (Photo: Victor Lejeune)

What: The Great God Pan, music and libretto by Ross Crean
Who: Chicago Fringe Opera
Where: Chopin Theater
When: Wednesday, March 14 and Friday, March 16 at 7:30 pm, and Sunday, March 18 at 3:00 pm

Chicago Fringe Opera, even in its fledgling years, has produced a number of important Windy City premieres. Earlier this season, CFO presented As One, the first opera with a transgender protagonist, by Laura Kaminsky, Kimberly Reid, and Mark Campbell. The company continues its 2018/19 season its first world premiere: Ross Crean’s The Great God Pan.

Crean composed the music and adapted the libretto from Arthur Machen’s eponymous novel. “I’m a horror buff, and I’ve always been,” he said. “Stephen King called The Great God Pan one of the scariest stories he’s ever read, which got me interested in it.”

The opera, Crean said, is “about a surgery that’s supposed to bring people into another realm, though it ends tragically. We have the material world and this other world, where one character, Helen, comes from. We then see the culmination of these choices twenty years later as a plague of suicides wreaks havoc on London. Three other characters, Clark, Austin, and Villiers, are trying to figure out what is causing all of these suicides, and they discover that one woman, Helen, is connected to all of them.”

To create two distinct sounds worlds, Crean has scored the opera for a standard piano to represent the real world, as well as “internal piano,” a type of prepared piano, to create an otherworldly soundscape.

When playing internal piano, Crean explained, “you’re really just playing strings of the piano directly by reaching in. The pianist has to pound on strings with their fist. We throw some PVC pipe in there. We have a plectrum plucking. We have scratches going up and down the strings. There’s also just a lot of use of sustained pedal so that we get this immense range of overtones ringing throughout. When the pedal is down, it also picks up the overtones of the standard piano, so we get this incredible soundscape that helps symbolize this other world.”

“There were colors I was getting from internal piano that I wasn’t getting from a standard piano,” Crean said.  Crean experiences chromesthesia, a phenomenon in which people associate colors with sound. Crean also associates emotions with sounds. For The Great God Pan, he said, “We color coded the score for certain notes, and there are color-coded stickers to put on the inside of the action on the piano so that the internal pianist knows which notes to pluck or strum or pound on.”

“You can enjoy it for the horror story on the surface,” he said, “but I also hope people can look deeper into the other layers of the story that I’ve created. The women don’t get any dialogue in the original book, so I gave the female characters voice to share their perspective. I want people to walk away asking questions about gender. Do we see gender the same way we did then?

“Layla and Majnun”

Layla and Majnun (Photo: Susana Millman)

What: Layla and Majnun, by Uzeyir Hajibeyli (arr. by Alim Qasimov, Johnny Gandlesman, and Colin Jacobsen)
Who: Mark Morris Dance Group and Silk Road Ensemble
Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance
When: Friday, March 16 at 7:30 pm, Saturday, March 17 at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm

Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s Leyli and Majnun, considered the first Middle Eastern opera, premiered in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1908. Since, it has been performed 20,000 times at the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, where needless to say, it has been a cornerstone of the company’s repertoire.

For two decades, performances there have been led by esteemed singer Alim Qasimov, who is also a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. To celebrate the centennial of this formative work, Qasimov created a forty-five minute concert version of Hajibeyli’s three-and-a-half-hour original with the help of Silk Road members Johnny Gandlesman and Colin Jacobsen. The ensemble toured this version around the world to critical acclaim.

Around the same time, Ma approached his long-time collaborator Mark Morris about developing a staged version in partnership with the artists of Mark Morris Dance Group. “From the very first moment,” Morris said, “the musicians of Silk Road were collaborators and partners... I put in my ideas and it turned into this. It took plenty of people plenty of time to realize this show. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

This story of two star-crossed lovers is known throughout the world, though may be new to some North American audiences. It was famously told by 12th century poet Nezami Ganjawi and 15th century poet Fuzûlî, though it has been interpreted countless times in nearly every medium imaginable.

“There are only a few great stories on a few important themes: love, birth, death, good, evil, betrayal, sex, war, journey, magic, the mysteries. Those topics in myriad variations are the stuff of our lives then and now, small and large, personal and international,” Morris said. “It is indeed a great time to introduce a work of passion, hope, love, regret, kindness” from a “a Sufi and Muslim point of view,” he added.

In this version of Layla and Majnun, sixteen MMDG dancers are joined onstage by Silk Road musicians playing a diverse range of instruments including kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi, pipa, violin, viola, cello, contrabass, and percussion, as well as singers Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova. English painter Howard Hodgkin designed costumes and decor inspired by Mughal miniature paintings for the production.

“I purposely put everyone, each dancer and musician, onstage together,” Morris said, “to establish a choreomusical and visual community.” Having everyone together onstage also helps from a practical perspective. “The thrilling, semi-improvisatory elements fundamental to this kind of music keep everyone in a very keen state of alertness and responsiveness. All live performance requires a high consciousness ‘in the moment.’ Because of the combination of histories and cultures of this particular material, it is even more pronounced. It only happens once...every time.”

“Fellow Travelers”

Fellow Travelers (Photo: Jill Steinberg)

What: Fellow Travelers, music by Gregory Spears and libretto by Greg Pierce
Who: Lyric Opera of Chicago
When: Saturday, March 17, Wednesday, March 21, Friday, March 23 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, March 25 at 2:00 pm
Where: Athenaeum Theatre

Fellow Travelers, a new opera about a gay relationship during the height of McCarthyism in America, had its first performance at Cincinnati Opera in 2016. “Gay marriage had passed in the Supreme Court between the time of our workshop and the premiere, so there was a lot of positive energy surrounding the opera at the time,” said composer Greg Spears. “Now we live in a different political environment, and the story has new importance.”

Spears said Fellow Travelers, inspired by Thomas Mallon's 2007 novel of the same name, explores the lives of “two men who first meet on a park bench in Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. ; Tim is a younger report who has just come to D.C., and Hawk is a few years older and works for the State Department. Hawk tries to get Tim a job with a senator, and then they start a clandestine affair. Hawk gets reported to a committee investigating homosexuals in the State Department. He passes their test, but meanwhile is falling in love with Tim, and in order to protect himself emotionally and politically from this relationship, he actually turns Tim in to the committee.”

“People in power use scapegoats to maintain power or attack other groups, and I think we see that today in different forms,” Spears commented. “To see a story from the 1950s that’s unfortunately relevant is part of the opera’s sadness,” Spears said.

Although queer stories are becoming more common on the operatic stage today, Spears said that he was eager to create a work with gay characters “who are ‘regular’ people, not big historical figures. That was something that I wish I had seen on stage when I was growing up and falling in love with opera back in the 80s and 90s. It would be great if gay people came to this show and other operas because they’re about gay life, but leave falling in love with a medium that has been so important to gay history. Opera has always been a space for gay people.”

“One of the great things about opera is that characters are often saying one thing on the surface, but the music has all this subtext.  In the beginning, when the two main characters meet, they are talking about the weather, but you know they’re actually picking each other up,” he said. “I think that’s an experience that anyone who is gay and has been in the closet certainly understands. You’re trying to say one thing but mean something else. Opera is all about that.”

Whether you’re new to opera or consider yourself a connoisseur, Spears wants audience members attending Fellow Travelers to “come in with the same expectations that you’d have if you were going to see a play. In some ways, I want the music to kind of disappear into the drama so that you come out talking about the characters.”