Lyric Opera of Chicago invites South and West Side students to tell their stories on a grand stage

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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Jai Bartley, front, practices her dance steps for EMPOWER, a new opera with music by Damien Sneed and libretto by Ike Holter created in conjunction with other students from Chicago’s South and West Sides, with its world-premiere performance on May 31, 2018 (Photo: WFMT)

Jai Bartley, a 17-year-old from the South Side of Chicago, used to think that opera was “really long and boring.” Now, she’s helping to produce and perform in EMPOWER, an original opera set to have its world-premiere performance May 31, 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

EMPOWER tells the story of young adults who are living on Chicago’s South Side and looking to create change within their communities, and has been created by Lyric Unlimited in partnership with Chicago Urban League’s Youth Development Center. Over the course of a several months, Jai and other South and West Side students learned about the art of opera while devising an original work with composer Damien Sneed and a librettist Ike Holter.

Bartley said she used to have a “fixed image of what opera should be, but that changed” after seeing a production of Puccini’s Turandot as part of Lyric’s 2017-18 season. Student participants in EMPOWER also had the chance to meet with Chicago native Janai Brugger, who performed the role of Liù in Turandot, to help them learn about opera from a singer’s perspective.

“I didn’t realize you could be trained in opera singing the same way you’re trained for piano or a string instrument,” Bartley said. “I should have known better because I’m a dancer.” She has been dancing since she was 2 years old, and has performed with Red Clay Dance and trained with the Joffrey Academy of Dance, the official school of the Joffrey Ballet.

Jai Bartley and Carail Weeks in a practice room backstage at Lyric Opera of Chicago before rehearsals for EMPOWER (Photo: WFMT)

Carail Weeks, another 17-year-old student who is performing in EMPOWER, said before meeting Brugger, “I didn’t think there were as many black people doing opera – I thought it was only for white people. I didn’t think black people sang like that, but I learned that it’s something you’re trained to do. I had only seen opera really on TV, and so you don’t see as many black people,” in that context, he said.

Seeing Turandot helped Weeks and Bartley enjoy opera as just another form of multimedia entertainment and understand that it can be a space for diverse artists and perspectives. “And now that we’re producing an opera,” she added, “I can tell that lots of pieces just come together to tell a story in an opera house. My old mindset is kind of gone.”

Bartley said that with EMPOWER, “We want to challenge stereotypes about the South Side. The South Side isn’t what you see on the news; those things aren’t what you face every day, or may not even been things you experience ever,” as a South Sider. “The media makes it seem like we don’t really care about things that happen, when it’s the people who live in a community care the most.”

“Our communities matter to us,” Weeks chimed in, “and there’s a lot people don’t see. We’re growing. I’m part a lot of youth groups and community programs, and we all talk about ways we can work together to solve problems like violence.” He attributed much of the narrative about the South Side of Chicago to media organizations that are more interested in ratings than telling the complex stories of the people who live there.

Most importantly, he said, “Someone else cannot tell our stories – we need to. This show allows us South and West Siders to express how we feel about our communities. Teenagers don’t get a lot of chance to voice their opinions; people look at us like we’re not important because we’re young. But we have a voice that needs to be heard because we’re the next generation; otherwise our communities and the next generations won’t be successful.”