Good Things Come In Small Packages

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Chicago Opera Theater’s (COT) recent production of Nixon In China, an opera by John Adams, at Chicago’s Harris Theater…

I’m a fan of this opera but I wasn’t so sure what to expect with this particular production as there were a number of unknown variables:

  • I’ve never been to venue where the opera was being performed (Harris Theater is Chicago’s new 1,500 seat concert hall located next to Millennium Park).
  • I’ve never had a really memorable small budget opera experience (What do I mean by small budget? For example, COT’s 03-04 budget was about $3 million where their big budget cousin, Lyric Opera of Chicago, had a budget of $49 million in the same season).
  • I’ve never heard a recording of this company or any of the lead singers before.
  • I’d never met any of the people I was going to the concert with in-person and I was in a city where I still know relatively few people compared to my old stomping grounds of Baltimore & Washington D.C.
  • To cap things off, on the evening of the performance, the premier no less, it was pouring rain. Nevertheless, I was determined to go with an open mind.

    The theater itself is a very unassuming building surrounded by a sea of some of the most stunning metropolitan architecture on the planet. I found my way into the building and met up with my concert companions for that evening. The preconcert conversations were all lively and I had the opportunity to meet a number of new acquaintances.

    Given Chicago’s penchant for architectural elegance I was expecting the Harris Theatre to follow suit with the other Chicago venues I had visited up to that point. Upon entering the building, I was pleasantly surprised to be surrounded by a clean, white interior devoid of gilded ornamentation.

    The box office staff were among some of the nicest employees I had come across in some time and the ushers were downright warm and pleasant (although I do have to temper that remark by pointing out this is the mid-west and coming from the east coast, just about everybody I meet here is warm and pleasant by comparison). Several spaces in the hall featured art work and photography from local Chicago artists and the Spartan interior design allowed the art to leap out and grab my attention.

    The interior of the theater is a dark gray modern design and looks a great deal like a set from a Danny Elfman movie. With few exceptions, the walls, floor, and seats are all some shade of gray. However, that’s not a complaint, I like it that way as there’s nothing around to visually distract me from what takes place on stage. Without all of the unnecessary visual embellishments competing for my visual attention, I was free to focus all of my attention on what I was actually there for, the performance.

    Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and for a concert hall, what really counts is how it sounds and this is where things really took off. In particular, from where I was sitting, the pit orchestra was easy to hear and very clean sounding. Regardless of the fact that this was a smaller budget production, that didn’t appear to prevent them from coming up with a number of creative components. For example,

  • The use of light and shadow was much better than I typically experience in larger budget productions.
  • Given the early 1970’s setting, the costumes all looked authentic and believable.
  • With only a few exceptions, the cast was absolutely wonderful (special kudos to the Kathleen Kim who sang the role of Madame Mao – wow, I finally experienced a soprano that can sing contemporary opera with exquisite intonation).
  • There was a wonderful trick where the Pat Nixon character had to walk from a raised platform to the top of a nearby television set (you have to see it to understand) and she walked on the hands of fellow cast members that created a human bridge so she wouldn’t have to step down from the platform at any point.
  • There was even pigs on a stick (again, you have to see it to get it) which made me laugh out loud. And tell me, did you ever think you’d end up laughing at something from an opera about Nixon?
  • Overall, it was a thoroughly enjoyable production, one which made me feel like a better person after having been through the experience.

    Nevertheless, this isn’t a concert review and I’m not really a music critic.

    Before attending the concert I visited the COT website to learn more about the organization and this particular production. The website is nothing special although for an opera website it was pretty good.

    However, I did notice that the COT general manager, Brian Dickie, maintained a blog. I was surprised to discover that the blog wasn’t merely a PR blog filled with propaganda laden marketing language and brochure copy. Instead, it was a true to life blog which delivered a frank examination about its subject matter: the life of being a general director for an opera company.

    For instance, Brian even blogged about the fact that the supertitles failed to work at the premier. How many organizations do you know of would willingly (and without spin) talk about a major production SNAFU? None that I know, in fact, most pretend those things never happened. Remember when Pittsburgh Symphony had their Yo-yo Ma opening night concert filled with the sounds of popping helium balloons inside the concert hall? Do you think the PSO put out a PR or a blog which specifically addressed the balloon fiasco? Nope, all the PSO talked about how wonderful Yo-Yo and the orchestra played. I guess they simply forgot to notice that the concert hall sounded like a July 4th production of the 1812 Overture.

    Also on Brian’s blog is a wonderful collection of 33 high resolution production photographs, some from the dress rehearsal and others from the earlier rehearsals. It was wonderful to have a visual glimpse into the inner workings of how an opera is prepared.

    To be honest, it’s just cool to have a picture of “Dick Nixon” flipping off Mao Tse-tung while Chou En-lai looks on. And how many sopranos are issued automatic weapons during scene rehearsal?

    All of these touches are wonderful little gems every performing arts organization needs to include in their own public relations efforts. Kudos to the COT for offering them up.

    In the spirit of full disclosure I have to mention that I was generously offered a complimentary ticket, from someone outside the COT, to the performance I attended. However, to help balance out that event I was almost physically ejected from a pre-concert donor’s event, by none other than COT General Director Brian Dickie, before he and his staff discovered that even though I wasn’t on the guest list someone else had invited me at the last moment. Immediately following the near ejection event, Brain and I enjoyed a good chat about blogging. I was pleased to learn that the man fully appreciates the benefits an organization can reap from the meager $5.95 per month charge for maintaining a blog at TypePad.com

    About Drew McManus

    "I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

    I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

    In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

    For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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    14 thoughts on “Good Things Come In Small Packages”

    1. This is the same production that was at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2004. While I was not at the first night of OTSL’s production, John Adams himself was there, and I heard that he asked for the amplification to be turned up, evidently not aware of the intimate size of the theatre. Despite any protests, his wish was granted, but no one apparently had bothered to tell the singers in advance. So when Maria Kanyova began to sing in Act II at full blast, it almost blew the roof off the hall. I presume everyone else figured things out fast. I am also told that when Mr. Adams walked on stage at the end that first night, the audience erupted in cheers. I saw the production later on in the run, and can attest that it was very, very good.

    2. The Harris Theater is not well regarded either architecturally, or as a patron friendly venue. The auditorium proper does have excellen sight lines and acoustics, however.

      I only have one big thing to say regarding the COT: subscribe now. This is one of the best, most innovative opera companies out there at any budget. I do think they’ve slipped a bit this season versus the previous two years, but there’s still a lot of great stuff. (I’ve yet to see Nixon). We are extremely fortunate to have such a company in Chicago.

    3. Quince: it isn’t that I didn’t like any of the singers, there was simply one which didn’t project to the same level as the others and they had some trouble counting (hint: it wasn’t Madame Mao).

      Nevertheless, I thought they all did a good job.

    4. One thing I forgot to write about the OTSL production: in Act III, Madame Mao drops the F-bomb in one line of the libretto, but they omitted it here, presumably so as not to offend “Midwestern sensibilities”, although they did leave Tricky Dick flipping the bird to Mao behind his back in here (yes, it got a laugh). Also, a friend who saw the production grew up on a farm in Ireland, and when he saw the “pigs on a stick”, part of Act II where Pat Nixon visits the farm, he was happy.

      Drew, you haven’t seen any productions at OTSL, have you? I remember you were in touch with several SLSO musicians during and after the SLSO labor meltdown last year. I don’t remember OTSL’s budget (even after I’ve gotten their 2005 annual report), although it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that it’s probably more than COT but less than Lyric.

    5. Regarding the architectural significance of Harris Theater, I’m not bothered by it at all. As a matter of fact, I think it’s nice to have a simple alternative to all of the world class architecture in the area. I understand the hall coast around $60 million (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong anyone) and at that price the facility is a bargain when considering what it must add to the local cultural scene.

      I do agree that it would be nice if the city would make it easier to use what is already in place to actually get to the hall. for instance, I just learned that there’s an under street walkway a block from the Green line L stop which would prevent the necessity of crossing two major streets. this would have been a god-send in the pouring rain on opening night for Nixon. Unfortunately, there’s no signage at the entrance to the walkway indicating that it ends at the Harris Theater entrance. Chicago could do itself a favor and put a simple, attractive sign at the entrance to the walkway.

    6. I didn’t know Adams used the word “fuck” (or derivative thereof) in the original. Is it in the scene where Madame Mao says “Let’s teach these mothers how to dance!”? If it is in the original libretto, I wonder if it’s been included in other production. Does anyone out there know more about this?

      I have never been to an OTSL performance but I do hear that it is wonderful company from the musicians that play in the pit. Also, according to their 03-04 IRS form 990, their budget was $6.9 million.

      Everyone apparently loves the pigs on a stick…

    7. The entire line, “We’ll teach/These motherfuckers how to dance!” is excised from the Nonesuch recording. COT only dropped the “fuckers” part of the line. An argument could be made that Midwest audiences are less sensitive than an East Coast record company.

      It’s inclusion and modification in other productions sounds like a question for Boosey & Hawkes, Adams’ publisher.

    8. Wow, that’s almost as naughty as seeing a boob in Salome. How silly to edit for fear of offending. It’s far more offensive to dumb down high art in my humble opinion.

    9. I wasn’t aware that the F-bomb line was excised from the Nonesuch recording, but that makes sense, because otherwise it couldn’t get aired on commercial radio (especially in St. L., where the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod owns the local classical station). I also had proofed the libretto for OTSL’s published version, and the word was in that copy, though obviously not sung in the production.

      I know of at least one OTSL diehard who traveled to Chicago for the COT production, and I’m sure others in the ‘Lou would have done so as well, or are planning to. I’ve never been to COT myself, but perhaps down the line. Drew, if you do decide to come to St. L. for an OTSL production before the world ends, drop me a line.

    10. One small caveat about the orchestra pit at OTSL, at the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, is that it’s not the most popular place among the SLSO musicians. I’ve seen the pit, and it is kind of confining. The sound in the hall is clear, if not terribly “rich”, though.

      I think that’s a good point about the “smaller” opera troupes like COT and OTSL. They don’t have to deal with megastar salaries (or egos, at least comparatively), and if they’ve built up enough of a reputation, they can afford to risk contemporary and less familiar repetoire. Of course, one still has to balance that with “Carmen” or “La Boheme” to pay the bills.

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