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.
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