Chicago opera scene hits high note with loyal audiences

Mon Mar 24, 2014 6:28pm EDT
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By Mary Wisniewski

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The plot summary of U.S. opera in recent years has unfolded like the last act of a Verdi tragedy: New York City Opera, dead; Opera Boston, dead; San Diego Opera, on its final aria.

The Chicago opera scene, however, is all up tempo.

The nation's third most populous city has not only preserved its devotion to opera, it has expanded it, despite hard times for the art form elsewhere. Opera experts credit creative programming, solid philanthropic help and a loyal, enthusiastic audience.

"The Chicago opera scene has been unusually vibrant," said F. Paul Driscoll, editor of Opera News magazine, who compared the enthusiasm at Lyric Opera performances to the excitement at sporting events. "Chicago has a huge appetite for music."

Nationally, 2.1 percent of the U.S. population attended an opera performance in 2012, down from 3.2 percent in 2002, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

New York City Opera went bankrupt last year. San Diego Opera announced it would close after the current season finishes in April. New York's famed Metropolitan Opera, the nation's largest, reported a budget shortfall.

In contrast, ticket sales for Chicago's Lyric are up 15 percent for fiscal year 2013, a 14-month period which ended June 30, 2013. It no longer sells out the season on subscriptions, as it did in the 1990s, but at 72 percent of ticket sales it still has the biggest subscriber base of any U.S. company, according to Opera America, a national opera service organization.

The smaller Chicago Opera Theater (COT), known for out-of-the-box productions like Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie," last year saw a 20 percent jump in subscribers, said general director Andreas Mitisek.   Continued...