Enchanting. That’s what people have said about a beautiful song, ever since the Sirens succeeded in wooing wary sailors ashore with their velvet voices in ancient Greece.
If the song-spell still holds, Oak Park will be enchanted this weekend, with three professional vocal line-ups competing for the enlightened, novelty-seeking, or culture-hungry consumer. If you fit all three bills, too bad, because you can’t hear all three without the equally magical power of cloning yourself.
A Brilliant Life
Chamber Opera Chicago revives works of Gian Carlo Menotti. A rare bird as a popular and successful composer of opera in the late 20th century, the high-flying Menotti put his stamp on the fine arts with the ambitious Spoleto “Festival of Two Worlds” in Italy. He cloned the good idea in Charleston, S.C. with “Piccolo Spoleto,” founded in 1979.
In the towering shadow of the Lyric Opera, Chamber Opera Chicago might escape notice, but anywhere else, and especially in Oak Park, they could be top dogs. COC heads out here to the suburbs with its own live orchestra and conductor Victoria Bond, who returns from New York for this engagement. The company has collaborated with Menotti’s son, Francis, an actor and producer in his own right, to memorialize Menotti the elder, who died this past February.
“A Brilliant Life, A Brilliant Night” features Oak Park soprano Christine Steyer, who won audiences over in last spring’s Madama Butterfly at Village Players Theatre. Steyer sings the role of Annina from The Saint of Bleecker Street, for which Menotti garnered a Pulitzer Prize. In his coaching, Menotti the younger put the role in perspective for Steyer. “You’re practically in heaven already,” he chided. “You must sing as if you are there!”
Days of Awe and Rejoicing
For the novelty seekers out there, look no further than Chicago A Cappella, the saucy bunch of nine veteran singers who shy away from standard choral fare. “Days of Awe and Rejoicing” wings from calming ancient chants to playful holiday songs in the Jewish tradition, a repertoire close to the heart of founder Jonathan Miller.
The novelty in their fall opener is a new work by Chicago composer Stacy Garrop, the first in a series of commissions for Chicago A Cappella’s 15th season. Garrop has seemingly racked up more awards than Tiger Woods has golf trophies, albeit in the esoteric realm of fine art music for the post-post-modern era. In 2005, CAC performed Garrop’s setting of an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet, a small segment of her sky-high goal to set all of Millay’s sonnets for a cappella chorus. From this happy pairing, CAC convinced Garrop to create two new works based on Jewish texts.
The first is the traditional Jewish “Hava Nagila” (Let us rejoice!) turned on its head. Garrop remembers this tune from childhood and pitched it to CAC as a choice text for her composition. She’s been sitting in on rehearsals with a careful ear to bring out the best in the voices, whom she has asked to develop a particular nasal tone and bend pitches for effect. “It works!” says Garrop. “Sometimes as a composer you want to take a chance and see how something you envisioned will turn out. CAC let me do that.”
Before you write off Jewish music as too serious for weekend fun, think Klezmer, with its energy and exotic appeal. That peppy folk style will be balanced with, to quote Miller, gems from his seemingly endless supply of unusual tunes that ought to be better known.
Gala Evening and Eating
And now for the culture-hungry, the choice event will be American Opera Group’s Gala Evening of Emerging International Artists. The name is a mouthful, but this show offers icing on the cake and butter in the crust-that is, one heavy-duty opera hit after another, washed down with heavy hors d’oeuvres (ante up for the washing down at the cash bar). And what do you wear to this show? Get an early jump on Halloween by dressing up as your favorite opera or Broadway look-alike. The costumes are optional, but why not take a stab at winning the prize for best-in-audience?
Featured singers include Oliver Neal Medina, remembered as Leporello, the indispensable henchman to Don Giovanni in last spring’s production. Along with Medina is soprano Rebecca Davis, who returns later this season as Mimi, the love-sick and sickly waif in La Boheme.
Although he’s usually humming away in his dental office, Dr. Ralph del Monico trades the waterpick for a toothbrush to join Rebecca Davis and pianist J. David Stech in Schubert’s lovely “Shepherd on the Rock”-not an opera, but still dramatic as chamber music. The final blockbuster is tenor Simon Kyung Lee in Puccini’s gripping “Nessun dorma” (No one shall sleep). According to artistic director R. Paul Williams, Lee is poised to vie for the spot left vacant by the passing of Luciano Pavarotti.
If good music and good food aren’t enough, there’s the good feeling that comes from knowing ticket sales and revenues from a Silent Auction support American Opera Group in presenting rising stars, many of whom ought to be on big stages with big companies, and soon.
But who cares about stages? A great singer is irresistible, no matter the venue. Time for a weekend shipwreck while velvet voices whisk you away from the woes of the work week.