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What are we here for?

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At the end of our short season it seems to be a legitimate question to ask. And it is a question that I ask from time to time during the rest of the year.

Let me give a few answers and a context.

When I came to Chicago in 1999 I looked at an operatic scene that I knew quite well having been a regular visitor here throughout the Ardis Krainik years, and a little before. So that is more than 30 years at this point. There appeared to be a large and appreciative audience for opera, the same kind of people who had supported the growth of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Art Institute of Chicago during the last 100 years or so. Chicago was indeed a city with arts institutions of the highest quality by any standards.

But as far as opera was concerned there were clearly huge gaps - Lyric, then as now, delivered magnificent performances of the 19th century core operatic repertory above all. And they had developed, under Ardis, a fine and deserved reputation for exploring aspects of the 20th century repertoire, as well as the very occasional Handel, as well as Mozart of course. But there was clearly a place for a company that was equipped to deal consistently with the 17th and 18th century, particularly the works of Monteverdi and Handel; and to expand the coverage of 20th century and contemporary work. Of course there is a limit on what a large company like Lyric, in a large theater, with an annual list of titles amounting to only eight, could do to support adequately the broader reaches of the operatic repertoire. The core repertory was their primary responsibility. So that is where we came in.

With the production of six Handel operas, the three surviving full length operas by Monteverdi, six Britten operas including the Chicago premieres of Death in Venice, Midsummer Night's Dream and Owen Wingrave, a brace of John Adams pieces, the Chicago staged premiere of Schoenberg's Erwartung, and the only production here of a Jake Heggie opera (Three Decembers) , we have made our mark and enriched the operatic lives of the audience here. And we have given refreshing productions of four Mozart masterpieces as well. Rare pieces from the 19th century by Berlioz and Rossini have filled in the gaps, as well as Henry Purcell (Dido and Aeneas) and Charles Dibdin (The Padlock)

Now all this stewardship and curatorship of the repertoire has come at a price. Our audiences have been disappointing despite the generally enthusiastic appreciation of the quality of our work. But this is our role and why we get such amazing support from serious minded foundations and individual who know about and care about opera and music theater. So we must stick to our guns.

Not entirely away from the point - I was looking yesterday evening at the range of music and opera available in London in June and July 2010, and comparing it to Chicago now and my memory of the London of thirty years ago. It does not, rather surprisingly, stand up well. So I remain faithful to and confident about Chicago - we are not doing badly at all. But that said, those that truly believe in what we are, and what we do, need to support those of us that are persistent and determined. And that means buying tickets and making contributions. And also being active and enthusiastic advocates and cheer leaders.

Our seasonal staff are gradually leaving us after tidying up the loose ends at the end of the season. So we will be left with a skeleton staff of just nine full-timers, two thirds of whom are occupied with income management, be it ticket sales or contributed revenue. The rest of us put opera seasons together. And we have some good stuff coming up - 2011 is now on sale for existing subscribers.