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Chicago Opera Theater’s latest creative turn: ‘Orpheus’ at park pool

The 2008 Long Beach Operproducti'Orpheus Euridice.'

The 2008 Long Beach Opera production of "Orpheus and Euridice."

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Chicago Opera Theater,
‘Orpheus & Euridice’

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 1, 3, 8, 10

Where: Eckhart Park,1330 W. Chicago

Tickets: Free, but advance tickets have all been claimed. Limited number of walk-up tickets for each performance available at the door at 6 p.m.

Info: (312) 704-8414; chicagooperatheater.org

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Updated: November 30, 2013 7:55PM



For Chicago music lovers who have been feeling a Verdi overload from the many productions and concert performances of the great Italian during this, his bicentennial year, Chicago Opera Theater has an answer. And it’s one into which even total opera novices can literally take the plunge.

Almost.

After kicking off Verdi 200 in Chicago in September with COT’s superb and challenging production of the rarely seen or heard “Joan of Arc,” Andreas Mitisek, the feisty company’s genre-bending general director, is inviting the public to a swimming pool opera. And one with older themes and newer music than anything by the 19th century master.

You read that correctly. Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus & Euridice” takes place on top and at the edges of the 140,000 gallons of water in the modernist 1961 Ida Crown Natatorium pool in West Town’s historic Eckhart Park.

As so often with COT, many threads came together to create this co-production with the Chicago Park District’s “Classics in the Parks” program and the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) that will have four stagings (poolings?) Nov. 1- 10.

First there was Gordon’s music, written in the 1990s as a commission by clarinetist Todd Palmer — who returns for the Chicago premiere. The timing was difficult but then somewhat cathartic for Gordon: his lover, Jeffrey Grossi, was dying of AIDS and the composer was his primary caregiver. The poignancy of two young people in love (Grossi was just 32 when he died in 1996) knowing that one is about to disappear forever took Gordon to the Greek myth of Orpheus, his lyre, and his love, Euridice, his loss of her to a snakebite’s poison and his attempts to bring her back from the Underworld. Gordon wrote the work in one day and night of inspiration.

The lyre became Palmer’s clarinet, and the clarinetist became Orpheus. Gordon has long been attracted to and connected with women’s voices and his songs are championed by Audra Macdonald, Dawn Upshaw and Chicagoan Nicole Cabell. It was clear to Gordon that Euridice would be a sung role and another Chicago soprano, Elizabeth Futral, gave the professional premiere, with Palmer, at Lincoln Center in New York in 2005. (An earlier version, purely as a song cycle, debuted at Cooper Union in 2001.)

Mitisek had the idea of recreating it for his Long Beach Opera in Southern California. Lincoln Center had the Doug Varone Dancers to provide a stage context and the “blessed spirits.” But why not expand the musical side — Mitisek suggested adding a string quartet and piano — and shift the story to water — the lovers cross the River Styx, after all, and water is both a literal respite and a symbol of time, distance and escape? Gordon used the opportunity to add a brief amount of music to a crucial emotional moment in the story. The new, 70-minute version was a hit in Long Beach in 2008 and revived there two years later.

Palmer and his clarinet have been integral to all of these productions. Soprano Valerie Vinzant, Papagena in COT’s 2012 “The Magic Flute,” is the Chicago Euridice. Mitisek designed and directs. Stephen Hargreaves conducts and takes the piano part while the Metropolis String Quartet and two actors physically doubling the lead characters round out the compact team.

Bringing the work to a neighborhood park in Chicago is key to Mitisek’s vision for a company that breaks down barriers, does not confine itself to downtown and brings in new audiences for both the company itself and the art form in general. That vision is working as all advance tickets to “Orpheus” already have been claimed. A limited number of walk-up tickets are available at 6 p.m., 90 minutes before each performance, on a first-come, first-served basis.

The engaging Gordon, whose other works include the 2007 opera “The Grapes of Wrath,” also will share an evening of song and conversation with soprano Jonita Lattimore and former COT Young Artist Leila Bowie; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at DePaul University Concert Hall, 804 W. Belden. Advance tickets: $10; $15 at the door. Students free with valid ID. (312) 704-8414 or chicagooperatheater.org.

Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT (98.7).



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