Lyric Opera of Chicago has brought the world’s finest operatic voices to the Windy City for more than 60 years. This year, however, Lyric turned its attention to voices in its own backyard.
On September 24, Lyric Unlimited — the company’s department devoted to education, community engagement, and new artistic initiatives — presented a performance titled “Stories and Songs of Chicago.” The evening featured music and stories created, with Lyric’s help, by three local, arts-focused community groups: Tellin’ Tales Theatre, a theater program open to all and supportive of those with physical or mental disabilities; Harmony, Hope & Healing, an organization that uses music to help people recovering from addiction, homelessness and incarceration issues; and the Kirin-Gornick Band, devoted to keeping alive the folk music and culture of Croatia and Serbia.
Speaking to a full house in Chicago’s 1,500-seat Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Lyric Unlimited Director Cayenne Harris said the evening was “unlike anything Lyric Opera has ever undertaken.” The Community Created Performances project, part of Lyric Unlimited’s Chicago Voices initiative, attempts to help Chicagoans listen to stories coming out of their own neighborhoods. With a Mellon Foundation lead grant, Lyric has started that ground-breaking process.
In January, partnering with the Chicago Public Library, Lyric sent out a call for groups to submit stories about their missions. In the spring, a panel chose eight semi-finalists. Lyric posted the semi-finalists’ submissions online and asked the public to vote for their favorites. With more than 16,000 votes cast, Tellin’ Tales Theatre, Harmony, Hope & Healing and the Kirin-Gornick Band took the top three spots. For 16 weeks, between June and September, the groups refined their stories, working with four coaches provided by Lyric—a director, scriptwriter and songwriter as well as an animateur responsible for guiding the entire process.
Opera superstar Renee Fleming, Lyric’s creative consultant since 2010, planted the seeds for Chicago Voices, though Fleming in turn credits Harris with asking communities throughout Chicago to turn their own stories into musical theater pieces.
“Renee had this beautiful vision for the Chicago Voices project,” said Harris. “[We] talked about it quite a lot, and the more we talked, I saw it as a real opportunity to connect with communities around the city through the idea of singing. … There are people who are never going to be necessarily interested in opera, but there is no culture in the city that doesn’t have singing as part of its tradition.”
Susan Feder, Mellon Foundation program officer for Arts and Cultural Heritage, described the foundation’s support as “a high risk, high benefit grant.” Lyric’s Community Created Performances matched one of the Foundation’s goals: helping anchor arts institutions think more about how they serve their broader communities.
Mellon has worked with Lyric for 30 years, said Feder, and Anthony Freud, who arrived as Lyric's general director in 2011 after holding similar positions at the Welsh National Opera and Houston Grand Opera, has a proven track record in expanding an opera company's reach beyond its own walls.
“The level of engagement with community members on such a large scale is unprecedented,” said Freud. “It is a clear indication of the direction min which major cultural institutions such as Lyric should be moving to provide a depth and breadth of service to our community, and to reflect the multitude of voices who define who we are as a city.”
“He was a trusted partner with a vision we had faith he could manage,” said Feder. The faith has paid off in various ways for the project’s three finalists.
“We did things we had never done before,” said Joseph Kirin, who helped found Kirin-Gornick Band approximately a decade ago. Like most band members, he is the latest generation in his family to play Eastern European folk music and instruments as a way to keep their centuries-old folk culture alive.
“They had us write out our stories,” said Kirin. “Then the musical director would say, ‘Take your instrument and improvise something underneath that story.’ We had never done that. They’d say, ‘Make up a story, and you have to tell the whole story in one minute. Now tell that story in 30 seconds, 15 seconds, five seconds.’ They were teaching us that you can tell a story in a very short amount of time. You can knock a lot of the fat off.”
“This was life-changing for all of us, to realize that we are one of Chicago’s voices,” said Marge Nykaza, a pastoral musician and teacher who founded Harmony, Hope & Healing in 2002. Using music to promote social justice, the group works with more than 800 Chicagoans through choruses and music programs it sponsors.
“We were so used to doing it ourselves” said Tekki Lomnicki, Tellin’ Tales Theatre’s cofounder and artistic director. “I personally needed to step back and see how our stories are seen through a fresh eye. I especially loved that the composer used our own words to create the songs. We had to write in a journal, and they had an intern transcribe all of our journals.”
The theater pieces developed with Lyric now belong to each group. Feder hopes they will have a life beyond the single September 24 performance, and that the groups will present them throughout Chicago.
“We didn’t know how this would land for people,” said Kirin. “We expect that someone who is Croatian and Serbian to say they love it. It’s their culture.” But he was surprised that the diverse audience at the Harris were moved by their stories and music as well.
“We were just being ourselves, about our life and our expression of it. That’s what may have really hit home to people, that it was real.”