Chicago Theatre Review
History Sings at Lyric Unlimited
Lyric Unlimited – Lyric Opera of Chicago – The Scorpion’s Sting
Lyric Opera of Chicago solidified its continuing commitment to education and outreach with the Lyric Unlimited initiative in 2012. Under that banner, The Windy City has seen seeming disparate communities brought together to find common ground in the celebration of each other’s music, a program-driven, online search for performance groups with fresh messages and stylings after which the best and brightest were nurtured by Lyric’s considerable artistic and financial resources and presented in concert, and joyous productions of new operatic works that invited children (and the adults they brought with them) to learn life lessons offered in contemporary musical languages.
Lyric Unlimited’s most recent production is composer/librettist Dean Burry’s The Scorpion’s Sting, which was given its U.S. premiere performances at the storied Studebaker Theater in downtown Chicago’s Fine Arts Building, and continues its life with performances under the auspices of Lyric’s Opera in the Neighborhoods program, which encourages schools to bring their young charges to various locations throughout the greater-Chicago area to enjoy this production at no cost to the students, with a minimal donation asked of the classrooms. Even bus-scholarships are available for those schools who couldn’t otherwise afford this artistic and historical happening. Teaching material resources are also available to stimulate discussion and connection within the attending classroom.
I had the pleasure of seeing this production in one of its premiere performances, and cannot recommend it highly enough. No stranger to creating opera for children (his youth-centric opera The Brothers Grimm was presented by Opera in the Neighborhoods in 2014), Dean Burry’s score introduces contemporary chordal structure combined with accessible rhythms, re-occurring, hummable themes, and note patters that are continually tied to specific lyrics that easily allow an audience not familiar with opera to step inside the world of the piece in such a way that the music is simply a part of the experience in the immediate sense, while settling in the subconscious for further examination at a later date. Further, Burry includes sections of spoken dialogue that ensures that a young audience can follow every twist and turn of the plot. In all, Burry has created an accessible new opera that offers much entertainment, a bit of history that its target audience might not acquire elsewhere, and preps a future operatic audience.
The story revolves around the struggle to accept societal responsibility through the eyes of a class of archeology students who find themselves and their professor lost in the deserts of Egypt. When the professor is stung by a scorpion, the students must band together in community to save him, by learning to apply their education to read the hieroglyphics they find when they stumble upon the Lost Temple of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of healing. With swirling themes such as the value of sharing, the obligation (and fulfillment) of a shared consciousness, and the power of empathy, coupled with a gentle, educative connection to Egypt and its ancient wonders, this is a children’s opera worthy of a large audience, and I expect it will be picked up by many other like venues.
The casting of this production is first-rate. Soprano Melinda Alberty plays a spunky, know-it-all student with great verve as Sally Smith, and also a loving, tortured Queen Isis. As the rule-breaking, cellphone-wielding Molly Brown, mezzo-soprano Julia Hardin also creates a rounded pupil that surely will have resonance with today’s youth, while also portraying a strong and loving protectoress as Isis’ sister and the wife of the King’s jealous brother, Set, played with gravities by tenor Curtis Bannister. Bannister also portrays the teacher, Professor Hornsby, a delicate, frightened soul who couldn’t be different than the evil Set.
Young baritone Matthan Black, who is gaining a reputation as a singer who can spin a limpid vocal line coupled with the ability to cloak himself in characters of the darkest and most rebuked, makes his flexible instrument the servant of the multiple roles the score requires of him. As the archelogy student David Sands, Black recalls Charlie Brown at his most easily manipulated. As King of Egypt Osiris, Black initially draws all eyes to him with a stillness born of life-long privilege, and then allows the character a child-like giddiness as Set pulls the wool over his eyes by entrapping him in a casket that Osiris has been convinced is a piece of a new game. And as the Scorpions (the costuming looked more like a lobster covered in small lobsters to me), Black danced about with comic easy, employing multiple character voices both for the lobster (oops, I mean scorpion) in charge of the rest of the band, and providing a Punch and Judy puppet show with two differently voiced hand puppets engaged in quickly paced discussion, each with a characterization and voice of their own. The audience loved every minute of Black’s lobster (there I go again), and now Chicago’s operatic impresarios should be aware of the comedic gifts this fine singer possesses, and add more knee-slapping roles to his resume.
Lyric’s production, created to successfully travel to multiple venues with wildly different performing spaces, offers a brightly colored, highly creative set that is moveable by the singers themselves to create different locations and interesting stage pictures. The costuming of the singers is both muted in a way such as to suggest the various contemporary clothing choices possibly in use by its viewing audience, and wildly creative, other-worldly costumes for the out-sized characters of the opera.
Lyric Unlimited and Opera in the Neighborhoods is answering vital pieces of their mission statement with this marvelous project. Burry’s opera has legs, and all the singers are first-rate and engaging. This is another win-win for the city of Chicago, built from the ground up by its nationally renowned opera company. In a time of confusion over education in Chicago’s public-school system, this venture should fill us all with hope, our chests swollen and chins held high.
Reviewed by Aaron Hunt
Presented on October 15 at The Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building, 410 S Michigan Ave, Chicago
More information about the Lyric Unlimited s available at lyricopera.org/lyricunlimited