Spectacle? It’s long been the grand opera’s calling card. But never quite like this. Lyric Opera’s world premiere production of Proximity—closer to Immersive Van Gogh or Art on the Mart than to Aida—opened at the opera house last week.
Directed and “mixed” by Yuval Sharon (creator of the parking garage Wagner, Twilight: Gods, which he brought to Lyric in 2021) and curated by Sharon and Lyric creative consultant Renée Fleming, it’s a mash-up of three newly commissioned short operas—and a mind-bending visual experience.
We are talking large-scale, with sound to match. Think IMAX, enhanced by the 69-piece Lyric Opera Orchestra; under the baton of guest conductor Kazem Abdullah; and a two-chorus multitude of live, miked singers.
Wed 3/29 7 PM, Wed 4/5 2 PM, Sat 4/8 7:30 PM; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-827-5600, lyricopera.org, $40-$310; in English with English supertitles
The operas—The Walkers, Four Portraits, and Night, each by a different pair of composers and librettists—have been woven together (“shuffled,” Sharon says) by presenting them in alternating scenes. In the first act, three scenes from The Walkers and two from Four Portraits are capped by a sixth scene that presents the visually stunning 11-minute entirety of Night. The second act consists of two scenes each from The Walkers and Four Portraits. Does that sound like it adds up to a long evening? It’s not: Run time is roughly two hours and ten minutes, including a 25-minute intermission, and the pace is head-spinning.
There’s an abundance of great voices to be heard, but the real star of the show and its anchoring element is its set—a video-wall swoosh comprised of hundreds of integrated LED panels, sweeping from the front of the stage up the back wall—and the brilliant images emanating from them. The work of production designers Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras, this techno-marvel reaches a glorious apex in Night at the end of the first act.
Night, which has an appropriately ethereal score by John Luther Adams, is a setting of a poem by Adams’s late friend and collaborator, John Haines. It features a solo singer—the ancient Greek oracle Sibyl—flanked by a chorus (representing humanity) as she observes and comments upon the history and ever-more dire-looking future of planet Earth from afar. On opening night, Zoie Reams, cast as Sibyl, was ill, and it was third-year Ryan Opera Center mezzo-soprano Katherine DeYoung who got harnessed up and sang as she floated through the dazzling galaxies of outer space
Four Portraits, by composer Caroline Shaw with a libretto by Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke, is the most witty, vocally surprising, and aurally inventive of the three works. Riffing on the contrary effects of digitally driven modern life, which distances and distracts, even as it connects us, it follows character B, sung by baritone Lucia Lucas, as she attempts to connect with her significant other—character A, sung by countertenor John Holiday. There’s a cell phone, an el train, and a long tracking-shot drive with an off-the-rails GPS that could have you thinking about Dramamine, even as you’re loving the ride.
The Walkers is the longest piece, the one set most firmly in Chicago (maps of which loom up large in the background) and the most problematic. It has a great multigenre score by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain and a fine cast that includes sublime soprano Whitney Morrison, tenor Issachah Savage, baritones Gordon Hawkins and Norman Garrett, soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, and members of Uniting Voices Chicago (the former Chicago Children’s Choir), with 13-year-old Jamion Cotten in a featured role.
The problem is the libretto by documentary theater playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith, based on interviews she conducted about the history of and ongoing issues with gangs and guns in Chicago.
In her program note, Smith says that after Fleming invited her to write a libretto about gun violence in Chicago, she immediately thought of someone she already knew from a previous project—former U.S. Secretary of Education (and onetime Chicago Public Schools CEO) Arne Duncan, and she knew of “Arne’s bold move—to radically reduce gun violence by working with the shooters themselves.” But Chicagoans know that Duncan’s organization, Create Real Economic Destiny (CRED), founded in 2016, followed a path that had already been pretty well cleared. (Remember CeaseFire? Violence Interrupters? Dr. Gary Slutkin of Cure Violence Global, who created the interruption strategy based on a public health model more than 20 years earlier?)
COVID-19 restrictions might have been to blame, but it looks like Smith fell into a Journalism 101 error by failing to broaden her sources beyond CRED employees and their referrals. “I contacted Arne, and he opened the doors of his organization, providing a liaison who found individuals I could interview” on Zoom, she writes, followed by this: “Arne told me that people praise him for giving these kids a second chance.” The subsequent sentence, in which she says Duncan makes the point “that in fact CRED is the first chance” for many, doesn’t erase the cringe factor.
Neither does a likely ironic but unrefuted referral to him in the libretto as a “white savior.”
All of which is amplified by The Walkers staging. Interviewees appear high up on the video wall as giant talking heads. And Duncan (played in a speaking-only role by Jeff Parker), a super-connected real-life white man who was publicly considering a run for mayor a year ago, emerges as the audience’s all-knowing guide and the opera’s hero, elucidating the roots and continuing causes of Chicago’s gundemic, while the story of mayhem and grief in the city’s poorest neighborhoods—a story with an all-Black cast—plays out beneath him.
It’s a sorry thing to have to say about an opera, but this is tone-deaf.