Chicago Gives Voice

By Fred Cohn

Renée Fleming (center) at the January launch event for Chicago Voices, with (l–r) members of Blu Rhythm Collective, BrittanE and Miles Comiskey. (Photo: Kyle Flubacker)

“We want to open our doors to other kinds of singing and other kinds of music,” says Renée Fleming. As creative consultant to Lyric Opera of Chicago, the soprano has spearheaded Chicago Voices, a multiyear initiative celebrating the human voice in all its incarnations, and paying tribute to the city that fostered Nat King Cole and Muddy Waters, among other great vocalists. The program will encompass master classes, lectures and exhibitions, as well as a gala concert featuring envoys from the worlds of hip-hop, jazz, soul and rock, along with opera. But perhaps its most unusual element is “Community Created Performances,” a chance for local organizations to tell their stories through music theater.

Applicants to Community Created Performances submitted their stories in the early part of the year, and then a review panel from the Chicago Public Library winnowed the field down to eight semi-finalist groups. At that point, the Chicago public itself weighed in, voting online. “The idea was for Lyric Opera not to be the determiner,” says Cayenne Harris, director of Lyric Unlimited, LOC’s community-engagement arm. “We wanted a process that would allow voices that aren’t normally heard to emerge.”

The three finalist organizations represent the phenomenal diversity of the city itself: Harmony, Hope & Healing, an organization that brings music and spiritual support to homeless people and underserved communities; the Kirin-Gornick Band, an ensemble that connects traditional Eastern European tambura music to contemporary Chicago life; and Tellin’ Tales Theatre, a group that lets people with physical and mental disabilities tell their stories through theater. The groups, each receiving $10,000, embarked in June on a 16-week workshop process; on September 24, they’ll unveil the results in a public performance at the Harris Theater. The final products will be one-act works, each 20 to 30 minutes long, combining music and dialogue to tell a unique Chicago story. “I would not describe them as ‘opera’ or ‘American musical theater,’” says Harris. “I think we will see three distinct pieces, in a musical style that suits the language of each group.”

Harris emphasizes that Chicago Voices has not been conceived as an audience-building project. “We’re trying to be more nimble and more responsive to the city around us,” she says. “Just by acknowledging that opera singing is like other singing gives us a chance to connect in ways we never have before. It’s not about getting people to buy tickets to mainstage opera — although if they do, that’d be great.”

“Just by acknowledging that opera singing is like other singing gives us a chance to connect in ways we never have before. It’s not about getting people to buy tickets to mainstage opera — although if they do, that’d be great.”

Fleming, for her part, takes issue with the idea that Community Created Performances works won’t qualify as “opera.” “Opera at the grassroots level is not opera as we know it,” she says. “Have you seen what Beth Morrison [of Beth Morrison Projects] is up to? The mass opera audience may not have been able to get past the pieces they’ve loved for a hundred years. But the next generation is reinventing the form.”

Fleming has put her performing skills on the line in pursuit of her convictions. She recently appeared at an open mic night for high school students, presented by the Chicago-born hip-hop star Chance the Rapper. Amidst the roster of rappers and student poets, Fleming took the stage to sing “O mio babbino caro.” “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh! What will they think about me singing an aria?’” she says. “But they were incredibly gracious.” More likely — they were floored.

Fred Cohn is the editor of Opera America Magazine.

This article was excerpted from the Summer 2016 issue of Opera America Magazine, the quarterly of the national nonprofit service organization for opera. Members of OPERA America receive the print and digital editions of Opera America Magazine as a benefit of membership. Join today.