Lyric Opera-SC improvs a box office hit

Co-hosts Renee Fleming and Patrick Stewart, and members of “Second City Goes To the Opera”

Sands shift.  They shift under people.  They shift under institutions too.  Perhaps no cultural organization in Chicago has recognized just how much the sands are shifting beneath it than has Lyric Opera of Chicago.

And they are moving to deal with the matter before it becomes a huge problem.

Under general director Anthony Freud and creative consultant and opera diva Renee Fleming, Lyric Opera has begun an aggressive transformation act that — at the moment — seems rather enlightened.

And more importantly, it appears to be working.

What evidence of that do we have?

Well, most recently, the one-night-only “Second City Guide To the Opera” that was presented at the Civic Opera House on Jan. 5. 

For months, Second City had been working with Fleming and other Lyric Opera singers and creative staff to fashion an evening that would, however improbably, meld opera and comedic improv.

Near the top of the list of goals for the evening was a desire to perhaps punch a few holes in the elitist facade of the opera world and make it appear less alien to mere mortals who might not be so steeped in its more esoteric aspects. 

This, by all accounts, “Second City Guide To the Opera” definitely succeeded in doing.

Box office hit show was SRO   

But the show also was what every production dreams of being:  A hit at the box office.  According to a Lyric spokeswoman, the production drew more than 100 percent capacity at the 3,560-seat Civic Opera House, because some ticket buyers returned their tickets to the box office to be resold.

Reasonable ticket prices certainly must have helped the joint effort reach sellout status:  Single ticket prices ranged from $20 to $95, compared to $34 to $259 for the typical Lyric operatic production. 

In addition to being an SRO critical hit, “Second City Goes To the Opera” appears to have attracted an audience from beyond the opera world.  According to a Lyric spokeswoman, about 25 percent of the more than 3,600 ticket buyers did not previously exist in the Lyric customer databases.

And that’s a good thing.  Because, if nothing else, the “Second City Goes To the Opera” was about growing the potential audience for Lyric Opera. And Second City, though we doubt that famed improv troupe needs such assistance as much as Lyric Opera, where season attendance no longer reaches the 100-plus percent of capacity that was the norm in the 1980s and 1990s.

Lyric director Freud and creative consultant Fleming seem to be quite aware of the forces working against the future of grand opera. Sky-high ticket prices and  increasing unfamiliarity with the art form among an increasingly larger swath of the general public are but two of the most potent forces.

Marketing is certainly one way to get out the word about opera.  But that can only work it there is something to market at a reasonable price that people want to see.

Which is where “Second City Goes To the Opera” comes in. 

The show’s success on Jan. 5 already has prompted execs at Lyric and Second City to say they will remount the show in a somewhat more intimate cabaret setting on the Civic Opera House stage for a multi-week run in June.  That will surely bring in thousands more people and give them a reason to perhaps feel more comfortable about opera.

Lyric to present classic musicals

But as successful as the venture with Second City has been, it is but one of several ways Lyric is expanding and reinvigorating its brand in these trying times.  Last year, the opera company invested heavily in a production of a classic American musical “Showboat.” Again it was a huge success.

Now Lyric will present “Oklahoma” in May.  And at a press conference in early February, Lyric is expected to announce another major American musical production for 2014. 

So while Lyric keeps fighting to sustain grand opera in Chicago, one of the city’s major cultural organization also is wisely broadening its purview to include full productions of important musicals and opera-themed cabaret improv.  No doubt there will be more ventures — and adventures — to add to the mix as time goes on. 

And as time goes on, other cultural institutions may look at Lyric and say, yes, this is how a cultural institution grows and strengthens its brand at a time when culture and the organizations that create it are losing both funding and audiences.

Contact Lewis Lazare at