Second City helps the Lyric change its marketing tune


Renee Fleming, Lyric consultant

Circa 2012, it’s a whole new world at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The city’s world-renowned opera company has over the past couple of years begun to completely transform its approach to marketing. And just in time, by all accounts.

Lyric no longer is an island unto itself where the powers-that-be in the marketing department can readily assume a new season will come close to selling out as soon as tickets go on sale.

No siree.  Oh, there was indeed a time, oh say 20 years ago, when the company regularly posted season after season with 103 percent of capacity ticket sales. But no longer. Last season the company could do no better than 88 percent of capacity.

No one at Lyric is expecting to see that 103 percent figure again anytime soon, because of the lingering effects of the economic downturn, and — perhaps more pertinently — rapidly changing shifts in the public’s appetite for live entertainment. Especially the younger demographic that presumably will make up the Lyric Opera audience 10 or 20 years from now.

So everyone in Lyric’s marketing department has hunkered down and — out of necessity really — gotten a lot smarter about how to market a pricey opera product to a broader (read: younger) potential audience base.

The big shift at Lyric really began a couple of years ago when opera superstar Renee Fleming came on board as the organization’s first creative consultant.

Fleming may have been part of the old school world of opera, where divas were divas and they didn’t need to worry about how the arts world was changing around them. But she also was smart enough to recognize the importance of at least acknowledging that change was happening and that she needed to try to respond to it.

And so she has.

Fleming set up Second City-Lyric marketing collaboration

One of her most visible efforts to date came after a visit to Chicago’s famed Second City improv club, where she happened to see a skit in which she was being irreverently lampooned (how else would it be at Second City, right?).

Fleming was enough of a mensch, however, to find the moment amusing rather than insulting. Brava to her!

But more importantly, it put a clever idea into Fleming’s head:  What would happen if Second City were to collaborate with Lyric in an unusual and unexpected marketing venture.

The answer to her question came just a couple of weeks ago when Lyric debuted at its Web site,, two new videos featuring one Doctor Opera, a fictional figure whose job it is to psychoanalyze opera characters.

Scene from Lyric’s “Hansel and Gretel” videoIn one of the videos, the doctor takes on Hansel and Gretel from the Humperdinck opera “Hansel and Gretel.” And in the other we see the doctor interacting with Mimi and Rodolfo from the beloved “La Boheme.”  Of course, both of these operas just happen to be part of Lyric’s 2012-13 season.

The videos are bitingly funny in the way that Second City can be when the troupe is in top form.  And the videos do a wonderful job of puncturing the pomposity that so many (especially many young people) find so off-putting about the grand opera art form.

“Second City Guide to the Opera” on Jan. 5

But Lyric’s videos aren’t the end of the opera company relationship with Second City. On Jan. 5, some of Lyric’s opera stars will take to the stage at the Civic Opera House along with stars from Second City for what is being billed as “The Second City Guide to the Opera.”

The exact content of the evening, per Lyric, hasn’t been nailed down as yet.  But don’t look for it to be anything like the typical night of grand opera one might get from Lyric on any given night.

Yes, there can be no doubt that Lyric Opera is looking to change its tune when it comes to the business of marketing its product to a broader audience.  Perhaps one could argue whether this new kind of marketing venture with Second City cheapens the art form that Lyric has presented so dutifully for nearly 60 years.

But even opera purists would admit — if they bother at all to really look at the world around them and see how it is changing — that such steps are necessary if grand opera in Chicago is to have any hope of surviving and prospering for another 60 years.

Contact Lewis Lazare at