W&M Weekend in Chicago's Opening Curtain: Lyric Opera

It's 9 a.m. on a chilly June Friday in Chicago and 44 William & Mary alumni and friends are ready for some opera. It's the first event of William & Mary Weekend and everyone's excited, if a little sleepy. 

Our host is Lyric Opera, right in the heart of downtown. It's the second-largest opera house in the U.S. — only the Met in New York City has more than the Lyric's 3,563 seats.

"There's not a single obstructed view in the house," says our docent as she leads us through the beautiful Ardis Krainik Theatre. During traditional operas, the acoustics of the space are so good and the projection of the performers is so strong that the performers don't need mics. 

On the day we are there, the stage is covered in gold confetti from the Lyric's annual popular musical — this year, "Jesus Christ Superstar." As we journey backstage, we walk among the crew who is disassembling scenery and hauling away artificial trees. It's an up-close look at all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes to stage a production of this size.

Our exclusive tour continues into costume closets, practice rooms, hair and makeup stations and then up into the catwalk to look down on the hundreds of ropes that hold up the backdrops, curtains and scenery. As this is a historic Chicago building, one of the curtains is steel and fireproof, a measure instituted in memory of the Great Chicago Fire.

Lyric Opera’s General Director, President & CEO Anthony Freud, gives us an overview of the history of the building and the opera company, pointing out the interesting mix of art deco and Eruopean styles in the interior. Lyric Opera is housed in a 45-story office tower, but you wouldn't know it inside. It was built in 1929, right before the stock market crash made the opera company originally housed there insolvent. Lyric bought the space 63 years ago and is funded by a mix of ticket sales and private support.

"Opera has always depended on the kindness of strangers," said Freud. "We strive to be not just solvent, but triumphant."

He thanked Dan Draper ’91, a member of the W&M Weekend committee and the Lyric board, for bringing William & Mary alumni to the Lyric.

Part of Lyric's mission is to introduce new audiences to opera through educational programs, such as the tour we are on, and outreach to the local community. 

"Our goal is to have our audiences look like our city, and keep this 400-year-old art form relevant," said Freud.

Lyric Unlimited Vice President Cayenne Harris described how Lyric collaborates with groups like the Chicago Urban League to create new works with community members. The night before our tour, the Lyric debuted "Empower," which was written and performed by 31 young people from the south and west sides of the city.

Harris also detailed the Opera in the Neighborhoods program, through which 20,000 students per year in grades 3-6 see their first opera.

"We want to inspire kids to get involved in the arts," Harris said. "Opera is so much more than singing. It's also sets and costumes and lights and much more."

But what would a visit to the opera be without hearing some beautiful music? At the end of our tour, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Metzger and pianist Laurann Gilley perform two traditional arias and two modern pieces for our listening pleasure. Metzger is an up-and-coming performer from Lyric's Ryan Opera Center, which provides comprehensive training to singers and coaches to prepare them for careers in opera. Gilley is an alumna of this program.

It is amazing to hear Metzger's range and see her, in true operatic fashion, melodramatically act out the scene during her arias. But her and Gilley's rendition of "Moon River" from "Breakfast at Tiffany's" brought tears to our eyes. Then we returned to the streets of Chicago, beautiful music ringing in our ears.