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Haymarket Opera Company an instant success in Chicago

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◆ 7:30 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Feb. 16

◆ Haymarket Opera at Mayne Stage,
1328 W. Morse

◆ Tickets, $38, $53


Updated: March 11, 2013 6:26AM

So let’s get this straight.

Classical music is supposed to be dying. There’s a recession going on. There’s no audience for little-known 17th and 18th century operas from before the time of what’s usually presented by grand opera companies.

So how is it that just 18 months after launching its first production out of nowhere that Haymarket Opera Company has been selling out its performances, getting universal critical praise (even from The New York Times), making everything from scratch and coming in on budget, and is about to open production No. 4, its largest yet, and looking toward the future with a committed board?

“It’s all been like a big dream,” said Haymarket founder and general (and music) director Craig Trompeter. “But a dream that has been a combination of hard work and pleasant surprise and constant education.”

Between rehearsals for Henry Purcell’s 1688 “Dido and Aeneas,” set to run Friday and Feb. 16 at the Mayne Stage, Trompeter reflected on having a good idea at the right time and with the right people with whom to achieve it.

“This was just something I had wanted to do for a long while,” said Trompeter, 42, a popular player of the cello and its earlier incarnation, the viola da gamba, since coming to Chicago 15 years ago after studies at the Cleveland Institute of Music. “Through groups that I’ve played with here,” including Baroque Band, Music of the Baroque and the Newberry Consort, among others, “I knew that there was a real hunger — on the part of performers as well as audiences — for early opera and for something intimate.”

From his work with contemporary composer and former Chicagoan John Eaton, on the other end of the chronological spectrum, Trompeter also knew that he wanted to create something theatrical. Eaton’s “pocket operas” actually have the musicians playing and singing and moving actively about the performance space. With singer and stage director Ellen Hargis, a longtime colleague through Newberry and other projects, and with violinist Jeri-Lou Zike, in many ways a counterpart to Trompeter on her instrument, and his partner, David Rice, Trompeter moved quickly to get the company going.

“Aci, Galatea e Polifemo,” Haymarket’s debut production, is a rarity, but the 1708 Handel dramatic cantata was compact enough that it would allow Haymarket to do what it wanted instrumentally, vocally, and in terms of costuming and set design. The intimacy of the Mayne Stage’s near 300-capacity theater added to the attraction and made for reasonable ticket-selling goals. (Although technically state of the art, the Mayne Stage has the shape and space of the private and court theaters where these works were originally given.) When the show went up after Labor Day 2011, he said, “We were almost unprepared for the wave of interest before we had sung or played a single note.”

The houses were sold out, an extra performance was added, and the rave reviews rolled in. In the meantime, too, Brian Dickie was retiring after 13 years at the helm of Chicago Opera Theater, and his designated successor, Andreas Mitisek, had different ideas for the city’s second opera company, ones that would no longer make Baroque work a central part of COT’s agenda. “We have definitely been very attractive to people who had been following that side of COT,” Trompeter said.

Haymarket’s second production, Charpentier’s 1686 “La descente d’Orphee aux enfers,” even drew New York Times critic Zachary Woolfe, in town for other projects. “Finely played, carefully sung, lovingly detailed period performance,” Woolfe wrote in the paper afterward. The French work saw Haymarket trying more things with Baroque-era dance, a field of interest that has been growing lately among both scholars and performers, and also attracted Paris-based, Chicago-born harpsichordist Jory Vinokur, who also had a major gig with Lyric Opera here, to join the orchestra.

Haymarket’s third show last fall, a Handel “pastoral,” complete with shepherds and a shepherdess, “Clori, Tirsi e Fileno,” marked the Chicago premiere of the 1707 work, and Haymarket was able to recruit another European-based artist, archlute specialist Michael Leopold.

Now, for the English-language “Dido,” Haymarket has its largest onstage cast yet with 11 singers. The company also has recruited Sarah Edgar, a recent Chicago transplant and Baroque dance maven, to work with the full cast on dance and movement (so that the action is not just separate performers presenting interludes). Local favorites soprano Kimberly McCord and bass-baritone Peter van de Graaff take the title roles of the mythical lovers caught between a fallen Troy and a still to be founded Italy. Trompeter leads a dozen instrumental colleagues in the main floor level “pit.”

But Trompeter is already looking beyond the weekend. “We’ve just added two board members,” he said. “Set our budget at about $75,000 a year and are looking down the road at more.” The company’s next work? Its first piece by the German composer Telemann, the 1725 comic “Die Ungleiche Heirat zwischen Vespetta und Pimpinone, oder Das herrsch-suechtige Camer Maegden” (“The Unequal Marriage Between Vespetta and Pimpinone, or The Domineering Chambermaid”), known simply as ... “Pimpinone.”

If anyone can pull that off, it’s Trompeter.

Andrew Patner is critic at large for WFMT-FM (98.7).

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