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Second City, Lyric Opera joining forces for collaborative efforts

Updated: July 18, 2012 11:38PM

Can the singers of grand opera forge a creative partnership with the improvisers of sketch comedy? The powers that be at both Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Second City are about to find out as they embark on a collaboration at the Civic Opera House.

Produced under the umbrella of the Lyric Unlimited initiative will be:

—“The Second City Guide to the Opera” (Jan. 5, 2013 at 8 p.m. at the Civic Opera House), featuring Fleming, members of The Second City comedy troupe (and a “comedy star” still to be announced), as well as additional opera singers and musicians in what is being described as “a snappy and sometimes irreverent comedy and musical revue.” (Tickets: $20-$95, with $250 benefit tickets that include a post-performance reception with the artists.)

— “Popcorn & Pasquale” (Dec. 2, 2012 at 2 p.m., devised only by the Lyric, and also staged at the Civic Opera House), a 70-minute opera adventure for kids 5-12 (and their accompanying grownups), based on the comic opera by Donizetti. Hosted by Chicago actor Ross Lehman (who charmed Lyric audiences last season with his portrayal of Cap’n Andy in “Show Boat”), this “breezy introduction to opera” will feature stars of Lyric’s upcoming full-length version of “Don Pasquale,” including Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Marlis Petersen, Rene Barbera and Corey Crider. Part of the show will involve learning a tune from the opera and engaging in a sing-along, and the mechanics of a set change also will be revealed. (Tickets: $10-$20 for kids; $20-$40 for adults.)

Representatives of both Chicago artistic institutions pointed to earlier examples of comic talents who have had their way with opera (from Victor Borge and the Marx Brothers to The Muppets). And they noted audiences’ enthusiasm for appearances by Renee Fleming, the renowned soprano who also serves as Lyric’s creative consultant, on both “Sesame Street” and “A Prairie Home Companion,” the Garrison Keillor radio show (on which she has played a character named Renata Flambe). They also admitted they are hoping to trigger plenty of audience crossover.

During a press conference Wednesday at The Second City, Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, observed: “Both of these performances will bring new audiences to the Civic Opera House, and, we hope, will stimulate new interest in Lyric and in opera. It’s a terrific creative cross-pollination by two leading cultural organizations with different audiences.”

The project, according to Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City, came into being in a way that exemplified the troupe’s maxim that “There are no mistakes, only opportunities.”

“Renee Fleming and her husband came to see a Second City show last September, and as she lifted her purse off the beer-sticky counter she heard her own uncredited voice being sampled,” Leonard recounted. “Instead of calling a lawyer she began chatting with our music director, Jesse Case, and he will now be serving as music director for the Lyric show.

“Our writers have already been to see several operas at Lyric and they sat in on Renee’s master classes. We are all learning from each other already.”

At the press conference, two members of the current Second City e.t.c. show — Tawny Newsome and Mike Kosinski — performed an “operatic” sketch that might just be a model for what is to come. Dressed in a burnished ruby gown from “Eugene Onegin,” Newsome played Princess Tragedy, who had somehow found herself in Old Town, where she felt an instant spark of passion for Kosinski, an improv actor who was at Starbucks just for the free Wi-Fi.

“Where are the elaborate sets?,” asked the Princess, so accustomed to opera house grandeur.

“We don’t need sets,” said the improv veteran, holding up simple chairs to suggest castles and more.

In addition, two comic videos designed for a digital marketing campaign that will begin after Labor Day were previewed, and they suggested further comic riffs inspired by the upcoming season at Lyric. In one sketch, a psychiatrist, Doctor Opera, tries to deal with Hansel and Gretel’s childhood traumas; in another he listens in on the dysfunctional romance between Mimi and Rodolfo of “La Boheme.”

Asked whether obscenities (which often pepper Second City’s shows) will be permitted at the Lyric, Freud diplomatically noted: “Censorship is not part of Lyric’s practice.” And Leonard quickly added, “We always respect the house we’re performing in.”

NOTE: Tickets will go on sale to Lyric subscribers starting July 18 and to the general public starting Aug. 1 (when individual tickets to Lyric’s main stage operas and “Oklahoma!” also will go on sale). Freud noted that even the low prices for the family show might not fit everyone’s budget and that the Lyric is seeking additional funding for the subsidy of some free tickets.

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