A collaboration between The Second City and Lyric Opera of Chicago isn't something one would necessarily expect. But that's exactly what happened on Saturday, Jan. 5, when Chicago's infamous comedy troupe and renowned opera house joined forces for The Second City Guide to the Opera.
The project began after soprano Renée Fleming, Lyric Opera's creative consultant, heard her own music being used during a show at The Second City (TSC). She'd been working with Lyric on making opera more accessible, and she thought that combining opera with Second City-style improv might attract a whole new audience.
Fleming and Lyric's general manager Anthony Freud approached the folks at TSC, who seemed up for experimentation. Writers Kate James and Timothy Sniffen, and musical director Jesse Case spent a year with full access to Lyric's inner workings as they investigated the operatic world. After collaborative meetings with Lyric, and a few test-runs in front of small audiences, the show was ready to launch.
The experiment was a resounding success. Saturday night's performance treated the audience to two hours of hilarious skits fondly spoofing every aspect of opera including the vocalists, fans, composers, and the dramatic plot lines.
Renée Fleming and Patrick Stewart (known for his roles in Star Trek: the Next Generation and X-Men) co-hosted the performance. The Second City cast included Carisa Barreca, Joey Bland, Ross Bryant, Beth Melewski, Tawny Newsome, and Timothy Sniffen. Lyric's Ryan Opera Center members J'nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano) and Bernard Holcomb (tenor) also participated in several skits. A chamber ensemble from Lyric's orchestra, along with TSC's musical director Jesse Case provided on-the-ball musical accompaniment.
After an "Overture" sketch, which poked fun at stereotypical aspects of the aforementioned opening numbers, Fleming and Stewart came on stage to greet the audience with a few jokes. Stewart described opera as "beauty created for old people to come and sleep to".
Fleming joined several Second City cast members for the first sketch as one of four vocalists in a master class with an arrogant diva (Beth Melewski ) spouting nonsensical advice and deriding the singers. Later in the first half, Fleming performed the Puccini aria “Un bel di”. During the second half of the performance, Fleming turned in a goose pimple-worthy rendition of Gershwin's "Summertime"
In the second skit, a trombonist (Tim Sniffen) climbed up through the floor of the stage to sing about the travails of a pit musician, including his butt going numb after 30 minutes of sitting, enduring a cellist's horrible body odor, and getting poked in the eye with a violin bow.
A recurring segment throughout the evening was "Dr. Opera", featuring a psychiatrist and characters from various operas. The first two episodes appeared as videos (originally posted on Lyric's YouTube channel several months ago). Dr. Opera worked through relationship issues with La Bohème's Mimi and Rodolfo. Rodolfo complained about Mimi's persistent cough and complained that her hands were always cold; Mimi told him to buy her a muff. In the second video, Hansel and Gretel's title characters bickered about Hansel's abandonment issues and overeating problems stemming from their encounter with the witch. In the third, live segment, Elektra's title character plodded on stage drenched in blood. Dr. Opera called to his assistant, "Clear my schedule. This is going to take all afternoon."
Patrick Stewart poked fun at his own image as a staid Shakespearean actor in a backstage skit with TSC cast members. Stewart explained to one actor, "Opera's not my bag. I have three words for you - Black-Eyed Peas". He also said that he wasn't into high art, and would rather be “slammin’ on his Xbox".
The highlight of the first half was Arnold Schoenberg (TSC's Ross Bryant), the un-funniest composer of all time, "bombing" with a standup comedy routine. He told a series of obscure musical jokes including, "Dvorak's Requiem is so by the numbers that it makes Mozart's Requiem look like Bruckner's Requiem." Towards the end of the routine, Schoenberg told the audience, "Barber's Adagio for Strings got more laughs. You guys suck!"
During the second half of the evening, Stewart and Fleming performed with the TSC cast members in a sketch about a Kinko's manager (Stewart) celebrating his retirement with his fellow employees (video of this sketch is available at the end of this post). As everyone sang, "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow", Stewart's annoying coworker (Fleming) stole the spotlight by belting out a high note. Stewart exploded, calling Fleming a diva. He complained about how she is delusional and thinks that the customers are her public. He yelled, "For the last time, will you stop autographing other people's photo orders!" Fleming responded, "But then they wouldn't be worth anything.”
TSC joined forces with Stewart for one of their trademark improvised plays. Carisa Barreca interviewed a reticent audience member named Joe. He reluctantly admitted that he was a banker, and when Barreca asked him if he had any pet peeves, he said no. She asked him if he thought there were any problems which might bother the world at large, and he again said no. TSC used this miniscule amount of information to improvise a belly-laughable Shakespearean drama about a banker who never gets bothered by anything, despite the world's recurring global banking crises.
The evening ended with the "Finale" song, during which, in nonsensical operatic tradition, most of the cast members proposed marriage to each other for a deus ex machina happy ending. Audience members in the packed house gave the show a rousing standing ovation.
The sold-out show proved that there was plenty of audience interest in a TSC and Lyric Opera collaboration. Moreover, according to Mark Caro's Chicago Tribune article, 25 percent of the ticket buyers are totally new to Lyric. Only time will tell if the new audience members will return to see a traditional opera. Hopefully, the success of Saturday night's production will result more hilarious collaborations between the two institutions.