Director Yuval Sharon gives feedback as the cast rehearses “Four Portraits,” one of three works comprising “Proximity” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In the more than 400-year history of opera, it might seem that just about everything possible has been tried at one point or another. But Lyric Opera of Chicago is about to unveil something that it believes has never been done before.
“I don’t want to be dogmatically claiming there is no precedent,” said Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director, president and chief executive officer. “But I’ve certainly not come across one and, as we were talking, the idea of trying something that didn’t have a precedent was very appealing.”
‘Proximity’ — Lyric Opera of Chicago
When: 7 p.m. March 24, with four additional performances through April 8
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
Lyric will present the world premiere March 24-April 8 of “Proximity,” bringing together three one-act operas, which the company commissioned from widely recognized if very different composers — John Luther Adams, Daniel Bernard Roumain and Caroline Shaw.
The idea of creating a trilogy of short operas as one offering is not new. Giacomo Puccini famously did it with “Il trittico,” which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1918. But “Proximity” is different, because each opera has a separate composer and textual source.
In an even more radical departure, the three new operas are not being treated as stand-alone pieces presented in succession, but are interwoven, with scenes of the two longer pieces cutting into each other and wrapping around the third, shorter piece. The idea for this approach, came from stage director Yuval Sharon, who calls it “shuffling.” His first project with Lyric was “Twilight: Gods,” an attention-grabbing 2021 music-theater experience in a parking garage.
“I was working with each pair [of creators],” Sharon said, “to help develop the pieces but always with an eye to the larger project — how everyone’s interest could resonate with each other and how to bring them into a relationship with each other that would feel as generative and inspiring as possible.”
Lucia Lucas (center) and other cast members rehearse “Four Portraits” at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Composers are typically staunch defenders of the integrity of their work, and Freud admits to some trepidations about whether the three participants in “Proximity” would go along with the concept of intermingling the three operas. But they all readily agreed to the unusual approach.
“I liked the idea of it being part of a larger evening with two other pieces,” said Caroline Shaw, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. “It was exciting to me. I like to write for the particular situation, whatever it is.”
The open set for all three of the component operas is an LED screen with constantly changing imagery. It curves from the back wall onto the floor — what is known as a quarter pipe in the skateboarding world — and fills the entire stage. Sharon half-kiddingly said it can be seen as a kind of “bend in the time-space continuum,” creating illusions of depth and perception.
The origins of “Proximity” date back to 2019, when Freud and Renée Fleming, the renowned soprano and Lyric’s special projects adviser, began conversations about a follow-up to “Bel Canto,” a 2015-16 debut that she curated.
In what Freud called a “long, free-ranging series of conversations” about possible subjects and creators, the two agreed that they wanted embrace to subjects that were topical, perhaps socio-political and not normally associated with opera. From that came the notion of doing not one opera but three, each with contrasting themes.
Once the basic structure was set, Fleming began finding the composers and librettists for the project. She drew on the vast network of artistic contacts she has developed across her illustrious career while also paying heed to diversity and inclusion in her decisions.
Casey Kringlen Photo
Fleming, for example, had seen Anna Deveare Smith’s play, “Notes from the Field,” about America’s school-to-prison pipeline, and she asked the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner to consider coming to Chicago and writing a libretto for an opera about gun violence.
“It’s very hard to say no to Renée Fleming about anything,” said Smith, the well-known actress, author and playwright who had not worked in the form previously.
Smith said that working in opera has proven very different than the non-profit theater world where has done most of her stage work. Opera tends to function on a larger scale, she said, and singers are different from actors in the way they are trained and approach their roles. Finally, a playwright’s words are inviolable in the theater.
“But the person who gets the last word in an opera is the composer, so I turned in a libretto, and Daniel Roumain was able to cut or change things.”
Here is a quick look at the three works that make up “Proximity”:
— “The Walkers,” Daniel Bernard Roumain, composer, and Anna Deveare Smith, librettist. Set in Chicago, this 52-minute opera is based on interviews that Smith did with help from an anti-gun violence organization known as CRED (Creating Real Economic Diversity). It departs from the “documentary dramas” or “verbatim theater” she has done previously, because some of the characters are composites and because her writing works in tandem with the electronic- and African-American-influenced music of Roumain.
Smith came up with opera trilogy’s title, “Proximity,” which asks audiences to contemplate their proximity to gun violence and other issues that might seem far away but really aren’t. “We can’t give up,” she said. “We have to attract their attention and ask them to look once again even when they think they’ve heard and seen it all.”
— “Four Portraits,” Caroline Shaw, composer, and Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke, librettist. Although Shaw is a singer herself and has written multiple vocal and choral works, this is the 40-year-old composer’s first opera.
“It’s something that I’ve waited to do for a long time,” she said, noting that she was a childhood fan of “The Magic Flute” and “La Traviata.” “This seemed like the perfect, first step in, in that I’m not responsible for the full evening.”
The 40-minute work explores how technology’s intrusion into everyday life, including what may be a first in an opera — a singing GPS phone voice that drives a wedge between an anonymous couple simply named A and B.
“I think there are really high stakes in some of the everyday, intimate relationships between two people,” Shaw said.
— “Night,” composer John Luther Adams and librettist John Haines. This 11-minute work is not so much an opera, but what Adams calls “one scene from an opera that I will never compose.” Rather than a libretto in any normal sense, the text for this work is a late poem about humanity’s troubled relationship with the environment by Haines, with whom Adams was close friends before the writer’s death in 2011.
Adams has written song and choral settings of Haines’ poems previously, but this is something more. The composer calls it a “dramatic conception” of the poem, which is written in the voice of an ancient oracle who writes her prophecies on leaves.
Director Yuval Sharon watches as the cast rehearses “Four Portraits” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.