Opera was born in Italy. Virtuosos like Gioachino Rossini and Giacomo Puccini have honed the craft over time and spread it across the globe, rapturing audiences for centuries. So, it is safe to say that what truly endears our hearts and arrests our senses about this medium is more than intricate costumes and opulent theaters — but beautiful lyricism and passion derived from a country rich in history and brimming with compelling storytelling.
A devotion to bringing the historical and cultural impact of opera to the United States is the driving force behind the upcoming Opera Festival of Chicago and the team of creatives who have built it from the ground up since 2016. Now in its second year, the festival is a slice of the Chicago art and culture scene carved out specifically for opera that is true to its Italian roots and, in some cases, never before seen in the Chicagoland area. This year’s iteration will kick off July 8.
“[The festival] benefits the opera lover who gets to hear these works for the first time and also the American artists who just don’t have the opportunity to incorporate this in their repertoire,” says Robert Massey, general director of the festival.
Ella Marchment, artistic director of the fest, adds, “In Chicago, there are certain Italian pieces that are very well-known and loved, but it’s quite limited — it’s just kind of the icing on top of the cake, and there’s actually so much more substance that can be explored. We decided we wanted to bring more expansive Italian operas to the Chicagoland audience, and it’s kind of gone from there.”
The festival’s inaugural year was set to be 2020 until Covid-19 brought the world to a halt. Undeterred, the festival team — dubbed “small but agile” — put their efforts toward relaunching in the summer of 2021, and to much success. In just six weeks, with a limited budget and a dream, they put together a festival with three performances that were showcased at iconic Chicago venues such as Thalia Hall. As word spread through the Windy City, come the end of the festival, most performances were sold out.
This time around, with a larger budget and a stronger footing in the theater circuit, there are definite plans to elevate the festival, starting with the performances themselves. “Last year, because of the [Covid] restrictions, we couldn’t do an opera with a chorus — and Italians are very social, so that was hard.… So we have a chorus this year, and it’ll be more of the grand opera that we had envisioned when we started the company,” says Franco Pomponi, festival president, who will perform in one of the productions.
The fest is a passion project for all involved, which in turn gives audiences the opportunity to share in the creative team’s genuine pursuit of a top-notch experience for all attendees. While the primary objective is to host a riveting, authentic program for opera lovers, their hope is that the fest resonates beyond that, reaching people who may be estranged from the idea of experiencing traditional Italian opera.
“I want to bring people into [this] kind of fantasy world, and I want them to think about things in different ways. What I’d like people to take away from this is that we can all be dreamers — and right now, we need a bit of escapism. I know sometimes theater really engages with the deep political and relevant things in society, and I think it is a creative way for us to engage in that,” Marchment concludes.
Similar to last year, the festival will feature three performances. This year’s lineup includes:
Rossini L’Inganno Felice
July 8-10, Athenaeum Center, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago
This Rossini one-act opera tells the story of a faithful wife, unjustly accused of infidelity and cruelly abandoned at sea, attempting to win back the love of her husband, who has presumed her dead for ten years.
Renata Tebaldi at 100
July 15 Ganz Hall, Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago
This performance is a one-night-only tribute to the great operatic singer Renata Tebaldi in celebration of her 100th birthday.
Verdi Il Corsaro
July 22-24 Cahn Auditorium, 600 Emerson St., Evanston
Giuseppe Verdi’s 1848 opera explores the world of seafaring pirates. This performance will shine a light on a piece that was, at the time, relatively overshadowed by other Verdi classics.
Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.