Lyric Unlimited Brings Opera to Chicago’s Diverse Communities

For Kathy Talan, a second-grade teacher at Albany Park’s Volta Elementary School, watching her students write and perform an opera was an experience in her career that will be hard to top.

For 16 weeks, her students — a diverse group including non-English speakers, dual-language students, students with special needs, and academically gifted students — worked with a performer from Lyric Opera of Chicago’s community engagement organization Lyric Unlimited. “Celebrations” was the theme of the opera, and its debut commanded a packed auditorium of parents, fellow teachers and students.

“Every child shined,” Talan says. “The only complaint I heard from the parents was that the performance wasn’t long enough.”

The student-opera at Volta Elementary is just one of the many examples of Lyric Unlimited’s commitment to introducing new and diverse audiences to opera through collaboration and educational partnerships. Through backstage tours, opportunities to see performances, and school residency programs, Lyric Unlimited is able to connect with a young and multicultural population in Chicago.

The experience of creating and performing an opera can be “transformative” for the students, as well as the artist-teachers who are working with the children, says Heather Aranyi, a Lyric Opera artist and teacher-in-residence at elementary schools. Aranyi spoke of one classroom that was almost entirely composed of students who were new to this country. Fittingly, the theme they chose for their opera was immigration.

Opera “accesses this entirely different part of the kids, which translates to their whole academic experience,” Aranyi says. “We work the whole gamut of the children’s life experiences. It’s unbelievable what they share, write and perform when it’s them creating it.”

Lyric Unlimited brings the unique performances to the many ethnic communities in Chicago. In 2013, Lyric Unlimited presented the mariachi opera “Cruzar la Cara de la Luna” in the predominantly Mexican communities of Pilsen, Waukegan, and at the opera house. This production kicked off a multiyear collaboration with Latino communities that included two additional mariachi operas. To enhance the presentations of these new works, Lyric Unlimited supported youth mariachi groups and programs, which highlight the singing culture of mariachi.

Similarly, in conjunction with Lyric Opera’s 2015 premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger,” Lyric Unlimited commissioned a new work, “The Property.” “The Property” was presented at venues in Chicago and Skokie, engaging Chicago’s large Jewish and Polish communities with a chamber opera performance told through the musical language of Klezmer, a musical style of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.

“The success of Lyric Unlimited’s Latino initiatives and engagement with area Jewish and Polish communities has emboldened Lyric Unlimited to connect with many other ethnic and cultural communities around Chicago,” says Cayenne Harris, director of Lyric Unlimited.

To be sure, there is no compromise in artistic quality in the performances not on the main stage, with many of the Lyric Opera artists also going directly to the communities to perform.

“When I was brought into the organization, they wanted to make sure it was all top-level performers and teachers,” says Aranyi, who holds master’s degrees in both voice and opera, and early childhood education, and is currently completing her ordination as a cantor.

One of the goals of the program, in addition to the enrichment it brings to different communities, is to expand its audience on the main stage. As part of this effort, Lyric last year introduced two new subscription options: NEXT is aimed at college-aged students and the Medley Series is directed at young professionals. Both subscriptions offer discounted rates for various operas.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of young people in the audience in the past couple of years,” Harris says.

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