Say “Lyric Opera of Chicago” to yourself and what comes to mind? High C’s, plush seats and something to do with Puccini? Or a park district building, bustling with summer camps and hip hop music? Probably the first, not the second. In fact, it’s both.
Welcome to Lyric Opera’s Chicago Voices Community Created Performances where contrasting worlds meet. It’s not just about formal vs informal music genres or padded armrests vs folding chairs. Under the helm of Lyric Unlimited – the opera company’s community engagement initiative – Chicago Voices is now in the second of its two-year lifespan to seek out, cultivate and celebrate the city’s voices.
It’s hard to imagine a more international institution than the Lyric with its schedule of European classics and globetrotting stars. But thanks to soprano Renee Fleming who initiated the program, Chicago Voices ventures into unlikely corners of the city, proving that the basic elements of opera – song and story and movement – are universal.
The public can hear Chicago Voices Community Created Performances, free of charge, on September 10 at 2:00 pm at the Harris Theatre. Three local groups – Kuumba Lynx, YOLO Boomers and Blu Rhythm Collective – will perform works developed in collaboration with Lyric-designated creative teams that include an animateur (facilitator), scriptwriter, songwriter and director.
Kuumba Lynx – which uses urban arts such as hip hop, beatbox, spoken word and graffiti art as youth development tools – has a long history of public performance. The other two formed as groups for the purpose of applying to Chicago Voices. YOLO Boomers are seniors who gather at the North Center Senior Center to write, perform and socialize. Blu Rhythm Collective mixes dance with other art forms to illuminate issues affecting Chicago’s marginalized communities.
“We are just out of words to be working with the Lyric,” remarks Marsha Fogle of YOLO Boomers. Animateur Jacob Watson, director Jess McLeod, scriptwriter Derek Lee McPhatter and songwriter Mike Przygoda “were able to listen to our stories” and come up with a show “that has a piece of each of us,” says Fogle. So amazed are they to go from the secluded community room at North Center Senior Center to a very public venue that “we’re pinching ourselves.”
Partnering with the Chicago Public Library, Chicago History Museum and Columbia College Chicago, Lyric’s Chicago Voices invited groups to apply for the program. Ten semi-finalists were selected to make YouTube presentations that were then posted online for a public voting process. The three winners received funding and support to develop a piece for the September 10th performance.
"Chicago Voices showcases our city's greatest resource: its vibrant and diverse communities,” explains Cheryl Coons, a songwriter, playwright, performer and teacher. In 2016, Coons served as the animateur for Harmony, Hope & Healing – a therapeutic music program – and returns this year to work with Kuumba Lynx. “The participants reflect the treasures of their communities – not only talent and artistic expression, but remarkable stories.”
It took time for Chicago Voices and Kuumba Lynx to meld, says Darius Parker who performed with KL as a student and is now on its staff. Initially, participants “didn’t understand the Lyric’s process” that began with the Chicago Voices creative team observing and listening to Kuumba Lynx’s young performers describe how they built a production. “There was nothing tangible in front of them at first,” Parker explains. “But now that we have a script, the kids are super excited and super engaged.”
Chicago Voices also took the Blu Rhythm Collective into new territory. “We’ve never done anything so personal,” says founder Tanji Harper. Though members of the Collective have previous experience as urban performers, they have never before used their own stories as the basis of a show. For years, Harper has led classes and workshops that guide young people living in poverty and violence to make better choices. “It’s really difficult to be so young and have so much on your shoulders,” she explains. Blu Rhythm Collective performers will soon provide a snapshot of that reality for a diverse audience of Chicagoans at the Harris.
On September 10th, some notes may hit the rafters. Some dance moves may soar. Some words may elevate. But whether novice or veteran, amateur or professional, all those who take the stage will be true to their own voices.
September 10, 2017
205 E Randolph St.
Chicago, IL 60601
1st Slider Photos: "YOLO Boomers", Photos by Jaclyn Simpson
2nd Slider Photos: "Kuumba Lynx", Photos by Jaclyn Simpson
3rd Slider Photos: "The Blue Rhythm Collective", Photos by Jaclyn Simpson
All photos courtesy of the Lyric Opera.
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning, Emmy-nominated playwright, journalist and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre.