Lyric Opera Presents EMPOWER Review – Teens Create South Side Opera

The set looks familiar to anyone who's visited the south side: restaurants, corner stores, and street corners have been faithfully recreated. Even in its verisimilitude, however, there's something else which Arnell Sancianco's scenic work and the cast of Empower captures just as faithfully which isn't seen; it's felt. That thing is the spirit of Chicago's south side, an integral an often maligned or ignored piece of Chicago's rich history.

EmpowerYouth!, a collaborative effort between Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Urban League, presented its original opera, Empower, at Lyric on May 31st at Lyric. The after school arts-education program for high school students has been running weekly meetings since its start in October. Empower served as a one-night-only performance and culmination of these students' months of work.

Personal Themes Surface in Empower

Empower's original story clearly has its roots in the lives of the high schoolers who created it. Primarily residing on Chicago's south and west sides, these students have crafted an opera that is both poignant and prescient. The plot centers around a group of high schoolers who band together to unite their community against its negative portrayal in the media. At a time when our president has threatened to "send in the feds" to Chicago, it's hard to argue that Chicago's south side neighborhoods aren't sensationalized by the media. Thus, Empower's focus on chronicling optimism through the power of storytelling is a welcome respite from the 24-hour news cycle. That a group of over thirty teenagers are at the center of the storytelling is even greater reason for appreciating this world-premiere opera.

Lyric Opera EMPOWER
Lyric Opera EMPOWER

Lyric Opera Production Features Professionals, Too

In addition to the talented and hard-working student actors/singers/dancers/creators and the choir from Nicholas Senn High School, professional artists lent their talents to the creation of Empower. Professional theatre director Jess McLeod helmed the production, with composer Damien Sneed and playwright Ike Holter helping to adapt the opera. Professional opera singers also performed in the piece: soprano Angela Brown and baritone Will Liverman's performances as adults are as fun as they are vocally impressive.

Professional bonafides acknowledged, Empower's true stars are the thirty-one students and their energetic, hopeful performances. EmpowerYouth!'s goals are clearly aimed at the program's high school participants; however, audience members of all ages and stripes are likely to be just empowered after witnessing the enthusiasm on Lyric's stage. 


This production is part of Lyric Opera Unlimited's ongoing programming for Chicago's communities.  For more information on this Lyric initiative visit the Lyric Opera Unlimited webpage.


Will Liverman as Mr. Boyce
Angela Brown as Joyce


Damien Sneed - Composer
Ike Holter - Librettist
Jess McLeod - Director
Kedrick Armstrong - Music Supervisor
Tanji Harper - Choreographer
Ruben Aguirre - Visual Artist
Tony Santiago - Acting Coach
Melissa Foster - Resident Vocal Consultant


Todd Rosenberg

Brent Ervin-Eickhoff is a director, writer, and educator based in Chicago, IL. He has worked with A Red Orchid Theatre, Silk Road Rising, Mary-Arrchie Theatre Co., Facility Theatre, and others as a director, assistant director, and in various other artistic capacities. Brent was a founding member and served as Co-Artistic Director and then Managing Director of Blue Goose Theatre Ensemble. His productions of Herculaneum and Bison? Bison. Bison! with Blue Goose were praised by critics and audiences. Bison? Bison. Bison! was selected and performed as part of Chicago’s Night Out in the Parks Initiative. An award-winning filmmaker, Brent’s films have screened as part of the Frog Baby Film Festival and Indianapolis 48 Hour Film Project. His play Puget Sound was workshopped as a staged reading as part of A Red Orchid Theatre’s Incubator Program in 2017. Brent graduated from Ball State University Magna Cum Laude with degrees in Directing and Theatre Education, as well as Ball State’s prestigious Academic Honors in Writing.

Read more about him and other Picture this Post writers on the Picture this Post Masthead.

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