Meet Chicago Opera Theater’s Ashley Magnus – A Spokesperson for Opera’s Golden Age

Editor’s Note:  In 2019, three of Picture This Post’s top fifty plays—see the Chicago Best Plays 2019 video—were Chicago Opera Theater (COT) productions.  Though Chicago Opera Theater is nearly a half century old, for many it has the exciting feel of NEW ON THE SCENE.  The creative team of Chicago Opera Theater brings this innovative energy to their productions.  Here, Picture this Post (PTP) asks Ashley Magnus (AM), whose title is Edlis Neeson General Director, to tell readers more about how COT productions come together, and the role that she plays in bringing them to life. 

Ashley Magnus
Ashley Magnus Photo by Layne Dixon Photography

(PTP) Please tell Picture this Post readers about your background before coming to COT?

(AM) I’ve always been active in music and theater growing up, and specialized in voice and business in college. I sang in opera choruses, and came to COT from the administration of Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. USUO is a merged 52-week orchestra and regional opera company, and one of the only organizations structured like this in the US. I started working in opera artistic and production administration for several years, transitioned into development and fundraising while completing my MBA, and was selected to participate in OPERA America’s Leadership Intensive in 2014.

I started at COT in 2015 as Director of Development. I was so inspired by all the thrilling new opera happening nationally, and jumped at the opportunity to be at an organization with a reputation for doing new and rarely performed work at a high artistic level. In 2017 I became General Manager, and was proud to have a voice in the artistic planning for the 2018/2019 season. Now in the role of Edlis Neeson General Director, I’m honored to continue this vision of giving Chicago audiences world-class opera experiences they can’t find anywhere else.


How does casting and programming come about at COT?

Artistic planning is a team effort, led by myself and our Staley Music Director, Lidiya Yankovskaya. We each have pieces and productions we’re excited to bring to this community, and we work to see how each season can fit together and fulfill our vision for COT and the artform in Chicago. Lidiya takes the lead on casting singers, though we both hear auditions, and we work together to identify stage directors and potential opera companies that may co-produce with us.


What was your first opera? Were you immediately “hooked”?

The first time I performed in an opera was in a children’s chorus for a traveling production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, but I didn’t really come to the art form again until I was an undergraduate music student. The first professional opera I ever watched was a DVD recording of Berg’s Wozzeck for a class, and I thought it was incredible. The piece remains a favorite of mine to this day. From that point forward, it was clear that I wanted a career in the field of opera.


Beyond Chicago— how do you see COT fitting into the larger opera world in the US?  in the world?

We are so lucky to be in a community like Chicago, that has such a robust and varied opera scene. Many opera companies are the only company in their city or even state, and it can dictate the kind of programming they need to offer. Because we aren’t the only opera in town, we are able to really focus on the pieces we are the most passionate about, and present works that aren’t often available to Chicago or even US audiences. We get to champion not only new and developing work in what is widely considered a golden age of American opera, but also earlier works that are considered canon outside of the US, but are not often produced here.


How does COT choose its program? 

We’re always looking for new operas and developing pieces that show promise, both musically and theatrically, that we think will resonate with our audiences. We don’t only focus on new work though, and we program at least one earlier opera of proven quality that may not have ever been done in Chicago each season.

One of the most surprising things to me since coming into this position is the sheer breadth of choice we have in what could be considered non-traditional programming. We typically produce three mainstage operas per season, and there is an enormous amount of stellar work that COT would get to bring to Chicago, usually for the first time. It can be difficult to whittle it down, and we have so many projects we’re excited about slated for future seasons.


Are you already working on 2021 programming?  

New things to look for from COT as we announce plans for the future--more world-premieres, important anniversaries of classic works, a variety of languages, more co-productions with companies around the country, and perhaps some early music. There are a lot of exciting ideas on the table!

COT is also coming up on our 50th anniversary, which presents opportunities to celebrate the history of the organization, all with an eye toward the next 50 years of expanding the tradition of opera in Chicago.

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