Unconventional. Sharp. Contemporary. Stunning.
Those are just some of the words critics have used to describe the productions that the Chicago Opera Theater ( COT ) has staged over the years—and the plaudits are well-deserved, according to the company's general director, Brian Dickie. 'Each of our productions is edgy, freshly minted and has the kind of characters that theatergoers would not necessarily expect. We have things you wouldn't typically see in an opera,' he told Windy City Times.
Dickie was born in England in 1941 and worked with companies all over the world, ranging from the Canadian Opera Company to the Opéra de Nice before joining COT in 1999. 'Chicago is a great American city and a marvelous place to live and work,' he said, before adding that the city 'has a great theater community.'
In the years since Dickie has taken over the helm, the theater has garnered kudos for its renditions of such productions as A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Coronation of Poppea. Moreover, the company earned raves for its stagings of The Padlock/Dido and Aeneas—and expectations are high for upcoming productions of the operas The Abduction from the Seraglio and Nixon in China.
However, just two years ago, the company walked a very delicate tightrope. Exactly 30 years after its first season, COT made the risky move of relocating from the historic Athenaeum Theatre in Lakeview to the state-of-the-art Harris Theater for Music and Dance, located at 205 E. Randolph. A recent article in the Chicago Reader hinted at behind-the-scenes disagreements regarding everything from increased rent to Dickie's attitude. Although Dickie conceded that the move did not go entirely smoothly, he also commented that things are on the upswing: 'We made a small surplus last year.'
In maintaining COT's edge, Dickie said that one of the things he does is keep in touch with the Lyric Opera Theater and monitor what productions that company puts on. 'We had suspended 20th-century American opera for a while but will do more as Lyric appears to reduce its commitment,' Dickie said. 'We want to give the public a broad range. The Lyric understands that it and [ our theater ] can serve the Chicago audience.'
Another key to being edgy, Dickie stated, is to find directors who do not possess 'conventional operatic values,' i.e., those who are involved in more than just opera. For example, he said that he 'plucked Diane Paulus from off-Broadway.' [ Note: Paulus, who has directed several COT productions, is slated to return to the fold next year. ]
When asked what facets comprise a great opera, Dickie was quick to respond. 'The music is important, above all,' he said. 'However, the dramaturgy is also pretty critical.' To him, the best operas are those 'in which you see something new every time you see it, like with the ballets of [ choreographer ] Mark Morris. The best pieces are endearingly fascinating and reveal something about the human condition.' Dickie also added that Mozart, in his opinion, composed the greatest operas. ' [ He ] keeps doing something unusual but he is universally appealing and [ his works ] have an overwhelming message of humanity.' However, he added with a wink, 'his work is also a bit like sex—there's a mystery about it.'
Dickie is contracted with COT through 2009, but he is not sure about what the future holds. 'Chicago is great but I'd like to get my family together,' said the married father of four children who range in age from 37 to 2 ( and the grandfather to three boys ) . 'Who knows?'
The Abduction from the Seraglio is May 3-13 and Nixon in China will run May 17-27. See www.ChicagoOperaTheater.org .