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How Conservative Is Lyric Opera’s Next Season, Exactly?

For opera in Chicago, is a repertory full of familiar titles really such a bad thing?

Anna Netrebko as Mimi and Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo in La Boheme.   Photo: Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

When the Lyric Opera announced its 2013–14 season about a month ago, Chicago’s classical-music journalists instantly pegged it as conservative. “Lyric Opera’s 2013–14 season will be given over almost entirely to bread-and-butter repertory,” wrote the Tribune’s John von Rhein. The Sun-Times’ Andrew Patner wrote, “The company on Thursday announced a 2013–14 season of eight operas largely consisting of the tried, the true, and the Italian.”

Then, at a press conference discussing the upcoming season, music director Sir Andrew Davis and others fielded questions like, “Why no operas in French or English?” and “Why no baroque or contemporary works?” Among the responses: “It’s not our most way-out season.”

So how conservative is it? We’re talking about an art form notorious for hewing closely to the established repertory. Audiences for major opera houses expect a certain amount of the classics—is 2013-14 really any different?

Actually, yes! Using the statistics generated by OperaBase.com of opera productions worldwide from 2007–08 through 2011-12, I associated each opera with its numerical ranking, according to the frequency you see it performed. So an old standard like La Traviata is #1, La Bohème is #2, et cetera.

Then, for each of the Lyric seasons going back to 1998-99, I calculated the median of those rankings for the set of all subscription-series operas in the season. This computation, which I’ll call Meyer’s Opera Conservatism Index (MOCI), works like this: More conservative seasons get a lower number, and more esoteric seasons score the highest.

Here are the values to compute MOCI for the 2013-2014 season:

  • Otello: 27
  • Madama Butterfly: 7
  • Parsifal: 42
  • La Traviata: 1
  • Die Fledermaus: 15
  • The Barber of Seville: 8
  • Rusalka: 40
  • La Clemenza di Tito: 62

So the median of the OperaBase rankings was 21, the 2013-14 season’s MOCI. How does that compare against previous years?

  • 2013–14: 21
  • 2012–13: 53
  • 2011–12: 32
  • 2010–11: 56
  • 2009–10: 27.5
  • 2008–09: 36
  • 2007–08: 23.5
  • 2006–07: 26
  • 2005–06: 29
  • 2004–05: 35
  • 2003–04: 25.5
  • 2002–03: 31
  • 2001–02: 27
  • 2000–01: 39.5
  • 1999–2000: 27
  • 1998–99: 76

Look at that. This upcoming repertory is statistically the most conservative lineup in any of the past 16 seasons.

What does Anthony Freud, the general director of Lyric Opera, say to that? “I don’t want to apologize for next season.”

This is all part of a bigger plan, explains Freud. “[The music director] Sir Andrew Davis and I think about our repertory planning for a ten-year period,” says Freud. “We do eight operas a year. With a longer planning cycle, over a ten-year period, you’ll see the right range, right variety, right breadth, the right mix of popular operas and less popular operas.”

The long-term planning for this season predates Freud, who signed on as the Lyric Opera’s general director at the beginning of the 2011–12 season. In this case, most of the repertory decisions were made by Freud’s predecessor, William Mason. At that time, you have to factor in decisions the Opera was making during the sharpest teeth of the recession, from the standpoint of projected ticket sales. “What constituted responsible risk in 2007 was different from what constituted responsible risk in 2009,” Freud says.

A third caveat is a weakness in my own MOCI method. Using those OperaBase numbers obscures the frequency or rarity of those operas specifically in Chicago. Seeing as most Lyric patrons see opera only in Chicago, a narrower metric would more accurately reflect what they care about. “The Chicago audience is what we’re here to serve,” Freud says. “Rusalka has never been performed [at Lyric]. Clemenza once before, in the 1989–90 season. Parsifal and Otello haven’t been done for 12 years. [So] for a Chicago audience [these operas are] regarded as rarities.”

And anyway, if you tried to game the numbers by programming five obscure Handel operas and three Janáček operas, it would be a failure. “It wouldn’t work artistically, or from a business point of view,” Freud says. “That’s the sort of focus that a festival could justify and defend, but it’s completely inappropriate for a longstanding, year-round company.”

“Similarly, going to the opposite extreme, you couldn’t make an entire season out of La Traviata, La Bohème, Tosca, The Magic Flute, and Carmen,” Freud says. The greatest hits are actually scarce quantities to be doled out carefully, not squandered. “It doesn’t work from an artistic point of view or from a business point of view in anything other than the shortest possible term. Your ability to find enough popular operas in subsequent seasons is curtailed dramatically.” The popular operas sell tickets, but only the most fanatical would go to see Carmen every year.

The classics serve a purpose—they get people in the door. That’s how single-ticket buyers become subscribers. And really, even with the most-performed operas, the house holds a lot of first-timers, not just a room full of jaded music critics. (Perhaps this is not the time to mention that I’ve never seen La Traviata.) So yes, Lyric’s 2013–14 season is uncommonly conservative. But that may not be such a bad thing.

Graham Meyer is Chicago magazine’s contributing classical music critic

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