On a conference call to do the first script read for The Second City Guide to the Opera, Renée Fleming, possibly the most famous operatic soprano in the world, threw out an idea. “We [have] to have a diva piece in there,” she said.
The envisioned sketch involved Fleming’s costume and makeup people fawning over her when she’s around—“Yes, Renée.” “Oh, of course, Renée.” “You look so beautiful, Renée!”—and then stomping on her dress and using her wig as a soccer ball as soon as she’s onstage. And after the July announcement of the two groups partnering for one night, devotees of the Lyric Opera fear that comedy powerhouse Second City is about to do something similar to their beloved institution.
Fleming, 53, who was named the Lyric’s creative consultant in 2010, does not share that concern. In fact, the show, which debuts on January 5 at the Civic Opera House, was her idea. “We have to reinvent what opera is,” she insists. “If it doesn’t evolve, then we’re all in a museum.”
The light bulb went on in the fall of 2011, when the singer heard her own voice used (without legal permission—whoops) in a revue at Second City and wanted in on the fun. “I’m a closet comedian,” Fleming admits, pointing to Renata Flambé, the opera diva she has voiced on Garrison Keillor’s NPR show A Prairie Home Companion since 2003. “I’m always the tragic heroine. It’s sort of a wish of mine [to do comedy].”
Second City agreed immediately and assigned veteran writers Tim Sniffen and Kate James and music director Jesse Case to draft a script. To come up with ideas, James and Sniffen, who say they are only casual fans of opera, plunged into its subculture. At the January 2012 premiere of Aida—an opera so grandiose that some productions have brought live elephants onstage—James told the Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud: “Anthony, I could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars and do this show with five actors and five wooden chairs.”
Observing a master class in which Fleming coached young singers with instructions baffling to the uninitiated, Sniffen imagined the same scene played for laughs: “When you fall down the stairs, I want you to be missing your wife. And try it without your belt.”
To test out the comedy potential, the team released a few videos on YouTube in September that parodied famous operas. The shorts—including one with current Saturday Night Live cast member Aidy Bryant as Gretel in a psychotherapist’s office—garnered tens of thousands of views, making them the most-watched videos by far on the Lyric’s YouTube page.
Still, well aware of the potential culture clash—Lyric stuffiness, meet Second City inappropriateness—the writing team trod lightly at the beginning. But at the first table read in October, says Sniffen, one of the notes from the Lyric was, “You have Renée Fleming at your disposal! Put her in more scenes!” James adds, “We were secretly praying that they would say that.”
The final product will be styled like one of Second City’s famous revues, with scripted sketches that feature a few Lyric heavy hitters. “As of now, the vision is the cast will consist of Second City actors and at least two singers,” James says. “We’re writing stuff for operatic voices to sing about and for their world.”
A last-minute surprise was the addition of Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek: The Next Generation and X-Men fame, who signed on to costar in November at Fleming’s request. “He’s a good friend of mine,” Fleming says. “[And] he has great stuff on YouTube.”
The show’s biggest challenges, all involved insist, arise from logistical issues. For example, the august Civic Opera House, which seats 3,500, will never match the intimacy of a revue at the 320-seat Second City Mainstage in Old Town. Then there’s the audience lubrication disparity. Opera House patrons can drink only in the lobby. “We’ll have about five or six intermissions,” James says. (That’s a joke. We think.)
Fleming, meanwhile, expects a lot of curiosity seekers at the Civic Opera House. “Maybe people are in the building for the first time, and [they can see] it’s not scary,” she says. “You don’t have to dress a certain way. A lot of people imagine [opera] is inaccessible. It would be great to change that.”
GO The Second City Guide to the Opera plays Jan. 5 at the Civic Opera House; admission is $20 to $95. For info, lyricopera.org.
Illustration: John Ueland