Chicago Opera Theater’s season comprises three productions, four shows each, as well as a few tie-ins and one-offs, on a budget of $2.9 million. By contrast, Lyric Opera of Chicago put on eight mainstage operas and one opera-size musical in its most recent fiscal year, totaling almost 100 performances, along with quite a lot of tie-ins and one-offs, on a budget just shy of $70 million. Sure, the different artistic goals of each company make this comparison apples-to-oranges (or maybe green-apples-to-red-apples), but how does COT do it?
In advance of its latest show, A Coffin in Egypt, opening April 25, COT’s general director, Andreas Mitisek, pointed out some of the company’s tactics and how they turn economic decisions into artistic payoffs. “We have learned how to make more with less, and sometimes less is more,” he says.
- Fewer musicians. In addition (er, subtraction) to having no ongoing engagements with musicians, preferring contracts for each show, Mitisek says they choose repertoire carefully. A Coffin in Egypt, for example, has only one principal role: the tour-de-force part of Myrtle Bledsoe, played by the legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. This allows budgetary room for a small, chorus-like ensemble, whereas many COT productions don’t have a chorus. As another example, Thérèse Raquin, COT’s first opera of the season, featured the composer’s 18-instrument chamber orchestra version instead of the full-orchestra version, a choice that also supported the production’s aesthetic goals of transparency and intimacy.
- Staff. COT has only eight full-time and four part-time employees. The way I got those numbers was to walk with Mitisek to the office next to his to ask Jerry Tietz, the general manager. Tietz counted them off, by first names, on his fingers. “This is the kind of office where everyone takes out the garbage,” volunteered Whitney Michel, a marketing associate, from over the cubicle wall.
- Co-productions. Mitisek also leads Long Beach Opera in Southern California, and he organizes some productions to open in one city (always Long Beach, so far) and move sets, director, and principal singers to the other. With back-to-back productions, expensive rehearsal time gets cut almost in half. Last year’s Queenie Pie and this year’s Thérèse Raquin followed this model.
- Sets. COT’s original sets stand out for their versatile minimalism, leaving something to the imagination. “We will not portray every little leaf on the tree,” Mitisek says. “We make the audience bring their leaves.” Last season’s Macbeth made use of projections; The Clever One used rolls of paper that the singers drew on.
- Venue. Mitisek found fame in Long Beach mounting operas in unlikely places, such as a parking garage. After a successful production in California, he brought his opera at a swimming pool to Chicago: Orpheus and Euridice, by Ricky Ian Gordon (also the composer of Coffin). Pools are cheaper to rent than theaters, Mitisek points out, but they don’t have a crew, a backstage, or other accoutrements of standard stages. “The simplicity of it is also the beauty of it,” he says. “Using the pool as what it is—a pool—and not trying to make it into a theater.” The production used a boat and swimming dancers.
- Up-and-coming singers. Frederica von Stade notwithstanding, COT’s usual strategy casts singers on their way up in the opera firmament, as when Amanda Majeski sang Vitellia in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito in 2009. She reprised the role at Lyric in 2014.
All that adds up to less. And the point is, the more less they can muster, the more they can do. More or less.
A Coffin in Egypt runs April 25 through May 3 at the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph. Tickets are $35–$125. chicagooperatheater.org