When Lyric Opera of Chicago went COVID-dark on March 13, 2020, the next show was supposed to be Götterdämmerung, the fourth of four installments in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, a.k.a. the Ring cycle. Lyric had doled out one opera per season for the past four, and after premiering Götterdämmerung, the company planned to loop back around to the beginning of the story and run all the productions in the space of a week, in three total cycles. Überfans travel around the globe for Ring cycles, like opera’s analog of Deadheads. Lyric estimated the cancellations cost it $15 million.
“Pivoting is an essential part of life,” says Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director. But in opera, with each production often requiring five years of planning, companies pivot more like cruise ships than point guards. Which makes it all the more impressive to see Lyric return to in-person performance with Twilight: Gods, running April 28 and 30 and May 2. Or rather, in-vehicle performance. Twilight: Gods is a six-scene drive-through opera that Lyric developed jointly with Michigan Opera Theatre. Pods of eight or nine cars, windows rolled up, proceed from set to set in the subterranean Millennium Lakeside Parking Garage. People drive up to a scene, turn off their engines (but not the power), and listen to an FM transmission of the music performed outside their car.
The music and libretto distill 65 minutes from the five-hour Götterdämmerung (which translates to “twilight of the gods”), punctuated by original verse from local poet avery r. young, who serves as narrator and guide, a Virgil for the automotive audience. His contribution is for Chicago alone; a different poet filled this role at the show’s Detroit premiere in October. “It wasn’t about placing Valhalla on 63rd and Ashland,” young says. “It’s what I do with language and performance that is Chicago.”
Already in collaboration with Lyric on a new commission tentatively scheduled for 2023, director Yuval Sharon took on a position with the company to create pandemic-proper art; he also assumed the artistic directorship of Michigan Opera Theatre last fall. He marshaled the suddenly idle resources of both companies to grow a show from the germ of social distancing. Twilight: Gods reached its stage, such as it is, in about six months. “Opera can benefit greatly from a sense of spontaneity that the machinery of opera doesn’t always allow for,” Sharon says.
The show brings atypical intimacy. The barrier of the windshield and the sound arriving through the stereo may seem alienating, but they’re outweighed by the small size of the pods of vehicles and the physical proximity to the singers. “Even though you are in your car, Christine Goerke is nevertheless 10 feet away from you,” says Sharon, referring to the superstar soprano who sang Brünnhilde in the Detroit production of Twilight: Gods, as she was supposed to for Lyric’s Ring.
Catherine Martin, a mezzo-soprano who plays Waltraute, a Valkyrie, in the opening scene, had also been rehearsing for the Ring at the time of the March shutdown. She found participating in Twilight: Gods in Detroit surprisingly emotional; they are the only offline performances she’s done between the shutdown and now. “I didn’t know if I’d get to wear it again,” Martin says of her rich scarlet Ring costume. She felt intensely connected to the audience. “The first few sets of cars, you could see people just kinesthetically feeling this release,” she says. “I saw people burst into tears.”
Although Twilight: Gods will be recorded and Freud doesn’t rule out remounting it someday, perhaps alongside a future Ring, the show feels very much a denizen of this odd liminal time in history. When else will a roughly half-million-square-foot floor of a parking garage be free? When else will human connection feel so novel? It appears out of the mist and is gone. Which, come to think of it, is the essence of live performance.