“Proximity,” the collection of three new works at the Lyric, sets a strong new mode for consciousness-raising opera. “Proximity”’s emotionally affecting scores, a cast of universally fine vocal leads, some of whom defy traditional expectations, and kinetic, video-centric staging which literally turns the tables on the action and the audience, add up to a jarring, hard-to-shake work that will stir audiences aesthetically, morally and intellectually long after they leave the opera house.
“Proximity” grew from a project begun by the renowned soprano Renée Fleming, who, since taking on the role as a creative consultant at the Lyric, has been a generative force for new works and collaborations. She’s listed in the program as curator. Another driving force in the production, as the author of its interwoven structure and its brilliantly colorful, quick-swirling multimedia style is director Yuval Sharon, one of the opera world’s most sought-after helmsmen. Fleming turned to him to direct the new work she had in mind about gun violence in Chicago. “The Walkers,” which takes up the most stage time among the trio of pieces, was one result. Fleming had in mind Anna Deavere Smith’s play “From the Field,” which tells a story about the school-to-prison pipeline that snares minority young people into the harsh adult criminal justice system following small school offenses, which if committed by non-minority students typically result in traditional school discipline. Smith crafts her plays from field interviews and Fleming asked the playwright whether she would craft a libretto about gun violence in the city. The result is a collection of narratives, composites of Smith’s interviews, that are alternatively spoken and sung by a cast of characters drawn from Chicago’s long-running South Side gang wars. We meet the foundational gang leaders Jeff Fort and Larry Hoover, who headed large rival gangs beginning in their young teens. We also meet the gangsters who claimed to be heirs to those leaders and who fought over turf decades later. We also meet a group of community activists who work to turn around the lives of gang members and to persuade the gangs themselves to renounce their murderous way of business and street justice. Smith’s libretto is enlivened by composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s appealing, accessible, contemporary jazz-inflected score that adds cinematic drama to actions. I cannot praise the singing highly enough, and if space allowed, I would call out all the leads. One standout is baritone Norman Garrett, whose commanding voice and presence give gravity to the moral transformation of reformed gang leader Bilal. “The Walkers”‘ chief shortcoming may be that it is too short to allow any of the characters to become much more than emblems. I found myself wondering whether it might have a second life as a full opera, where we can engage with the characters as much as the issues. Perhaps because of its brevity, the opera is laden with preachy interludes. That may sound dreadfully didactic and at times it gets close to that. Ultimately, however, the threads that draw the three operas together are spiritual, so perhaps some preachy medicine is called for.
“The Walkers” weds the bling of opera with the bling of the gang streets and makes an unnerving connection between power, eroticized fashion and killing. Those who saw Lyric’s production of “Carmen” in March and April and thought that connection was lost—that beautifully sung desexualized, de-decorated production had no room for eroticized violence—may wonder if there’s a fear in contemporary theater that leads to the deemphasizing of sex in canonical works and the highlighting of a sexualized violence in a contemporary work meant to raise consciousness. One aspect of “Proximity” that makes it outstanding as commentary is that it ratchets up one of opera’s chief allures, its maximalism. The marriage of the visuals—Jason H. Thompson and Kaitlyn Pietras are the magician production designers—with the music, the movement of the cast and large-scale tragedies and sadness thrust in your face add extra wringers to a medium that already seizes every sense. Jody Elff, a patent-holder for technologies that manage real-time mixing of high channel audio, elevated the sound design at the Lyric far beyond anything ever launched in the house, or perhaps anywhere.
One of the chief messages is that the children and young adults that get caught up in the world of the gangs are a neglected mass whose humanity is distant from those outside their communities. There’s a subplot around the murder of innocent school children and the remorse among those whose actions led to their death. The killers, their accomplices and bosses beg for understanding, and by extension, exoneration. Their plaintive songs mirror the dirge of the destroyed mother of one of the slain boys who has resigned herself to the impossibility of getting justice for her boy.
As with all three of the interwoven mini-operas, the staging of “The Walkers” is as captivating as the music and libretto. The Lyric’s stage has been rigged from top-to-bottom with LED screens with brilliant high resolution displays that, while flat, create a convincing 3D backdrop. It’s ever-changing, and ever-mesmerizing. One moment it’s a schematic of the city, and another it’s “TRON”-like abstract space and in other moments it’s a hundred other things. It’s clever, it’s striking, it’s a revelation.
The two other mini-operas in the tableau take on other themes of modern misery. “Four Portraits” by Caroline Shaw, as composer and co-librettist with Jocelyn Clarke, takes on anomie and alienation in a world dominated by technology. Set against some of the production’s most stunning video visuals, it traces the lives of two characters, identified only as A and B. Interestingly, Shaw composed the roles to be filled by any two performers with any two voices. For this production, we get a combination of a short male countertenor, the remarkable John Holiday, and towering female baritone, Lucia Lucas. Both singers fill the hall with haunting beauty. One inspired moment in “Portraits” has Lucas in a wireframe car being bossed around and misdirected by the car’s GPS, which Shaw has provided a lively score for. It was a welcome dose of levity in an otherwise ardently serious two-and-a-half hours.
Of the three pieces, the hardest to connect to the others is “Night,” by composer John Luther Adams and poet John Haines. The issue it takes on—the planet’s environmental crisis—is grand enough. Adams has long been an ardent environmentalist. Yet, he and Haines may have pulled their punches, at least in comparison to the other two works. If they had really delivered a one-two punch on the fate of the Earth, neighborhood gang issues and the disconnection between two lonely people might have seemed hardly worth the bother as we all prepare to be cooked. The work might better stand alone than in concert with the others, and one suspects it will have a robust afterlife as a choral work minus the staging. Then its gravity might stand out more. And the work is beautiful; so beautiful that it feels as if it’s offered as a kind of respite from the others, which is odd considering the stakes it means to raise.
Opera thrives on villains. Seething at Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca,” the Macbeths of Verdi or Mozart’s Queen of the Night comes with soaring music to hiss to. So do many more. In the past, operas and operatic musicals have also dished up murderous gangs to inflame us. There are the brigands in “Carmen,” the dueling families in “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “Roméo et Juliette.” What happens, though, when the villains on stage make the audience in the seats feel damnable? That’s a rare, daring—when successful—stunning night of theater. It can do more than entertain, it can change how audiences feel and act toward the social forces around us. Over the past several seasons, Lyric Opera of Chicago has offered a succession of works that point a finger at we sinners and our crimes of hate and apathy. “Show Boat” and “West Side Story,” and “Dead Man Walking,” maybe even “Jesus Christ Superstar,” all powerful productions, seem to fall into a project to raise social consciousness. I didn’t see “Fellow Travelers” or “An American Dream” but judging from the enthusiastic reviews, they fit the bill, too. “Proximity” elevates the project. Later this year, the Lyric will relaunch “West Side Story.” One can’t help but think some in the audience will come daring the company to present that show’s gang war with staging to top “Proximity”’s.