By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
Lyric Opera of Chicago announced the participation of several outstanding singers in the Renée Fleming 25th Anniversary Concert & Gala*, to honor and celebrate American soprano Renée Fleming’s extraordinary commitment to Chicago and her unparalleled contributions to our art form. The gala will be held March 23 at 7:00 p.m. at Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive.
Renée Fleming herself will sing, of course, along with a starry roster that includes Sondra Radvanovsky, Lawrence Brownlee, Quinn Kelsey, Željko Lučić, Eric Owens and Christian Van Horn. They will perform with and pay tribute to their beloved friend and colleague in an unforgettable musical celebration. Patrick Summers will conduct the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Members of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center will also participate in the concert.
Conductor Patrick Summers debuted at Lyric in 2014/15 leading “Anna Bolena.” Summers is artistic and music director of the Houston Grand Opera and former principal guest conductor at the San Francisco Opera. He has previously appeared at the Metropolitan Opera and the major houses of Los Angeles, Dallas, Berlin, Rome, Oslo, and Sydney, among many others.
Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky has sung seven leading roles at Lyric since 2002, most recently the title roles of “Norma” (2016/17), “Anna Bolena” (2014/15), and “Aida” (2011/12).
Tenor Lawrence Brownlee starred opposite Renée Fleming in the Metropolitan Opera’s company premiere of Rossini’s “Armida.” Brownlee has scored great successes at Lyric in “I puritani” (2017/18), Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird” (2016/17), and “Cinderella” (debut, 2015/16), as well as in recital with Eric Owens (2016/17). The tenor is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading artists in the bel canto repertoire.
Brownlee has vast opera experience and sings primarily in Italian, French, and German. He has also sung in English, Latin, Russian and Spanish. During a Crusader interview a few years ago, he shared his thoughts about his early memories of being involved in music. “From the time I was a small child I was involved in music. Not singing, but playing several different instruments. I grew up in a church tradition where my father was the choir director, and my mother was a soloist in the choir. Being one of six kids, music was always around,” he said. “I remember even at a young age having an ear for vocal music. When my father would teach the choir at church, I could hear that he was making small mistakes, and I remember a time, I think I was around 12, when I finally had the courage to tell my father he was teaching something wrong. And I was right. So it was clear from early on that I had an inclination and natural affinity toward music, because I was so involved with music in my childhood, though it wasn’t classical music.” At that time, Brownlee also spoke about Black, male opera singers. “I admire all of my colleagues and appreciate their accomplishments. True, it’s a small fraternity. George Shirley and Paul Robeson are the two names that were inspirational in the beginning of my career, as men of color.”
Another star for the night is Baritone Quinn Kelsey, a Ryan Opera Center alumnus, who has triumphed at Lyric in 17 roles, singing most recently the title role/“Rigoletto” (lavishly praised in eight major international houses to date) and Enrico/”Lucia di Lammermoor” (2016/17).
Also, Baritone Željko Lučić, who currently portrays Germont/”La Traviata” at Lyric, has starred at Lyric in the titleroles/“Nabucco”(2015/16) and “Rig- oletto” (2012/13). The Serbian artist’s eminence internationally in dramatic Italian repertoire is confirmed this season with various opera appearances.
Bass-baritone Eric Owens, returning to Lyric this season as the Wanderer/“Siegfried,” has earned critical praise at Lyric in seven roles, most recently Wotan/“Die Walküre” (2017/18) and Das Rheingold (2016/17), and in recital with Lawrence Brownlee (2016/17). Owens also serves Lyric as a Community Ambassador.
The Crusader has also previously interviewed Owens, who was born in Philadelphia. He talked about the purity of the opera. “You get a human voice naked; you get to hear something that is pure. We don’t use electronics, and the orchestra is playing something really amazing.” In his role as Community Ambassador, Owens visits public schools and talks with students. “It is important to connect with young people, and what I find so wonderful about this is that I get to see firsthand the wonderful young, courageously bright people who don’t get news coverage.” During that interview, he also addressed the issue of diversity within the opera world. “It hit home to me a couple of months ago, when I was in Lucerne, Switzerland, with the Berlin Harmonic. We were in the concert hall there, and I thought to myself that I was the only person of color in the room. But I know that this is my life.”
He spoke fondly of the George Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess,” where some folks might consider the old story degrading. “I understand we have had talks about not being embraced by the Black community. Back then, there weren’t a lot of positive images of Black people, but as I got older, I understood why people might protest this piece that was written by whites. But it should be enjoyed for the story and the music, and it is a wonderful piece of music and it is, oddly enough, the great American opera.”
Bass-baritone Christian van Horn will also perform at the event. He is a Ryan Opera Center alumnus and winner of the 2018 Richard Tucker Award and has appeared at Lyric in 15 roles since 2004/05, most recently Mephistophélès/“Faust” (2017/18), Escamillo/“Carmen” and Narbal/“Les Troyens” (both 2016/17).
In 1993, Lyric Opera of Chicago audiences first experienced Renée Fleming’s incomparable artistry in the title role of Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” and have loved her ever since for her spectacular portrayals in “Faust,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Alcina,” “Otello,” “Thaïs,” “La traviata,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Capriccio,” and “The Merry Widow.” She has also given brilliant concerts with the Lyric Opera Orchestra (both alone and in collaboration with Jonas Kauf- mann and with the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky); and a dazzling recital with Susan Graham. Fleming has also been featured in the company’s 50th and 60th anniversary gala concerts, and was central to the triumphant Chicago Voices concert in 2017.
Since 2010, Fleming has served as Lyric’s first Creative Consultant. She has fostered emerging artists through important work as Advisor of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center and encouraged a future generation of opera lovers through Lyric Unlimited programs.
Fleming continues to grace major venues worldwide. Her 2018/19 season began with the opening-night gala at Carnegie Hall, for which she was joined by Audra McDonald and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas. Later this season she will travel to Spain, France, and the Netherlands for recitals, which she will also sing in numerous American venues. In addition, she will return to Paris as a featured soloist in a concert with the Orchestre de Paris under Jaap Van Zweden. Last season Fleming was featured on the soundtracks of two Oscar-nominated films, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and “The Shape of Water.” She also earned critical acclaim as Nettie Fowler/“ Carousel” on Broadway, earning a Tony nomination. In conjunction with that success, her latest solo CD, “Renée Fleming: Broadway,” was released by Decca Records.
*This one-night-only event will feature an exclusive Gala at The Ritz-Carlton following the performance. To learn more about concert seating for the Renée Fleming 25th Anniversary Concert and additional Gala information, visit https://www.lyricopera.org/concertstickets/calendar/2018-2019/renee-fleming-25th-anniversary-tickets.
Emmy and SAG nominated actor, musician, and writer Tituss Burgess (aka Titus Andromedon from “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) has been added as a special guest to the Concert and Gala. Burgess is quickly emerging as one of the entertainment industry’s most versatile and dynamic performers, with his work in television, film, and theater generating both critical and commercial acclaim.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information http://tinyurl.com/om4hvgo or email:editor9 [email protected].