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Lyric Opera presents three American plays with ‘Proximity’ 

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents the second of two Chicago-set world premieres in its season: Proximity, a trio of new American operas that confront head on some of the greatest challenges affecting modern society: the devastating impact of gun violence on cities and neighborhoods, yearning for connection in a world driven by technology, and the need to respect and protect our natural resources. In an innovative production by director Yuval Sharon that is searing in its intimacy, revolutionary in its structure and groundbreaking in its technical wizardry,  

Proximity is on stage at the Lyric Opera House for five performances only, March 24 – April 8. Curated since its inception in 2019 by Lyric’s Special Projects Advisor Renée Fleming, along with Lyric’s General Director Anthony Freud and Sharon, Proximity brings together some of the leading creative thinkers in American culture, all in their Lyric debuts.  

Daniel Bernard Roumain, the acclaimed Haitian American composer, and Anna Deavere Smith, the legendary playwright and actress, have written The Walkers, an opera that gives voice to families grappling with gun violence in Chicago.  

Caroline Shaw, a Pulitzer and Grammy-winning composer, has teamed with writer Jocelyn Clarke for Four Portraits, an opera about the impact of technology on society.  

And Pulitzer and Grammy-winning composer John Luther Adams has written Night, a short opera on the fragility of the natural world, set to a text by the late poet John Haines.  

The three operas are spliced and shuffled to create an entirely new work that zooms in and out from the scale of the individual to the community to the cosmic. Proximity offers a compelling snapshot of 21st century life with all of its complex intersections and reveals our everlasting capacity for hope.  

“The ultimate irony in working on a project called Proximity is that most of it was made in the era of social distance,” says Sharon. “We chose the name Proximity because it succinctly captured one of the opera’s fundamental ideas: we are closer to our fellow humans than we are often made to feel.” 

The three works: 

The Walkers:

Music by Daniel Bernard Roumain and libretto by Anna Deavere Smith. Composer Daniel Bernard Roumain is known for his signature violin sounds infused with myriad electronic and African American musical influences. He is a composer of solo, chamber, orchestral, and operatic works, and has composed an array of film, theater, and dance scores. He has worked with artists from Lady Gaga and Philip Glass to Bill T. Jones and Marin Alsop and has published more than 300 works. 

Anna Deavere Smith is an actress, playwright, teacher and author. She is credited with creating a new form of theater by looking at current events from multiple points of view. In 2012, President Obama awarded her the National Endowment for the Humanities Medal. Like Proximity director Sharon, she is a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.   

The Walkers is her first opera. After Lyric connected Smith to Chicago CRED (Creating Real Economic Diversity), an anti-gun-violence organization co-founded by Arne Duncan and Laurene Powell Jobs, Smith created the libretto following a series of interviews with Chicagoans whose families had experienced gun violence. 

Several of the characters in the opera are people she interviewed, including Duncan, CRED counselor and former gang member Curtis Toler and Yasmine Miller, the mother of a toddler who was shot and killed only months before the interview took place. Other characters are an amalgam of real people who work as counselors and people who have been helped by the organization. Smith’s libretto uses the actual words of people to create monologues and dialogue. 

We meet the fictional character of Lil’ Bunchy Bates, a child who deflects attempts to be recruited to gangs until he is shot and killed while playing basketball. Violence breaks out at his funeral, targeting the suspected perpetrator. Across the city, Miller is shot in a drive-by shooting that kills her toddler. The story ends with a message of cautious hope that the epidemic of gun violence and the related crises of segregation, police abuse, and gang violence will all one day end, and that the community will finally find peace.


Four Portraits:
Music by Caroline Shaw and libretto by Caroline Shaw and Jocelyn Clarke

Composer Shaw is a musician who moves among roles, genres, and mediums; her recent work involves compositions for film, television, dance, and now opera. She was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Partitafor 8 Voices and has received three Grammy Awards. She has written more than 100 works in the last decade, and has worked with artists as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma, Rosalía, Renée Fleming, and Nas. Her work as a vocalist or composer has appeared in the recent film Tár, the Showtime television series Yellowjackets, and the Netflix documentary of Beyonce’s Homecoming.

The first three of Shaw and Clarke’s Four Portraits show a couple grappling with the disconnection of modern life — a fragmented telephone call with a bad connection, a crowded train of strangers, and a nighttime car trip with GPS. In the final scene, which begins with the first face-to-face conversation in the opera, spoken language recedes and acquiesces to the sonic landscape of the forest in a hopeful nod to a future unencumbered by technology.

Night: Music by John Luther Adams and libretto by John Haines

For his contribution to Proximity, Adams was inspired by the work of his friend and longtime neighbor in Alaska, the late poet John Haines. One of Haines’ very last poems, Night offers a dark and troubling vision of the Earth’s future, but Adams was drawn to its ultimate notes of hope and promise in the next generation, a theme that runs throughout each of Proximity’s three works. 

Night features mezzo-soprano Zoie Reamsas an omniscient Greek sybil who launches the work’s spiritual interrogations. Reams was seen earlier this season at Lyric as Ragonde in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. 

Untitled design 74Lyric strongly reinforces its commitment to new work. Following the extraordinary success of the world premiere of The Factotum earlier this season, Proximity continues to push boundaries for what is possible in and for opera. It brings a new kind of musical and theatrical experience to Lyric, to the city of Chicago, and to the world. Experience the world premiere of Proximity — only at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Five chances to see Proximity: March 24, 26 (matinee), 29, April 5 (matinee), and 8. 

A world premiere commissioned by Lyric Opera of Chicago, Proximity addresses adult themes and contains some adult language.. 

Tickets and more information: 

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago ( or email: [email protected].

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