One Score 2013

RAVINIA AND OPERA—A GLORIOUS HERITAGE

By John Schauer

Opera and Ravinia have enjoyed a special, close connection throughout the festival’s history. Individual acts of operas began to appear on Ravinia concerts in 1912, about midway through the short life (1910 – 1915) of the Chicago Grand Opera Company, the first of seven different companies that would attempt to gain a foothold in the Windy City between 1910 and 1946. (Lyric Opera of Chicago finally achieved that status after a tentative start in 1954). Beginning in 1914 entire operas were presented at Ravinia on a nightly basis, at the instigation of Louis Eckstein, a vice president of The Ravinia Company.

ravinia's opera gate

“Entire” didn’t necessarily mean “complete,” however, and most of the operas were presented in abbreviated form, for the convenience of patrons riding the train back to Chicago. Thus, when Ravinia gave its first performance of Verdi’s Aida in 1924, it eliminated the second scene of the first act and, surprisingly, the second scene of the second act—the “Triumphal Scene,” perhaps the most famous portion of the score!

Under Eckstein’s guidance, Ravinia by the end of the decade became the summer opera capital of the world, a position it would hold until the Great Depression closed the park in 1932. The park’s iconic gate during those years even bore the name “Ravinia Opera.” A page in the 1924 program book advertised “Opera every night (except Mondays) at 8:15”; park admission was $1, and reserved seats ranged from $1.10 to a whopping $2.50! As many as 30 different operas—usually only one performance of each—would be presented in a single season, an astonishing statistic when you realize that such major companies as Lyric Opera of Chicago or San Francisco Opera today only present about 10 operas in an entire year.

How was this possible? First of all, the singers were available. It was the age before jet planes, and opera singers who spent their winters in New York, performing with the Metropolitan Opera, looked forward to balmy summers in Highland Park, where they would recreate their greatest portrayals. Second, production styles were much different in those days as well. The concept of a unified production designed for the occasion by one person, and often directed by the same person, had not yet come into being. Most singers traveled with their own costumes; sets were assembled from “stock” elements such as a tree or castle wall or generic furniture; and opera “direction” usually consisted of telling a singer which side to enter from, where to stand, and which side to exit. It was all about voices—and legendary ones, at that. Claudio Muzio, Rosa Raisa, Elisabeth Rethberg, Lucretia Bori, Tito Schipa, Edward Johnson and Giovanni Martinelli are only some of the legendary singers who made it a golden age for opera, made even more brilliant by the fact that the orchestra in the “pit” was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

ravinia's opera gate

After the Depression, great voices continued to be heard at Ravinia Festival. Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Lotte Lehman, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Joan Sutherland filled the summer nights with song. The operatic component was heightened when James Levine became Ravinia’s second music director in 1973, the same year he became principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera (his Met title would change to music director two years later). During his tenure Ravinia presented concert performances of Puccini’s Tosca, Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s La traviata, Macbeth and La forza del destino, Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni and Abduction from the Seraglio, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore and Lucia di Lammermoor, Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, R. Strauss’s Elektra and Ariadne auf Naxos. The casts included such legendary singers as Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves, Roberta Peters, Leontyne Price, Margaret Price, Leonie Rysanek, Renata Scotto, Beverly Sills, Kiri Te Kanawa, Tatiana Troyanos, Shirley Verrett, Dawn Upshaw, John Alexander, Plácido Domingo, Jerry Hadley, Håkan Hagegård, Thomas Hampson, Sherrill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, Paul Plishka, Hermann Prey, Samuel Ramey and Bryn Terfel.

James Conlon, Ravinia’s current music director (since 2005) is also world-renowned as one of today’s foremost opera conductors, and the 11 operas he has conducted at Ravinia have been among the many highlights of his tenure here. Six of them were revelatory performances of Mozart operas in the Martin Theatre, whose intimate, 850-seat capacity makes it comparable to the theaters in which Mozart actually produced his operas during his lifetime. Conlon’s other Ravinia opera credits range from the obscure—Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis (“The Emperor of Atlantis”)—to such beloved operatic standards as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Tosca to Verdi’s Otello and Rigoletto (not to mention his very operatic setting of the Requiem Mass).

In addition, Ravinia has in recent years presented such unique offerings as Berlioz’s arrangement of Weber’s Der Freischütz and the U.S. premiere of Princess Magogo, the world’s first Zulu opera.

Clearly, at Ravinia, the Golden Age of Opera continues.

—JS


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