This Week We’re Obsessed With: The Chicago Lyric Opera

Will Podlewski, Columnist

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I like to think of myself as a pretty classy guy. I enjoy the (very) rare trip to a nice restaurant, I love a good Frank Sinatra album and my mommy says I even clean up well. But despite all of that, there is one thing I had never done — gone to the opera.

I had always come up with excuses to not go, foremost of which was the fact that I wasn’t going to drop $200 just to sit in a chair for three hours and hear drama queens sing dramatically about drama.  But when I found out the Lyric Opera of Chicago was offering student tickets to shows for just $20, I decided to take the plunge. I was worried I might be way up in the balcony, so I was prepared to send home for a pair of binoculars, just in case.

I sat in the 11th row. I could see the conductor’s nose hairs.

The show was “Simon Boccanegra,” a typical work from Giuseppe Verdi featuring poisoning, mistrust, more poisoning, mistaken identity and poisoning. And I got my money’s worth.

I have a bit of a musical background (jazz mostly, so take it or leave it), but I have to admit even I was blown away by the sheer magnitude and majesty of the pit orchestra at the Lyric. Under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis (a British knight!), the orchestra flawlessly executed Verdi’s original vision not only with technical mastery but also with artistry. I was actually hoping to hear more, rather than having them relegated to little more than background music. “Simon Boccanegra” lacks the show-stopping numbers of other operas by Verdi, so the pit was more of a pervasive undertone than a participatory actor.

My praise for the horns and violins also extends to the principal cast members … for the most part. Thomas Hampson in the titular role was serviceable but effective, with the real standout being the surprisingly goofy Frank Lopardo as the very un-goofy Gabriele Adorno. The real issue comes with the part of Amelia Grimaldi, the female lead — the actress Krassimira Stoyanova is just downright whiny.

I’d venture to say the whininess applies to most of the characters, really. They are little more than archetypes, with few defining, unique characteristics. After all, for a two-and-a-half hour performance, not a whole lot happens. If you’re going to the opera for the story, you’re missing the point.

Opera isn’t only about warbly sopranos taking five minutes to sing about how much they love some pudgy long-haired aristocrat; it’s also about real life people. Never in my life have I so indulged in people watching. From slick urbanite couples to pouty children in ill-fitting suits, to crotchety old men who can make even plaid bow-ties look dapper, the fashion statements were just about as enjoyable as the bloated melodrama unfolding on the stage. I think Lisa Douglas from the criminally-underappreciated late ’60s sitcom “Green Acres” put it best when describing the opera: “You know, where they sing the stories in all different languages which nobody understands, but there are always a lot of people because everybody wants to see what everybody else is wearing.”

It was an experience I’m not likely to forget. Nor will I forget how much of a deal it truly was. Just out of curiosity, I checked the Lyric’s ticket prices. Without a student discount, my seat would have cost $184. I’d say it was worth it.