"The Second City Guide to the Opera"

What happens when The Second City teams with the Lyric Opera of Chicago? We find out from some of the principal planners of this meeting of musical and comedy minds. Kelly Leonard of Second City and Anthony Freud of the Lyric Opera of Chicago join us on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm.

Watch a web extra video of Leonard and Freud discussing how comedy and opera go together and how they were able to push boundaries with this performance.

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World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming and actor Patrick Stewart of Star Trek will host the already sold-out evening.

Chicago Tonight spoke with Kate James, one of the writers of The Second City Guide to the Opera. Read the Q&A below:

Kate James & Kelly Leonard in rehearsal; Alexandra Day from Lyric at rightWhen Renée Fleming proposed the idea to The Second City to work together, what was the initial reaction?

Well, I was brought in after they already had the initial conversation. It went in first through the producers, but my initial reaction was surprise. But her [Fleming’s] attitude toward collaborating was so open and excited about the prospect, that it made us excited too. At Second City, we collaborate with a lot of interesting partnerships. She came to us and that’s a great thing, and we weren’t going to say no to that. My surprise was met with excitement, and it seemed like a cool and unique idea.

One might think that the opera and comedy are opposites. How well do they work together?

Everyone’s initial reaction to the project has been, ‘Really? Make opera funny?’ But I’ve learned over the past year so many of the structures and personalities and tropes—they’re all the same. We’re not that different. It’s a group of people on stage presenting a show for an audience, though the products are infinitely different. The journey through costumes and writing and rehearsals are wildly different. For me, it was like learning a different language.

But I think they compliment each other very well. We still get questions up to this week of, ‘Really? How is that going to work?’ The Lyric Opera of Chicago has a great sense of humor about themselves, and Renée and everyone have a great sense of humor of the art form and what it takes to put on a show. They’re very well aware of the stereotypes people have about the opera and have always been willing to poke fun of it. During the first set of writing and reading materials, Anthony Freud said you can go further. They’ve given us permission to go mad, and when you write a comedy that’s the best.

Courtesy of Lyric Opera of ChicagoDuring your research for writing, you had to immerse yourself in opera culture. What has that experience been like?

The thing that was the most thrilling and fun was that they gave us complete access to everything that they’ve been doing over the past year. Myself and Tim Sniffen, and Jesse Case, the three of us saw everything. We saw every show, a tech rehearsal, costume fitting for a chorus member, we talked with wig and makeup people, we even saw a prosthetic breast being made for Elektra. The costume shop and prop shop are unreal, it’s like a young kid who wanted to be on stage, this is they’re ultimate fantasy room filled with beautiful costumes. At Second City, we have chairs, and we wear our own clothes and pantomime most of our props. We don’t go there where nothing is suggested and everything is a reality. Tim and I sat in on a master class that Renée taught in February, and it was fascinating and incredible.

I will say quite honestly, I didn’t have a huge knowledge of opera coming into this project. We were assembled as a group of writers and I was lucky enough to be on this project. It wasn’t because of my extensive opera knowledge. I think the best part for me is the complete immersion. It was like taking a master class in how to watch the opera, and I’ve fallen more in love with it. A year ago, I’d seen some operas and enjoyed them, but I’m able to watch now with a whole new appreciation. I think in the past I’ve probably been less adventurous in which operas I chose to see, but I saw such a variety this year that I’m able to appreciate different types. I truly have a different appreciation that I did before.

It’s also something I can’t do, and I find exciting. I can’t sing like these people, I can’t imagine these stages. When we went to the shows, we felt like we were somebody’s small town cousin let in the back door. But every time we were introduced to people, they were so excited about what we did. There was mutual admiration of what’s going on. They think, ‘Oh, I could never do that,’ and we’re thinking the same thing. But we can all do it, and we’re going to do it together and create something new.

What were some of the obstacles in writing the script, combining the traditional stuffiness of the opera and the raunchiness of The Second City?

We wanted to be respectful. The Lyric was saying go for it, push a little harder on this, go deeper. It was fun to get that permission. There’s a fine line in comedy. You don’t want to flat out make fun of someone; it’s not as sophisticated or layered as well-honed satire. You want to lampoon but be respectful. Celebrate and make fun of it. It’s a delicate balance. I never really felt it was stumbling block; it was always about getting to the right spot with the material. We tested it at Second City during late nights; we’d get a room full of strangers to stay later to get their reaction and see what was fitting. We wanted to open opera to new audiences, and not just write material only insider opera-goers would understand.

It was a weird task to have to write material for an insider opera person and a person coming for fun who doesn’t know anything. Hopefully we’re doing that, otherwise it misses the point. We created something new to win over die-hard opera fans that never thought they’d laugh at anything during the opera, or those who wouldn’t dream of entering North and Wells and watching late night comedy.

Courtesy of the Lyric Opera of ChicagoDo you have a favorite scene that you can give audiences a preview of?

One of my favorites is a scene that takes place in a master class. We wrote it after we were lucky enough to watch Renée’s master class. It pokes fun at all the stereotypes of an opera diva. The fun part about it is that Renée makes a cameo but not as a diva. She has a good sense of humor and this scene is pretty great. This week of rehearsal and last weekend hearing all the music come together has been great. Writing lyrics, hearing Tim and Jesse and I hum through this stuff is a far cry from hearing our cast and added opera singers and hearing their voices mixed with ours. Today was also the first day we have musicians. A quartet joins Jesse on stage and hearing the music together was super exciting. We also bring a little of our style of music to it that’s not operatic in nature.

What has the transition been like performing at the enormous Lyric Opera that seats thousands compared to the intimate setting of The Second City?

It’s been really a really interesting challenge. We’re slowing down lyrics and making concessions. Comedy is all about timing. So we had to adjust the timing to let a joke or laugh travel across 4,000 faces without throwing off the timing onstage. We’ll also have projections which is huge. It’s something that’s different for the Lyric, but it’s the little moments and comedic beats that are necessary elements, so we’ll use technology to help us to make sure everyone is getting the same experience.

Watch a short promotional sketch by the Lyric Opera of Chicago and The Second City in the video below.

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