A trio of new operas that take on modern topics is premiering at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. “Proximity” comprises performances about the search for connection in a tech-dominated world, humanity’s fraught stewardship of the environment and the impact of gun violence in cities and communities.
Actress and playwright Anna Deveare Smith said she was approached by Renée Fleming, the Lyric Opera’s creative consultant, with an intriguing proposition — to write her first opera libretto.
“The evening is called ‘Proximity,’ and I was a part of naming it that, thinking about how proximate we are to the things that we think have nothing to do with us. You know, ‘that problem over there.’ What’s our proximity to it?” Deveare Smith said. “We know we can’t be it. We can’t live in some of these communities. But if we understand our proximity, maybe there’s something that can be done. Theater, places where people perform, are places where our identities are muted enough that our ability for empathy becomes seduced.”
Deveare Smith used elements of the journalistic approach she developed writing theater to create the libretto for what became “The Walkers” by interviewing people whose lives had been touched by gun violence through the organization Chicago CRED.
“Our opera is called ‘The Walkers’ because I’m dedicating it to Arne [Duncan] and Curtis Toler and others who I see as walking with folks as they try to make this important transformation in their lives, and they don’t give up on them,” Deveare Smith said.
While opera might be an unexpected choice of medium for stories about gun violence, Deveare Smith said it’s a stirring way to tell deeply emotional stories.
“It expects, embraces and delivers on a heightened emotion, and it is very attractive, even when the subject is not attractive,” Deveare Smith said. “There’s a lot of beauty up on that stage. The beauty that Yuval [Sharon] has created visually, the beauty of the music, the singers’ voices are just entrancing. I think there’s something there that meets an audience differently. I hope what it does, because it’s about … an issue that has haunted Chicago for a very long time, at least since the ‘60s — I hope it brings people along.”
“Proximity” will be presented at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through April 8.