It was the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving, and most of the crowd for The Second City's Chicago-themed revue in the UP Comedy Club apparently didn't have to work the next day, because the room remained packed for the free extra set beginning at 10 p.m.
On most nights this late set would revolve around improvisations, but this time the audience would serve as guinea pigs for one of the city's more surprising cross-cultural experiments: a collaboration between Second City and Lyric Opera.
The Lyric will host "The Second City Guide to the Opera" on the Civic Opera House stage Saturday, with Lyric creative consultant/world-renowned soprano Renee Fleming and Shakespearean actor/"Star Trek: The Next Generation" star Patrick Stewart scheduled to appear along with two singers from the Lyric-affiliated Ryan Opera Center and six Second City cast members.
Fleming is the one who pushed the idea after she attended a Second City e.t.c. performance more than a year ago and heard a recording of her singing being used to support a scene. The Second City was incorporating Fleming; why not turn that equation around?
After all, since the 53-year-old singer joined the Lyric in 2010 and Anthony Freud became its general director in October 2011, the organization has been pushing to make its art form seem less intimidating to the general population, only a fraction of which ponies up to witness the Lyric's lavish productions at the opera house.
"We have to keep getting the message out that it's an accessible place, it's a comfortable place, it belongs really to all the citizens and anybody who wants to come," said Fleming, who has visited schools and in March participated in a surprise public performance with Chicago Symphony Orchestra creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma at the Thompson Center.
So combining the Lyric with the Second City, which offers "such a relaxed atmosphere" and is familiar to many young Chicagoans, made sense to Fleming because the collaboration could give the uninitiated "an entree to a whole different kind of entertainment."
Still, Second City humor and opera humor are … different. Second City humor is about spontaneity and improvisation (even if the shows wind up scripted) as well as intimacy and a commitment to the truth of the moment. Nobody is winging it at the Lyric; you sit in the elegant opera house expecting to hear beautiful, un-miked singing from stunningly powerful singers bedecked in lavish costumes amid ornate sets, with any humor tending to be whimsical or stemming from absurdly melodramatic plotting.
Fleming, who spoke on the phone from her New York office, acknowledged that the public tends to associate opera humor with "breastplates and horns (and) 'it's not over till the fat lady sings.'" But the world of opera, she said, offers plenty of spoof-worthy material.
"I think opera is rife with humor," Fleming said. "Just usually it's us poking fun at ourselves, from all the cliches to, particularly, the way the diva's portrayed. There's a lot of room for comedy there."
Fleming and Freud made that case to Second City representatives in a meeting in December 2011, and the comedy organization, which presents customized shows in various cities as well as programs for corporate clients, was game.
"It wouldn't have necessarily been something I would have assumed would be a logical match, but because they kind of came into our world with 'What would happen if,' it does seem pretty plausible," Second City writer Kate James said. "I think you've got two Chicago powerhouses. Why not mash 'em up and see what happens?"
Soon, James, fellow writer Tim Sniffen and Second City e.t.c. musical director Jesse Case were taking advantage of their new carte blanche to immerse themselves in all things Lyric. They attended finished operas and dress rehearsals, sat in on tech run-throughs and orchestra practices and observed costume-shop fittings and the construction of Elektra's prosthetic chest.
"They've given us open access to everything," James said.
She and Sniffen also attended a master class that Fleming conducted at the private Casino club in the Streeterville neighborhood in January, though Sniffen first had to get past the guard who disdained his jeans, an encounter that miffed Freud because it reinforced the kind of snobbery that he's been trying to eliminate from the Lyric world. The master class inspired a sketch in which a famous opera singer browbeats and patronizes up-and-comers seeking her advice.
Fleming has a role in that scene, though not the one you might expect. She also suggested another sketch in which a diva's assistants treat her like a queen to her face and dish behind her back.
"I said, 'Feel free, go to town,'" she laughed.
In the fall James, Sniffen and Case performed a couple of table reads of the script-in-progress at UP. Fleming was at the first one; her New York-based assistant listened on speakerphone to the second. The first reading prompted the Lyric folks to suggest that the Second City writers take the gloves off, so to speak. After the second reading, Freud and others from the Lyric looked pleased.
"I think this was more deep," Freud told Second City Executive Vice President Kelly Leonard. "You got opera so right."
"I think you guys gave us permission to go a little inside baseball," Leonard said. "You've got to find what the right tone is for the thing. But we're closer, I think."