8:45 AM EST, January 2, 2013
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."
"I think much closer," Freud said, "because I think you relaxed a bit about sending up opera, which is what we want the whole (evening) to be about. But you also haven't ridiculed opera. That's the balance we have to find, isn't it? We want people who have never been to the opera before but who come to 'The Second City Guide to the Opera' to go away from that wanting to give opera a try, not having all their preconceptions confirmed."
So that Tuesday before Thanksgiving would prove a key moment for this collaboration. This was the first time the potential material would be put on its feet, and the audience inside the UP had no particular opera orientation but was expecting to laugh. Would jokes about master classes and Wagner's Ring Cycle do the trick?
"This will be a litmus test," James said before the cast, mostly actors from "What the Tour Guide Didn't Tell You: A Chicago Revue," plus Sniffen, took the stage.
The first sketch, which had Sniffen as a surgeon sharing box seats and clashing with a female aromatherapist before the 15-hour Ring Cycle begins, drew laughs from the start, and the Lyric contingent exhaled. As one might have expected at that early stage, other sketches were hit-and-miss.
Live variations on the Lyric's popular "Dr. Opera" therapy-session online videos (which feature famous opera characters in analysis) felt relatively flat, and a sketch about patrons adopting hipsters was in need of fine-tuning.
But a blissfully absurd bit that had Ross Bryant playing composer/musical theorist Arnold Schoenberg doing a stand-up comedy routine scored: funny when the jokes were funny, funnier when the references were so arcane that Schoenberg broke out in flop sweat.
The 30-minute set did what it was supposed to do: give the writers, director Billy Bungeroth and Lyric representatives a sense of what a cold audience would and wouldn't respond to.
"This was us dropping our child off at school for the first time," Sniffen said. "I felt really good about (there being) no moments of utter dead silence where you think the audience is saying, 'I don't know why I'm watching this.' I felt like people were on board."
Said James: "There was a guy kitty-corner to me with his girlfriend, and during the Schoenberg stand-up thing he turns to me and goes, 'I don't know why this is funny. It's hilarious, though.' And I was like: That's it, that's it."
Bungeroth, who would make the final calls of what would be kept or cut, had gotten some useful information out of the program.
"What I really thought was interesting was it wasn't necessarily the opera references or the comedy being two separate things," he said. "It felt like when we were hitting stuff, it was working together at the same time."
Another set of material was workshopped with mostly different actors a week later before a much smaller crowd, again with some pieces working better than others. Eventually the show committed to a cast, which includes Sniffen, Bryant and four more Second Citizens from across the organization (none from the current Mainstage cast) plus mezzo-soprano J'nai Bridges and tenor Bernard Holcomb from the Ryan Opera Center. Fleming also will sing, and she and Stewart will appear in sketches (albeit with little prior rehearsal) and serve as the evening's hosts. Two weeks of full rehearsals began the week before Christmas.
"We wouldn't normally do two weeks for a one-nighter, but this is something we're trying to make a little bit special," Leonard said. "Right now the only challenge for me is, are we going to get laughs? The hardest thing with any of these shows when you take it out of Second City, and you have not beta-tested it for 10 weeks in front of an audience, you're hoping most of it hits."
"They're under tremendous pressure," Fleming said. "If we have a bad night, you wouldn't really know it. American audiences by and large aren't going to boo; they'll be polite. But if comedic material has a bad night, if people don't laugh, then it hasn't worked."
But Fleming said she isn't worried about the seasoned Second City professionals as much as herself. "I'm the one who's the fish out of water, so, yeah, I'm going to have a lot of fun, but I'm going to be nervous too," she said.
At least Fleming will feel at home on the Lyric's stage, while the Second City performers must adjust from their typical cabaret setting to an opera house with a capacity of close to 3,600. The show has sold out, with the Lyric reporting that 25 percent of the ticket buyers are totally new to Lyric, while 75 percent come from its existing database of subscribers and single-ticket buyers.
"The Lyric stage is incredible because it's so different than our stage here, and it's a greater challenge for us to fill that space," James said. "And I think it's more unexpected that way because I think the Lyric audiences will be intrigued about what will happen within their regular walls and how we can tweak their regular experience at the opera."
Leonard said he was encouraged when he attended the Lyric's recent family program "Popcorn & Pasquale" and watched the comedy bits connecting with the audience.
"There was a reassuring moment when I could see a musical theater performer and a kid pulling laughs from light banter at center stage, not even at the lip of the stage," Leonard said. "From where I'm sitting in the balcony, I can engage with them in that human comedy moment."
With a video screen augmenting the visuals Saturday, attendees at "The Second City Guide to the Opera" presumably will be engaging in many human comedy moments. Whether the evening winds up as another one-off Second City gig or something more lasting has yet to be determined.
"I would love to see them tour the country with this program," Fleming said, though she noted that her ever-jammed schedule would preclude her from participating. "I think everything's on the table. Everything's up for discussion. It depends on how well it goes."
Said Leonard: "Of course, we'd love to see the show have a life beyond the one-night event at Lyric. At this point, we're taking it step by step."
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC