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3 operas, 1 dollar and 1 vote

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

The voting is well under way in Chicago, and if the governor wants to sway the result, he'll have to put his money on the table like everyone else. I'm talking about the vote to decide one of three operas on the bill for a future spring season at Chicago Opera Theater (COT), which has found a novel way to involve its audience in programming and raise money at the same time.

Anyone with a dollar to spare can vote on three short-listed contenders for a spot in COT's 2011 season. The company will produce whichever work is ahead in the polls by June 12 and won't disqualify anyone for repeat voting.

“This is Chicago. You can vote more than once,” said Brian Dickie, COT's general director. “If you've got $10,000, you can have 10,000 votes.” Actually, you can have 12,000 votes, because COT gives a five-vote “bonus” for every $25 spent.

Last year, COT raised $45,000 this way, including $16,000 in a matching donation from an anonymous donor who is offering a similar gift this year and next. The voting also added a very rare item to next year's calendar: Rossini's dramatic opera Mose in Egitto (Moses in Egypt), which won “by quite a wide margin,” Dickie said. The also-rans were Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan and Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera, which might have been the favourite to win in many other opera towns.

“We haven't had a lot of non-comic Rossini in Chicago,” said Dickie, offering one possible explanation. He couldn't or wouldn't say whether a large bloc vote from a single party had delivered the victory to Rossini.

COT is not shy, however, about saying who leads the People's Opera voting so far this year. According to the company's website, Shostakovich's operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki is in first place, followed by Richard Strauss's Capriccio and Mozart's The Magic Flute. The Shostakovich work, an eclectic satire about the scarcity of good apartments in Soviet-era Moscow, is seldom done even in Russia. Clearly, there's a keen appetite in Chicago for operas that are off the common track.

The city is one of the major American centres for opera, thanks mainly to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which has a high national profile and runs a heavy performance schedule from September through March. The much smaller COT begins its three-opera season after the Lyric's curtain comes down in the spring.

The Lyric is the place to go to hear big operas and big-name singers. With less money to spend, COT positions itself as a purveyor of underexposed works and new talent. Soprano Danielle de Niese sang at COT before her breakthrough appearances at England's 2005 Glyndebourne Festival and her subsequent performances with the Canadian Opera Company, of which Dickie is a former general director. COT was also an early advocate of the talents of Jane Archibald, a Canadian soprano whose career is flourishing in Europe, and who has yet to sing with Dickie's former company (she makes her COC debut in 2011). The emphasis on youth means that the COT's lead time can be shorter than the three-year cycle common at larger companies.

“Because we mostly employ younger artists, casting two years ahead is just fine,” Dickie said. “I would normally do the casting for spring, 2011, in the fall of this year.”

That's an important plus for COT's experiment in dollar democracy. It might have been difficult to interest people in what the company could be doing three years from now. The year after next seems a more imaginable target.

Dickie said that Shostakovich's operetta made this year's voting list in part because it's “comparatively compact and affordable,” relative to the composer's better-known Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. But Dickie wouldn't mind if the more familiar Magic Flute came from behind to win, “because the Lyric's production of Flute is about 25 years old.”

COT's 2009 season began with a production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, followed by a pocket-sized adaptation of Bizet's Carmen (edited by Marius Constant for a famous 1983 production by Peter Brook). Britten's Owen Wingrave opened on May 16 and continues through May 26. The company is no doubt already thinking about the scenic challenges of next year's Rossini drama, which begins under a plague of darkness, runs through plagues of hail and fire, and ends with the division of the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians.

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