Home / News / Yankovskaya is leaving Chicago Opera Theatre. What’s next for the company?

Yankovskaya is leaving Chicago Opera Theatre. What’s next for the company?


“The Nose” wasn’t planned to be Lidiya Yankovskaya’s swan song at the Chicago Opera Theater, where she has been musical director since 2017.

But Dmitri Shostakovich’s absurd political satire, written when the composer was in his early 20s, is as fitting a farewell as they come for the conductor. Yankovskaya – the name of the Tribune 2020 Chicagoan of the Year in Classical Music – He raised COT’s profile immensely, his interpretations were refreshing and his repertoire dazzlingly diverse: he led 25 new works in Chicago, 11 of which were world premieres. He also envisioned COT as a first stop for artists developing their careers, formalizing COT’s Young Artist Program and establishing the Vanguard Initiative, which pairs first-time opera composers with accomplished librettists for a trial run of a new work.

With “The Nose,” the company even persuaded Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera, to design a brand new production. Attracting such high-profile talent would have been unheard of for the lean company a few short seasons ago.

“(We) try to do things at the highest artistic level possible,” Yankovskaya says. “I think that’s what makes someone like Francesca Zambello want to work with COT on such a complex work.”

For 37-year-old Yankovskaya, “The Nose” is also personal. Both Shostakovich and the Yankovsky family lived in St. Petersburg, where “The Nose” was based. He comes from St. Petersburg: A petty bureaucrat loses his nose, only for the appendage to take on a life of its own and incite chaos in the city. Like Shostakovich, Yankovskaya’s St. His great-grandparents, academics at St. Petersburg University, also became targets of the Stalin regime. Her great-grandmother was twice sent to Gulag camps; his great-grandfather was kidnapped and assassinated.

“The philosophy departments of universities, especially Jewish intellectuals, began to purge anyone who might ask questions,” says Yankovskaya.

In 1995, Yankovskaya and her mother fled extreme antisemitism in post-USSR Russia and moved to St. Petersburg. He immigrated to the USA as a refugee from St. Petersburg. When they left St. About a third of St. Petersburg was Jewish, which at the time was legally considered an ethnic rather than a religious distinction. Shostakovich, who has long been interested in Jewish themes and subjects, draws attention in “The Nose” to the large Jewish community in the city and the state oppression they faced: A bagel vendor harassed by the city police appears as part of the film.

“This is a complete mockery of the police and the police inspector, this man who is obsessed with power and likes to feel important. These are archetypes that we see everywhere, in every period, everywhere,” says Yankovskaya.

Although “The Nose” is the last production to hit the runway this season, Yankovskaya officially departs in the spring at the end of Chicago Opera Theatre’s 50th anniversary season. Now in demand as a guest conductor with orchestras and opera companies across the country, Yankovskaya says it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile her freelance schedule with her COT commitments. The company delayed his departure timeline until it appointed a replacement for COT chief executive Ashley Magnus, who resigned in March.

With new executive director Lawrence Edelson, founder of the opera incubator American Lyric Theatre, now at the helm, Yankovskaya was confident that COT had entered a chapter from which she could leave with minimal upset. He will continue to be involved with the company’s Vanguard Initiative and is likely to return as a guest conductor in future seasons as his schedule permits.

“We have a fantastic chief executive who brings a lot of experience, knowledge, thoughtfulness and experience in all administrative areas where the company needs strengthening. Larry is a stage director, a former dancer and singer, and has been developing new work for a long time. says Yankovskaya. “This is a good time for stable leadership in the company.”

In interviews, both Yankovskaya and Edelson emphasized their mutual respect, which dates back to Yankovskaya’s leadership of the “Life and Death of Alan Turing” workshops hosted by American Lyric a decade ago. That opera had the feature fully staged premiere at COT last year.

Edelson says future seasons will bear some of Yankovskaya’s stamp, especially the range of artists and narratives she has trained.

“He supported artists (not only composers and librettists, but also singers, conductors and directors) who reflected the diversity of society. I think this is important; The opera truly reflects the society we live in. This will certainly continue under my leadership,” says Edelson.

“The Nose” promises to be a high point in what has been a rocky anniversary season for COT so far. One of Edelson’s first big decisions as chief executive was to cancel the company’s spring production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Platée” after spiraling inflation across the supply chain, government COVID aid halts and overestimated audience return figures worsened the budget deficit. happened.

Then, a week before curtain call, star baritone Nathan Gunn — another major hit — withdrew from COT’s season-opening monodrama “Soldier Songs” due to a family emergency. The performance went on as planned, with David Adam Moore making a stunning last-minute substitution.

Edelson believes COT’s ability to take these blows in stride should be seen as evidence of the company’s stability, not cause for panic.

“For example, the decision to cancel ‘Platée’ can be something that makes people say, ‘Oh, is this such a big problem?’ “In fact, it shows that we have a clear picture of our capabilities and that we now have a team that understands what needs to be done to begin to address some of the challenges, both internal and external, of operating an opera company in the current environment,” says Edelson. “Yes, people are saying that because we canceled the production They may be disappointed – I We are disappointed to cancel production. But it was still the right decision.”

Another change that will affect COT’s books going forward is that the October 24 newsletter announcing Yankovskaya’s departure states that the company will not bring in a new music director “immediately.” Instead, invited guest conductors will direct productions while hiring a “musical conductor” to ensure musical continuity.

The language of the news release remains vague as to whether the COT will occur. non-stop Hiring a replacement for Yankovskaya. Edelson says this was intentional.

“I’ve been here for a few months and I think it’s too early to draw any conclusions about what the company needs in the long term. Many opera companies our size don’t actually have a music director, and (for those that do) a music director’s job usually involves the development of the orchestra. We don’t have our own orchestra,” says Edelson. “When Lidiya shared this news with me, we had real conversations about her work because most of it wasn’t actually the work of a musical director. “He does a lot of the things that fall on the music team at most companies.”

Opera America, a membership organization that includes more than 200 opera companies in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, includes the Chicago Opera Theatre. second budget tierAs well as Opera Philadelphia and Atlanta Opera, and some summer festival troupes (Glimmerglass, Saint Louis Opera Theatre, Des Moines, Cincinnati Opera). About half of these peers do not have music director or resident conductor positions; Six of them (Arizona, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Minnesota, Omaha and Pittsburgh) have the title of chief music officer.

Yankovskaya agrees that the move makes sense for a company like COT.

“There has been a culture of music directors flying over for the shows they direct. This is not good, but it has become the norm and expectation. COT didn’t happen that way for me because I live here; I have a family here. But COT only does three major productions and a few smaller productions a year, and it’s never good to have just one conductor running everything – I’ve always brought in at least one or two guest conductors each year. “It is more practical for the company – at least at this time – to have a head of music team whose primary responsibilities will be to oversee all musical events of the organization.”

As for what the next 50 years might hold for COT, Edelson said the company has “numerous world premieres on the way,” including a project that “will be the first full-length opera for the two artists.” (“I shouldn’t say more than that… I’m being Mr. Vague here!” he jokes.) COT also has a number of American and North American premieres awaiting board approval.

Edelson also promises updates later this year “specifically addressing the long-term financial stability of the organization.”

“I think of opera as a living art form, which is also our motto. I love this because it doesn’t just mean new work, it doesn’t just mean our existing artists. “To me, it offers a lens through which we look at the world,” says Edelson. “’The Nose’ is a perfect example of this. … It’s some of the most creative and eclectic music out there, and it’s kind of an operatic roller coaster. If we can offer things like this, I think I’m doing my job.”

“The Nose” runs Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m. and Dec. 10 at 3 p.m. at Harris Music and Dance Theatre, 205 E. Randolph St.; tickets $45-$150; more information at chicagooperaeater.org.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.


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