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Laughter storms the high C’s as Second City, Fleming and Stewart skewer opera at the Lyric

Submitted by on Jan 7, 2013 – 8:41 pm

Update: The success of Second City Guide to the Opera — the Jan. 5 collaborative mash-up of operatic parody and slapstick with actor Patrick Stewart and soprano Renée Fleming — has inspired the Lyric Opera to announce a June run of similar shows at the Civic Opera House in a cozy onstage setting, with libations, to 300 audience members a night.  Click for details.

By Nancy Malitz

The soprano Renée Fleming and Shakespearean actor Patrick Stewart have been cultivating their inner comedians for some time now, even though the world thinks of them as by-the-book heroes of  lyric tragedies and classic dramas. Sure, Fleming  dabbled in indie rock and Stewart reached super-stardom as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, but we still think of them as having Violetta and Macbeth in their DNA. 

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Fleming played the avaricious diva Renée Flambé to Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir, who was hired to help her produce the world’s first real estate opera, “La Romanza di Condo.” Or that Stewart was Mr. Perdue, Maitre D’ at L’Idiot in “L.A. Story,” telling Steve Martin that he can’t order the duck.

No great leap, then, to find that Fleming lured friend Stewart to join her onstage at the Civic Opera House, for a blizzard of skits that covered everything from the hermetic life of the pit musician to the sexual appetites of sopranos. Two video screens allowed for backstage peeks, such as this opener for the Second City crew and Stewart:

Fleming has been crazy about The Second City players since early in her stint as creative consultant to the Lyric, which hired her in part because of her disarming skill as an ambassador for the art form. As Fleming tells it, she and her husband were enjoying a night out at the club in 2011 when she was shocked to hear her own voice being used in one of the parodies. The musical director, when confronted, must have thought he was about to be named in a lawsuit. But what Fleming wanted was something quite different. She wanted to collaborate, citing a rich mine of material to skewer that went way beyond “breastplates and horns.”

The soprano took her idea to Lyric general director Anthony Freud, who says he threw open the Lyric’s doors for the better part of a year so that the Second City team of three writers could immerse themselves in all aspects of opera life. “The best satire is based on affection, and you can tell from the quality of the writing that they really got under the skin of the art form,” says the delighted Freud. But unlike opera, where the tradition is firm, the comedy show was being so heavily tweaked right up to curtain that Freud himself, at 24 hours and counting, confessed he’s wasn’t quite sure what he was going to be seeing.

Here are some quick clips from the sold-out performance, in case you missed it.

Student Renée Fleming arrived late on her bike for a master class:

Do you actually know what the musicians in the opera pit wear? Second City member Tim Sniffen played a trombonist who crawled out to share:

Patrick Stewart gave Clarisa Barreca some operatic pointers in how to stand her ground with a snooty Starbucks barista (Tim Sniffen). When you want your coffee a certain way, you’ve got to make it stick:

Dr. Opera (Ross Bryant) has some pretty crazy patients, but when Elektra (Beth Melewski) showed up, he immediately canceled the rest of his day:

No, it wasn’t “just lunch.” Tawny Newsome and Tim Sniffen agreed on a blind date to see Wagner’s Ring Cycle, complete, in one evening.

Ross Bryant played Arnold Schoenberg, who sweated bullets as a really intense stand-up comic. Ravel jokes, anyone?

An American college student (Joey Bland) traveling through Italy stumbled at the language barrier with an opera character (J’nai Bridges):

Lyric’s Freud said by telephone that he was particularly happy 25 percent of the crowd was new to Lyric. “And the great thing about database technique is that we’re in a position technically to communicate with just about every one of them on a one-to-one basis, to get feedback on what they liked and what might entice them,” Freud said.  As for follow-up visits, there’s always Dr. Opera, who has worked wonders with Hänsel and Gretel:

The Second City Guide to the Opera was the brainchild of Renée Fleming. She shared emcee duties with Stewart. Mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges and tenor Bernard Holcomb from The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center joined the Second City cast — Clarisa Barreca, Ross Bryant, Tawny Newsome, Joey Bland, Beth Melewski and Tim Sniffen. The Second City’s Kelly Leonard was executive producer; Jesse Case was musical director; and Kate James, Tim Sniffen, and Jesse Case were the writers.

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