“All This For An Art Form”

Mom, Dad, I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been on the stage of Lyric Opera. I was in the dressing rooms and the rehearsal space. I met the man who makes the wigs and I hefted a cleaver and gazed at a crown. I sat in the pit and I peeked through the props. I peered at the stage from a catwalk six stories up, and I craned my neck at the flies even higher. I saw a moon go from blue to green to yellow, and I rode in an elevator that’s carried elephants and Pavarotti.

Recently I took the backstage tour of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I’ve always loved opera, with its majesty and theatrics and tragedy and unabashed emotion. The opportunity to see how the magic is created only comes three times a year, so I leapt at the chance.

The tour began where it always begins for spectators: in the grand foyer. Each person was given a number, and beverages, including champagne and wine (of course), were offered while the guests waited for their number to be called. Then the groups were led into the theater for an introduction to Lyric, the building, and their history. The backstage tour began with a walk through Peacock Alley, where the “Backstage Johnny’s” would line up to present their gifts to the divas. The group was led first to the property room where the various props are stored. There were shelves of baskets and instruments and flowers, a huge bust of Paisiello for “The Barber of Seville”, countless leaves for “Eugene Onegin”, a simple canvas and wood machine that creates the illusion of wind, and other bits and pieces that help set the scene.

A walk across the catwalk led to wardrobes and costumes. We crossed over the stage six stories up with clusters of ropes to one side and curtains and lights on the other. Over the next four stops we learned that the principals’ costumes are often rented from other companies, and because they have to fit many body types are built with laces and suspenders, and large hem lines are built in to allow for singers of various girths. The gowns are often made from curtain material to ensure longevity and to reduce the glare that silk or polyester could create, and that means they can weigh up to fifteen pounds. The shoe collection alone is enough to make most shoppers weep with envy. Lyric likes to say that they have “enough shoes to fit any army in any country in any century.” Wigs are made by hand and take about forty hours, which is easy to understand when you learn that the hairs around the face are inserted one by one.

The armory was too small for the tour so they brought the props to the rehearsal space. Years ago crowns and headpieces were made with cut glass; now, they use lighter and more inexpensive materials. We saw trick anvils and nooses, a spear gun, and molded plastic cleavers and swords.

After that we descended into the orchestra pit. I was immediately flooded with memories from when I played clarinet for our high school productions. For the first time I was nostalgic for what might have been if I’d stayed with it. The music stands were the same matte black and a bit wobbly from uneven bases, but the view from the base was just a bit different.

As we headed towards the stage itself our guide pointed out the exposed arch from the old stage of the Civic Theater. Lyric’s consolidation with that theater gave it the additional backstage space it needed to keep sets inside. Before then sets would actually be stored on Wacker Drive!

Lyric only conducts three backstage tours a year, and there are two more in March. The tour lasts about two and a half hours so wear comfortable shoes, because most of it’s standing.

Click here to see more photos of the Lyric Opera Backstage Tour.

Lyric Opera Backstage Tours
March 16 & 29, Tours depart every half hour from 11:30 to 2:30pm
$35, $10 boxed lunch
Click here for reservation form






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