BY ANDREW PATNER | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
It’s not been a good week for the Classical Music Is Dead crowd.
Wednesday night a large crowd of opera cognoscenti sat transfixed for four hours at the Harris Theater downtown as Turin’s Teatro Regio presented a concert staging of Rossini’s rarely heard “William Tell.”
Then Thursday night, opera newbies, hipsters and date night couples packed the recently restored and launched Thalia Hall in Pilsen for the New Millennium Orchestra’s presentation of Bela Bartok’s only opera, the spooky one-hour “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.”
Both evenings you could have heard a pin drop in the rooms, and unlike subscription nights at “regular” opera houses, there were no early walk-outs or rushes to the coat check, train station or parking garage. When presenters and performers are passionate about something and can get the word out that an event is special, audiences can smell it. And they don ‘t need to be performed or talked down to. Once you have them in the door, quality converts them.
The New Millennium is 9 years old and for its 10th year wanted to do something that drew on their interests in opera, unusual spaces and young audiences. Co-founder and music director Francesco Milioto, the go-to young conductor for many projects in Chicago, is now on the music staff at Lyric Opera of Chicago and has formed a close friendship with Lyric’s popular Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli. Over a meal last year, Milioto floated staging this work for bass and soprano) one that Silvestrelli feels strongly connected with and knows in his bones, Hungarian libretto and all.
American soprano Kara Shay Thomson was recruited for the role of Bluebeard’s most recent wife and unstoppable asker of questions in the castle of her mysterious husband. Funding was secured from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly and Cliff Dwellers Arts foundations, and an anonymous donor. And a cross-promoting ticket campaign was put together with Thalia Hall, the new venue at hipster nightlife Ground Zero South on West 18th Street, and Groupon.
You honestly could not tell the music students from the neighborhood residents from the clubbing coolsters in the large third- and fourth-floor space, opened as an opera hall in 1892 for the Bohemian community at its turn of the last century height. Empty and unused since the 1960s, the space was given an extraordinary architectural and modern performance restoration and renovation when restaurateurs and music presenters Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden acquired the building last year adding a busy street-level restaurant, Dusek’s named for the building’s founder; and basement bar, Punch House; and having the three spaces feed into each other physically and conceptually.
The 1911 Modernist Bartok, with its spooky and psychologically dark Bela Balazs libretto, was a perfect vehicle for all parties. Its music remains fresh and bold and connects with the experimental and indie music that a Thalia Hall or Space audience knows. The combination of ornate replicas of portions of Central European performance halls with shabby chic restoration gave a feel of a haunted castle before Milioto even gave the downbeat. Silvestrelli, a giant physically and vocally, possessed the stage — actually the seating floor and side box towers, with the orchestra and conductor up on stage — and story in silence as well as song. And the adventurous Thomson matched him as the self-doomed Judith at every moment.
The orchestra maintains its high, risk-taking standards and even though co-founder and principal viola Dominic Johnson launched one of his customary DJ sets immediately after the long ovation, the audience stayed around in the bar and lobby areas — to talk opera and music.
Freelance writer Andrew Patner is critic-at-large for WFMT-FM.