Chicago youth ‘Empower’ their voices in original opera at the Lyric

SHARE Chicago youth ‘Empower’ their voices in original opera at the Lyric
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Chicago high school students during rehearsal of an original opera “Empower” at the Lyric Opera House. The youth-centric opera is based on the participants’ own life experiences in Chicago and will be performed on the main stage. Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

On May 31, some of the brightest stars in Chicago will grace the Lyric Opera’s stage for a one-of-a-kind performance, one-night-only performance.

No, it’s not your standard opera or the roster of vocal luminaries, but, I promise, it’s just as buzz-worthy and a night that will surely end with a standing ovation! (You better stand!)

It’s all about “Empower,” an original opera performed by 30 African-American high school students from the South and West sides of Chicago. The opera, set in the city’s South Side, is inspired by the students’ lives. Hoping to improve their neighborhood, a group of students band together against a protagonist reporter who has the story all wrong.

‘Empower’ When: 7 p.m. May 31 Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Tickets: $10-$20 Info: lyricopera.org

The opera is a culmination of an inter-disciplinary after-school program resulting from a first-time collaboration between the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Urban League. The EmpowerYouth! program has been meeting once a week since October of last year.

The first half of the program builds fundamental skills in singing, acting, dancing and the visual arts (costume and set design). Once the foundation is laid, classes transition to rehearsals with industry professionals, such as conductor and music director Kedrick Armstrong.

Armstrong is incorporating rap, jazz, gospel, hip-hop and classical elements into the opera.

“I think for a lot of these young people it’s not the fact that they’re not interested [in opera], it’s the fact that they don’t have access [to it]. They don’t have the opportunity …” said Armstrong. “People from the South Side are [now] saying this is a place where I am welcome, where my story is valid, my voice is wanted, and now, they have this avenue of expression that they never knew they had.”

One of those students discovering that is Elijah Huff. The sophomore at Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts, was mostly comfortable being behind-the-scenes, but has now discovered he enjoys acting.

Director Jess McLeod during rehearsal of an original opera “Empower” at the Lyric Opera House. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Director Jess McLeod during rehearsal of an original opera “Empower” at the Lyric Opera House. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“Before, I kind of didn’t want to be where a bunch of people could see me, but now I’m doing it and there’s no going back,” said Huff with a sly smile.

Huff is thoughtful, speaks calmly and chooses his words carefully. “Finding out that I could do some stuff that I didn’t think I would be able to do, it makes me feel really great. It actually expands my horizons to what I can do now.”

Huff tried to recruit friends to join the program but “when they heard the word opera they immediately thought [singing opera-style] Ahhhhhhhh … They did not want to come for some reason.”

He’s pretty sure he’s going to get the last laugh. “A lot of my friends [who] didn’t want to do it, are actually coming to see it.” Huff has a big grin on his face.

At the start of every rehearsal the students work together as a group and then break off into smaller sessions. Choreographer Tanji Harper is a seasoned pro at working with kids. She uses dance as a “way to spread positivity and encouragement.” Her energy and enthusiasm is infectious.

Music supervisor Kedrick Armstrong (left) together with Chicago high school students during rehearsal of an original opera “Empower” at the Lyric Opera House. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Music supervisor Kedrick Armstrong (left) together with Chicago high school students during rehearsal of an original opera “Empower” at the Lyric Opera House. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

“Everybody’s tried a little bit of everything, which is really inspiring to watch them do [it] and it speaks to their fearlessness overall … Our Chicago kids, when they step up, they always succeed! Rarely do you ever see someone from Chicago fail,” said Harper.

She says emphatically, “[We want to] make sure that people understand that we are not a city of violence, we are city of art and culture and we’ve got great kids. … And when they are nurtured in the right way, they turn into amazing adults!”

Chloe Phoenix, a sophomore at Morgan Park Academy, is excited about her character, “Gabby,” in the opera. “I like her so much because in modern media you don’t really see a young black woman being kind of shy and reserved. Because it’s seriously the other end of the spectrum — loud and obnoxious [that you usually read about] … which is a stereotype.”

Phoenix is an “old soul” — wise beyond her years, cool and confidant. She’s a voracious reader and shares that she had been bullied growing up, much like Gabby. She hopes the performance changes outsiders’ attitudes of “not knowing” and “not wanting to know,” which she feels feeds into the “ignorance” about the South Side.

“I hope it’s a balance of people from the South Side and people not from the South Side, who actually want to [come see this] and learn and get educated. You can’t say this [opera] isn’t right [if you haven’t] seen it. You need to educate yourself, by totally [immersing] yourself into that environment,” said Phoenix with a seriousness that convinced me she just may be president one day.

“Hopefully teach people from all different sides of Chicago or even all around the globe that we can make [the world ] a better place, and we have the strength to improve this side of the city, which is not all that bad if we put our two cents in… I just want people to know that we can make it a better place with a little time and effort,” Phoenix said.

The time and effort which the teenagers, the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Urban League have invested in this home-grown opera — and each other — will far outweigh the reach and rewards of just one night. It’s not just the South Side that needs opera and a trip to the resource-rich Loop.

It’s an example of a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship born from what seems like two distant worlds, which have more in common and may need each more than anyone realizes.

Choreographer Tanji Harper speaks about her collaboration with Chicago high school students on the creation of the original opera “Empower,” which tells stories of a young people in Chicago. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Choreographer Tanji Harper speaks about her collaboration with Chicago high school students on the creation of the original opera “Empower,” which tells stories of a young people in Chicago. | Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

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