Opera, once the art of the people, comes to Chicago’s West Side

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The ornamental railing around the second floor of the Garfield Park Field House on Chicago’s West Side.

My friend Jane Saks talks like a poet when she waxes about art. Her words are beautiful and impassioned.

She’s a cultural maven who has supported my work time and time again. She’s the founder of Project&, an imaginative endeavor that finds new ways to engage in art with a high social impact. Jane’s passionate about race, gender, human rights, love and justice.

Her latest venture is bringing opera the historic Golden Dome in Garfield Park on Chicago’s West Side the first weekend in October. Once upon a time opera was not relegated exclusively for the upper class.


“It happened on the street corners and people could engage,” Jane told me. “I want to take back this idea of opera is about the people, engaged with the people, made by the people.”

She’s birthing that vision as creative producer of “Pan,” a participatory opera with virtuoso flutist Claire Chase, live electronics and an ensemble of musical participants from all over the city. In ancient Greek mythology, Pan is part human, part goat — the god of shepherds and hunters, roaming the rugged mountains. This titular performance about his life and death will explore creating and listening to sound together. And it promises to tease out the tensions in our contemporary world. An emotional arc of destruction and creation will bellow in the ornate rotunda.

“I think about music and geography — music between the sounds of where we’ve been,” Jane said. “The emotional geography of this place and community.”

Place and community guided Jane’s decision to bring “Pan” to Garfield Park, a rich and vibrant urban jewel where dance, art, sports and concerts happen all year round. We already know what the surrounding black community is known for, so I won’t bother writing it. We also know that the richness in Garfield Park is juxtaposed with disinvestment in the surrounding black community.

“Collaborating is really about the radical nature of creating something together with people you might not know and who think differently from you,” Jane said. “When you talk about a segregated city, you have to work very hard to cross those borders.”

The youngest of the 30 participants in “Pan” are just eight years old. They play triangles, bottles and wine glasses and sing in lost languages. It’s not too late, by the way, for others to join on stage for the Chicago premiere; Project& is doing a public callout.

Among the existing “Pan” collaborators are The People’s Music School, a free music school for children from the Uptown, Albany Park, Back of the Yards and Greater Grand Crossing neighborhoods. The other is the Chicago West Community Music Center, which meets in the gold dome, serving 900 children and adults yearly. They teach piano, harp, cello, viola and violin. Students have traveled to Shanghai and Paris. Teens play jazz, classical, blues and pop all throughout the West Side.

Howard Sandifer and his wife Darlene founded the music center in 1999. He says he sensed that the production of “Pan” would be unique and he wanted to get his students in on the experience. “They are familiar with opera,” he said, “but this is something different in terms of concept. They really enjoy it and not knowing what to expect at each rehearsal.”

Sandifer says he’s also excited at the specter of newcomers visiting the dome for “Pan” performances and getting a glimpse of what his students do.

“People drive by it and don’t see the beauty of the structure themselves. And get a chance to interact with people from the community. There are a lot of positive things in the community and the school that rarely get any coverage,” Sandifer said. “These kids cross gang lines, come early and stay late at night. They do this because they want to be there.”

Quentin Smith, 18, is an alum of music center, where he played the piano and drums. In the performance of “Pan,” he will be one of the sheep shining a flashlight on Pan. “It’s a learning experience,” he said, “and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

Jane first took “Pan” to New York and wants to take it global to Brazil, Mexico and the Palestinian city of Ramallah.

I, for one, plan to attend the performance in Garfield Park next month. But I’ll be on the sidelines, not clinking bottles or chanting rhythms.

I’ll be smiling, absorbing and connecting to time and place and community.

Sun-Times columnistNatalieY.Mooreis a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”

Send letters to: letters@suntimes.com.

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