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Steinberg: ‘It can hit you like a bus’

Opera is about love, or should be.

The love that characters have for each other — or, tragically, don’t have for each other — in tales unfolding in splendor on stage, awash in gorgeous music.

And the love audiences have for the productions.

Or, less tragically, don’t have. I must admit, earlier this season, after 91 deeply felt minutes enduring Alban Berg’s cacophony “Wozzeck” — “deeply felt” as in a sleepless night spent on a bed of broken brick — “love” was not the concept that sprang to mind, other than love of it ending.

But as with following professional sports, sometimes you are left exasperated. Your team doesn’t win every game, you don’t enjoy every opera. That’s an aspect of love too.

Not that this will be an issue with “Romeo and Juliet,” which premieres Feb. 22, when I’ll be bringing 100 readers along in the 8th (!) annual Sun-Times Goes to the Lyric Contest. (I couldn’t bring 100 readers to “Wozzeck” without worrying about being brought up on charges at the Hague.)

To get into the proper spirit, I slid by the Civic Opera House earlier this week and sat in on rehearsals, watching famed British fight director B.H. Barry block out a sword fight — the opera closely follows Shakespeare’s play, complete with Romeo-where-art-thou? balcony scene and lots of proud Capulets and outraged Montagues baring their blades and having at one another.

Most important is the music by Charles Gounod, French romantic composer and creator of one of the most tuneful operas in existence. His “Faust” is among my top favorites, and with “Romeo and Juliet” he returned to the same pair of lyricists.

The voices in the cast are very strong — the Romeo we’ll be seeing, Joseph Calleja, is a world-famous Maltese tenor who’s powerful delivery will vibrate your fillings.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Susanna Phillips, who is singing Juliet.

We started talking about newcomers to opera. When she said her husband had only seen “one and a half operas” when they met. I could imagine that second opera, a feeling much like I had in “Wozzeck” — I would have fled, but I would have had to climb over Lyric director Anthony Freud to do so.

Now he loves not only her, but opera too. Phillips offered a surprising metaphor.

“Opera is a lot like beer,” she said. “Or wine. There are so many varieties. You don’t like exactly the same thing. It runs the gamut.”

She was raised in Alabama, and I couldn’t resist observing the lack of a drawl.

“I come from a very international city in Alabama, Huntsville, where Space Camp is. If you ever ask me to talk in an Alabama accent, I’m very happy to,” she said, doing just that for a moment. “But I don’t have a strong drawl.”

I told her of the time I interviewed mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner and made the mistake of assuming her home state, Iowa, is not a mecca of opera, sparking much hawkeye complaint. So, it’s the Met, the Lyric, La Scala and Alabama?

“It’s not exactly opera mecca, but there are some excellent productions,” she said. “The classical music scene in Alabama is remarkable.”

Juliet is supposed to be 14 years old and Phillips, ah, is not. Is it daunting to play a teen?

“I did invest in some face cream,” she laughed. “It definitely informs the energy of the character, helps you understand the decisions she makes, the impetuous nature, the excitement, the immaturity.”

“Romeo and Juliet” is not one of those works where you need to throw in a lot of spoiler alerts.

“You know what’s going to happen,” she said. “It’s hard not to telegraph it, to get back to when I was 14 and there was a tremendous optimism about everything. That kind of energy is what we’re trying to achieve in this character.”

Her optimism might come naturally at this stage in her life — she’s four-and-a-half months pregnant — even if energy might require some additional effort.

Speaking of energy. Time is short when it comes to entering the contest, and you need to leap into action. Starting Sunday — as in, not today, not tomorrow, but the day after — you can go to suntimes.com/lyric and enter the word of the day which will be published in the Sun-Times. A new codeword will be published each day of the contest.
Winners will be notified via email throughout the contest.

Good luck. If you’ve never seen an opera, you might love it, you might hate it. There’s only one way to find out.

“It can be an acquired taste,” Phillips said. “Or it can hit you like a bus.”