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Lyric’s ‘Magic Victrola’ holds attention of fans young and old

By Andrew Patner/For the Sun-Times

Building future audiences for what used to be called “the fine arts” is often a subject like the weather.  Everybody talks about it but few people have been able to have much of an effect on it.

As with efforts to take on climate change, however, some focused campaigns among orchestras, dance troupes and opera companies are starting to pay off, and Lyric Opera of Chicago under general director Anthony Freud is moving ahead of the pack.

Saturday afternoon saw the third edition of an annual “new opera adventure for kids and their families” at a sold-out Civic Opera House.  Little ones (the recommended age was 5 to 10 but the envelope spread at both ends) and their keepers filled all sections of the 3,560-seat Ardis Krainik Auditorium for “The Magic Victrola,” and many a company would like to have an adult audience so focused.

Through its Lyric Unlimted program, headed by Cayenne Harris, Lyric not only plans a wide array of programs targeted to many different communities but relentlessly assesses the ones that it does and refines them for each incarnation.

After two matinees working with adaptations of comic operas in the repertoire — “Popcorn & Pasquale” offered an abridgment of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” in 2013 and “The Family Barber” last year did something similar with Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” — Harris and her creative collaborators, writers David Kersnar and Jacqueline Russell, this time made an hourlong fantasia around excerpts from seven different operas in four languages encountered via an old Victrola by two children playing in the attic of their grandfather’s summer cottage.

The shift succeeded in its goal of introducing the sheer variety within opera and also could dispense with explaining preexisting and convoluted plots. There was still a tendency to overexplain what plot there was — the Victrola has powers of enchantment and can both conjure up opera characters and swallow “real” humans into their stories — but healthy helpings of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (which functioned as a general frame), the Doll Song from Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” a tenor aria from Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” the Flower Duet from Delibes’ “Lakme,” “O mio babbino caro” from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” and the Habanera from Bizet’s “Carmen” offered arrays of both involving stage pictures and excellent singing from members of Lyric’s Ryan Center professional training program.

Baritone Will Liverman remains primus inter pares in the field of never-overdone comic performance and educational programs.  His Papageno bird-man (yes, there was a Michael Keaton joke) kept the physical comedy going, and his strong singing and phrasing — in both English and German — drew the audience in.  Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, who already has emerged as something of a star soprano of the Ryan, was one game Papagena and a delightful half (with attractive mezzo Julie Miller) of the “Lakme” duet, but it was announced that she would mime Olympia the Doll (and did so wonderfully) — she was otherwise singing through a cold — while Jeni Houser, who swept down from Madison (Wis.) Opera, winningly sang from stage left.

Tenor Jonathan Johnson, soprano Laura Wilde and J’nai Bridges, a seductive Carmen, rounded out the Ryan singing cast.  Effective local child actors Caroline Heffernan and sixth-grader Logan Neuschaefer drew the audience in to their cellphone-deprived summer adventure, and veteran Chicago character actor Richard Henzel had the opera-evangelist Grandpa down, drawing cheers for his matador’s dance with the conjured-up Carmen.  Philip Morehead conducted the Lyric Orchestra (opening with the Overture to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”) supportively and energetically. Kersnar directed. Scott Marr designed sets and costumes (“Angry Birds,” anyone?), Christopher Maravich lights, Sarah Hatten wigs and makeup.  The audience loved it all.

With every attendee entered into Lyric’s databases, the future of this magical and multifaceted art form had another great boost.