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Swimming Pool Opera: Chicago Opera Theater Puts on Show in Welles Park Pool

By Patty Wetli | December 10, 2013 8:55am
 Chicago Opera Theater's production of "Orpheus & Euridice" is coming to Welles Park's swimming pool, beginning Dec. 19.
Chicago Opera Theater's production of "Orpheus & Euridice" is coming to Welles Park's swimming pool, beginning Dec. 19.
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Chicago Opera Theater

LINCOLN SQUARE — Think opera is a bunch of horned Viking women standing in place for hours on end, hitting ear-splitting notes sung in a foreign language?

You haven't seen Chicago Opera Theater's free production of "Orpheus & Euridice," coming to Welles Park Dec. 19, 20 and 22.

The 70-minute contemporary opera is not only sung in English, it's set in a swimming pool.

The opera theater's general director, Andreas Mitisek, is known for staging site-specific operas in nontheatrical venues, including parking garages and abandoned warehouses, according to Jerry Tietz, the theater's general manager.

"The idea is that the space itself enhances the work," Tietz said.

In the case of "Orpheus & Euridice," the cast spends time both immersed in the water and floating on it in a boat, in addition to scenes set on the pool deck. The pool plays several roles, including that of the mythological River Styx.

If this all sounds a bit gimmicky, well, it is.

"The tickets are free, it sounds like a lark," Tietz said. "In the end, there are a great many more opera lovers out there who just don't know it yet ... because they've never been. The genre needs more fans. If COT can convince people to only risk a couple hours of their evening ..."

The opera theater persuaded a bunch of risk takers in West Town, selling out four performances of the opera at Eckhart Park pool. Tribune critic John von Rhein called the production "pure theatrical magic."

Tietz was particularly pleased that families attended the show together.

"Because the tickets are free, we're seeing whole families, and that was really neat," he said.

Advance tickets for Welles Park were snapped up in three hours, though Tietz quickly added that the vast majority of seats have been set aside for walk-up business the night of the shows.

"A large part of the purpose is to bring this kind of art into people's community," he said.

To "demolish the stigma" of opera as "hoity-toity," the opera is willing to "meet the audience halfway in their neighborhood," Tietz said. "We hope to reach a lot of people who live in Lincoln Square."

For those still reluctant to test opera's waters, Tietz said "Orpheus & Euridice" is particularly suited to newbies, with composer Ricky Ian Gordon's style more akin to Sondheim than Wagner.

"You can leave humming" the songs, he said. "It is the quintessentially perfect opera if you've never seen opera."

"Orpheus & Euridice" is part of the Classics in the Parks series, a collaboration between the opera theater, the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events.

The performances at Welles Park are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, 20 and 22, 2333 W. Sunnyside Ave. Walk-up tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the park at 5 p.m. each performance day.