Chicago Opera Theater to Present ‘The Puppy Episode’

By Chris Ruel
(Credit: Sean Su)

Chicago Opera Theater (COT) will present “The Puppy Episode,” with music by Matthew Recio, a COT Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer.

The premiere is scheduled for Saturday, March 20 at 7:30 P.M. Tickets are available for purchase until 7:30 P.M. the following day, and ticket-holders will have 24 hours to stream the opera.

The Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer Residency pairs composers with an experienced librettist to create a 90-minute opera that is commissioned, workshopped and presented by COT. Recio collaborated with award-winning librettist, Royce Vavrek, whose opera “Breaking the Waves” won the inaugural Music Critics Association of North America’s Best New Opera Award in 2017. As part of the Vanguard residency, Recio was also mentored by COT Music Director Lidiya Yankovskaya, dramaturg Jeremy Johnson, and composer Jake Heggie.

Led by Artistic Director, COT’s Staley Music Director, Lidiya Yankovskya, the Vanguard Emerging Opera Composer Residency is crown jewel of the company’s Vanguard Initiative, a program launched in 2018 that is committed to developing opera as a living art form. The residency is a two-year program focusing on opera-specific skills. In 2019, the program received a grant of $500,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The residency seeks to bridge the gap between general composition techniques taught at the university level and the real-world skills needed to succeed. The composers work with COT Young Artists, an experienced librettist, dramaturg, and director to develop a new full-length opera.

“We are committed to doing our part to ensure the future of our art form,” said General Director Ashley Magnus in a statement on the program’s website. “My dream is for Chicago to be at the forefront of new opera—for people to realize that our city is just as rich with art and creativity as the coasts. We believe the Vanguard Initiative can help Chicago become a destination for a new Golden Age of opera in America.”

“The Puppy Episode” relates the story of three characters as they discover and accept themselves during a time when media didn’t portray the queer experience. High school teenager Gil has feelings for his best friend Clay; Louise, a married woman, regrets not having explored the entirety of her queer identity; and then there’s Phyllis who, while suffering from dementia, wonders what could have been if she had been honest with herself. What forces the characters into this state of reflection? A popular show portrays the first coming out narrative depicted on television.

Conducted by Kedrick Armstrong in his COT debut, Recio and Vavrek’s opera stars tenor Justin Berkowitz (Gil), baritone Evan Bravos (Clay), mezzo Morgan Middleton (Louise), and soprano Laura Wilde (Phyllis).