Credit: Kyle Flubacker
The phrase “next generation of opera lovers” gets tossed around quite a bit, often in the context of worry. “Where is the next generation?” “Will there be a next generation?” “How do we cultivate the next generation?”
Well, here is some refreshing proof: Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Youth Opera Council (YOC), a group of about 20 high school students who share a passion for opera and performing arts, want to learn how an opera company functions and speak with company members, and discuss how to introduce more young people to opera. YOC was formed in the fall of 2013.
By 2013, Lyric had developed a variety of programming for elementary school students, adults, and college students under Lyric Unlimited, a wing of Lyric dedicated to education and community initiatives. Recognizing a need to actively engage teens, Lyric Unlimited established YOC to gather critical feedback on the Lyric experience from a teen’s perspective and offer a space for young lovers of opera to congregate.
The company leverages its relationships with music teachers, as well as music and theater organizations, to spread the word about YOC.
YOC is open to any opera-loving student in the Chicago metropolitan area who wants to apply (students answer questions about their interest in opera and the arts). Led by Lyric Unlimited Coordinator LaRob Payton, it meets every two weeks, with Payton engaging students in conversations about how current events have affected opera and what YOC would like to see change. He also serves as a liaison between YOC and the administration.
Examples of past topics include opera and its ability to advance with technology’s help; effective marketing strategies with social media; contributions of Black voices in opera; creating a youth-centered podcast on behalf of Lyric; and what it means to share your passion respectfully with others.
The schedule includes five open meetings during the year when YOC members can invite friends to learn more about opera.
OperaWire spoke with YOC via Zoom during one of its March meetings (the group is meeting virtually during the pandemic) and learned about the students’ love of opera and why they are devoting their time to YOC.
For example, second-year member Gwen Maramba said, “I love history, and it’s amazing to see operas from centuries ago being presented today with different interpretations. I love to see historical themes and how they translate to what’s happening in society today. The music is stunning, and I love the stories and sets.” Julia Szostak loves to insert herself in someone else’s drama.
Other students expressed a desire to spend time with people their age who love the art form, learn more about what happens on stage and behind the scenes, and have a voice in the performing arts community. One member was inspired to join YOC by a friend who was a member and improved her music knowledge.
The meatiest parts of the conversation focused on three questions. The first: how can more young people be introduced to opera? Maramba praised Lyric for school performances, backstage tours, and YOC’s own Night at the Opera for their friends. Others in the group suggested events marketed toward teens; casual evenings; and bringing opera to casual settings such as schools and parks.
Second and third, how has opera been affected by the past year’s closures, and what do the members think and hope will happen when opera companies resume performances? A common sentiment is creativity—opera companies and performers have found new ways to bring opera to the public through streaming, social media, and other virtual offerings.
A common prediction is turnout—demand will increase for live performances. Another prediction: audiences’ perceptions of operas and how operas are directed will be under more scrutiny because of recent national and world events. Along those lines, two YOC members said they want to see more diversity on stage.
Lyric Opera of Chicago Public Relations Manager Mari Moroz is impressed with and proud of YOC members for their candor. In her words, “I don’t think they realize how important and valuable their ideas are, but their contributions are really helpful to Lyric as we plan for the future.”