This weekend, Thompson Street Opera Company is the one of the first storefronts out of the gate to begin fall season — their fourth in Chicago, and eighth season overall. Dedicated to producing new operas by both emerging and established composers, Executive Director Claire DiVizio founded TSOC in Louisville, Kentucky in 2011, before relocating to Chicago in 2016.
It was in 2016 that I first encountered DiVizio as the Queen of the Fairies in Iolanthe with the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Company of Chicago. Hers was a standout performance — hilarious, tough, and majestic — and she recently backed up her queen bona fides as the scorned wife of Zeus in Chicago Fringe Opera/Latitude 49’s production of Christopher Cerrone’s All Wounds Bleed. This summer, DiVizio joined the apprentice program at Des Moines Metro Opera where she was the understudy for Marie in Wozzeck.
As a producer, director, and singer, DiVizio is one of those artists in Chicago that we simply cannot ignore. She is doing the thankless work of creating opportunities for her local colleagues and fostering the careers of composers and singers alike, while continuing to work on her own craft. Looking ahead to TSOC’s production of John Plant’s I will fly like a bird at the Athenaeum Theatre, I had a few questions for DiVizio. Her responses are paraphrased.
Can you catalogue the venues you have performed in in Chicago and say a little bit about the challenges/advantages of each?
“Venues we have performed in include: Stage 773 Box - our first Chicago space! My favorite serendipitous feature of this space was that the stage they used to have in there had a trap door, which we used for a children's show that featured a crocodile. Tiny dressing room. Raven Theater West Stage: I LOVE this theatre. It has kind of an odd shaped stage, perfectly shaped for hiding a piano and drum set out of the playing space. Mason Theatre at the Preston Bradley Center: this space is rather... rustic, shall we say. It is definitely not for the faint of heart or those who expect a lot of amenities in a theater rental…but we were doing a show with a huge cast, and we needed the space that they provided. Upstairs Studio at the Greenhouse Theater Center: super cute! Very nice staff, very nice theater. Also a very small dressing. Broadway Theatre at the Pride Arts Center: this space has a charming scrappy Chicago Storefront Theatre character coupled with a nice set a theatrical resources. Plus it's a great size, has a fantastic amount of flexibility. Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2: On the whole this is a really cute space. There are some sight line issues because of the way the rake in the audience works, which meant that some downstage business on the floor had to be adjusted. Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 3 (the venue for I will fly like a bird and Trifles & Sojourner Truth in the spring) There's definitely a reason we booked both our main stage shows this season in this space. It's super affordable, a great size for us, and the Athenaeum has been nothing short of a dream partner in terms of helping us with publicity, being our box office, and maintaining a fantastic space. We're having to do some acoustic dampening because there's actually a really great amount of ceiling height and reflective surfaces.”
Is there anything you picked up observing the administration/artistic leadership as a recent apprentice artist in Des Moines Metro Opera?
“I absolutely loved my time at Des Moines this summer, and I am fully intending to figure out a way to go back as much as I can, whether it's as a singer or in some other capacity. The things that I observed there that inspired me are a lot of things that I have been very intentional about doing with TSOC, such as making the singers feel valued and safe and like their concerns are being heard and addressed as soon as possible. To be perfectly frank, this is not a feeling I have had almost anywhere else in the opera world, so I felt gratified to experience, as a singer, the things I've been trying to cultivate as an administrator. Something else that I was able to witness there that was absolutely an inspiration that I have taken home with me, is how design teams working together can create something so unbelievably detailed, that feels huge, but that is clearly designed to work in an intimate theater like the one that they have at DMMO. That theater seats under 500 people, and even the furthest seats from the stage are close enough to be touching somebody within a 10 second walk. I hear talk sometimes about "Oh, well, there are certain kinds of voices that just don't work in small spaces, or there are certain kinds of experiences that you can only have in a huge theater," and my experience at DMMO this summer proved that none of that is true. My overriding takeaway of being at DMMO was of the vibe, which is again something we have been consciously trying to create in the company since the beginning. It has always been my belief that you have the best experience and create the best art if there is no artificial stratification between the different people making that art. It was calming and encouraging to see the artistic leadership just living life as normal human beings, even while they're doing their jobs. No strange ego, no expectations of staying in your place, just collaboration, conversation, and art-making. Plus, the other singer colleagues who were there with me were a very strong reminder that being an incredible performer it does not have to mean that you are rude, aloof, or any of the negative personality traits that people associate with us. Being a good colleague costs nothing.”
What are your guiding principles for choosing rep for TSOC?
“We have a four-step selection process for choosing rep, with the first and last step being conversations between music director Alexandra Enyart and myself. The first thing is to sort out works that are just not practical for us to do, whether that means they have too many instruments, too large a cast, too many singers of a certain voice type, or are about a subject matter that would not be a good fit for us or our audiences. Then we always look at libretto: Is it well-written? Does it make sense, does it have an appropriate theatrical shape? And then, is it well set? Does the composer have a clear idea of how they are using the voice to communicate? We narrow it down by listening to score samples or playing through examples if there's no recording. Then it goes to the board of directors where we have a broader discussion about the semi-finalists; and we choose finalists in a public event. At the public event we play recorded examples and let members of the community look through scores. Finally, based on the feedback we get at that event, Alex and I make our final choices.”
With music by John Plant and a libretto by J.A. Wainwright, I will fly like a bird can be seen at the Athenaeum Theatre September 12 –15. The double cast features mezzo-sopranos Jennifer Barrett and Marissa Simmons and baritones Nate Hill and Jonathan Wilson. Stage direction by Ross Kyo Matsuda. Conducted by Alexandra Enyart.
If you are reading this after September 12, you may have missed Craig Hella Johnson’s encore performance of Considering Matthew Shepherd with Conspirare at Ravinia Festival. Chicago Choral Artists brings the same work to River Forest as their season opener in October. Eugenia Cheng’s Liederstube returns on Friday, September 13. Stop in studio 721 of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Ave. anytime between 6 and 9pm to hear local singers try their hand at German and French art songs with Cheng at the piano. If you’d like to try, but are suffering from shyness, there is usually a congregational-style performance of “Ich grolle nicht” and sometimes “Zueignung.” Music of the Baroque begins its season with Bach’s B Minor Mass. With Jane Glover at the helm, no other organization in Chicago has the resources and specific talents to assemble what is sure to be a stylish and moving performance of the epic masterpiece on modern instruments. Soloists include two VAC favorites: soprano Yulia van Doren and tenor Jonas Hacker, though it is assumed that the chorus will be the true stars of the concerts. Finally, preview the future ensemble members of the Ryan Opera Center in a v long, but fun Sunday afternoon (for nerds like me), when Lyric Opera presents the final round of auditions to the public. The event includes an Audience Favorite award and a special performance by one of the best artists to recently complete the program, soprano Laura Wilde. Access to tickets is elusive, but you are clever, so try!