Emily Cox
Emily Cox is a versatile performer who has been seen across the nation in musical theatre, cabaret, opera and solo orchestral works. Her numerous roles ... more
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Company On the Move: Thompson Street Opera

Our Developing Organizations and Audiences column features opera companies and producers who are making inroads into non-traditional opera audiences, and creating captivating art in unexpected places. This week, Emily Cox interviews Clare DiVizio, who founded and runs Thompson Street Opera Company in Chicago, Illinois — a company committed to the performance of new and exciting works never before seen by opera audiences.

As we quickly approach another audition season, singers all over the country are preparing aria packages and strategizing audition-trip itineraries. Many singers will be booked for gigs across the country, which demand relocating their lives for the fulfilment of a contract. While this 'gypsy lifestyle' is commonplace amongst singers, it isn't so common to find an opera company which has done the same. However, Thompson Street Opera is no ordinary company. Much in the same roving-style as a professional singer, Thompson Street has a bit of a traveling history. The company was originally founded on Thompson Street in Ann Arbor, MI, in 2011, before relocating to Louisville, KY, in 2013. During its three-year span in Louisville, Thompson Street began to gain attention with their summer opera festivals, which displayed 'insight and fortitude in bringing contemporary opera works to Louisville' (Arts-Louisville). By 2016, the company relocated to Chicago, IL, and began producing full operatic seasons. They have quickly garnered a reputation within the Windy City for their 'fresh, in-your-face approach to artistic investigation' (Chicago Theater Review).

I decided to interview the company's founder and artistic director, Claire DiVizio, to dig a little deeper into Thompson Street's unique past, and to learn a little more about its exciting plans for the future.

Please tell us a little about your opera company--who you are, what you do/specialize in, etc.
Thompson Street Opera is dedicated to performing works by living composers, particularly composers whose works are not widely known. We have a particular bias towards works by American composers in English, though we are not opposed to doing works in other languages (should our budget and logistical capabilities begin to allow us to use supertitles). Because of budgetary constraints, we tend to focus on works that are suited/designed for smaller spaces, casts, and instrumental ensembles. We enjoy giving the audience an intimate experience where they are close to the action. The goal of this type of programming is to give patrons familiarity with opera as a relaxed, convivial experience, and to be a gateway for audience members who perhaps have never seen an opera before (or who have an unfavorable opinion of opera based on their perception of traditional opera patrons as stuffy). We also strive to produce works that might change the perception within the classical music community that contemporary music is inaccessible, weird, or not suited to operatic voices.

Chicago houses several large opera companies, and a multitude of smaller ones. What do you believe distinguishes Thompson Street from the other opera companies in the region?
The first thing that makes Thompson Street stand out is our repertoire. In our nearly six-year history, we have produced exclusively works by living composers. Even further, we have only produced a single work by a composer whose name has national recognition-- and that, frankly, was because we had to replace a piece on our season at the last minute! We are interested in producing works that are great pieces of music and theatre for the sake of the work itself, not out of a desire for prestige or press; we want to generate buzz and good press through the quality of the productions themselves, and we want to lift up great compositions that are not being regularly performed by the rest of the community.

The second thing that distinguishes our company from the others, both small and large, is the kind of working environment we provide. My goal at the inception of Thompson Street Opera Company was to mold the best of both worlds between a professional company and a community theatre organization: a family-like, supportive atmosphere where people are friendly, respectful, and enjoy each other's company, but which is still managed and run efficiently, professionally, and with high-artistic quality. As an organization, we have found that artists in a stressful environment (such as producing a new work) do their best when they are personally, as well as professionally, committed to one another. A certain je ne sais quoi of quality and energy is injected into our productions because of the cast and crew's personal commitment to one another and to the art, and this reads to the audience.

As audiences tastes change, age, and fluctuate, many singers are concerned that operatic audiences are disappearing. Tell us a little about your audiences. Do you find that, within the region, you have a strong following? What demographic tends to attend your performances?
While it may or may not be true that audiences at major houses are shrinking, and subscribers at organizations such as the Met are dying off and not being replaced, audiences for smaller opera companies are actually increasing pretty significantly. As more and more students major in music and related fields, there is a largely-untapped audience of broke-but-interested young people, ready for the picking by the right company. About half of our audience is made up of musicians, whether students, emerging professionals, or actively-working professionals. There is, of course, a segment of our audience that is made up of the friends, spouses, and family members of cast members. We also have a sizable contingent of audience members who are classical music fans, but who do not necessarily subscriber to the local large opera houses. We offer this group of audiences a different kind of experience then they will get at a major house, or in a place that is trying to attract the 'traditional' type of patrons, such as the Lyric. Of course, we are happy to have Lyric patrons at our shows, but they are not necessarily our target audience from the outset. We are not making art that is meant to be consumed as a status symbol.

In a world of social media, opera companies are constantly trying new things to attract new audience members. What are some of the ways that you're attracting new/larger audiences?
Something that we are definitely interested in doing, starting this season, is short series of video teasers for upcoming productions. These might be clips of rehearsals, slideshows with audio, anything that translates well to a video format on social media. It's also very important to us that we have promotional graphics that are clean and striking on as many platforms as possible, including Instagram and Facebook as well as in print. The company's Instagram account is also a place where we post photos that reflect the spirit of the organization, in addition to the specific work products that we are creating.

In your opinion, what does the future of opera look like? What role does Thompson Street hope to play in the advancement of opera as an overall art form?
I strongly believe that the future of the industry lies with companies structured like ours. That's not to say that I think major institutions like the Met will disappear, but they will not be the standard or the norm for the art form as they have historically been. People under the age of forty, it seems to me, are not nearly as interested in going to the opera as a marker of their social status as they are in going someplace to see great art. Right now, it's a lot cheaper to go see great art at a gallery than it is to go to the Met or the Lyric; opera isn't usually at the top of the list for culturally-minded younger people. I think the future of opera is local. That is to say, opera will be more commonly found in places where you can park for $2 or $3 as opposed to $40, where tickets are $15 or $30 instead of $50, $60, $70 or $200. It will be found in places where people actually live, in outlying neighborhoods and boroughs, as opposed to just in the Loop or in downtown areas of city. It will be in intimate places where you can see the performers' faces instead of just having to guess at what they look like. Opera as an art form was not created for the three- and four-thousand-seat houses that it is now commonly seen in. When the audience is too far away from the action, they lose the impact of the composition itself, which is best conveyed through a well communicated, well-acted, musically nuanced performance.

'Accessibility' is a buzzword within the classical music communities these days. How does Thompson Street practice accessibility? Does your company do any sort of outreach programming to interact with the community, or do you have other programs specifically designed for community engagement?
One of the ways we create accessibility is through our affordable ticket prices, currently $30 general admission, $20 student, and $15 industry discount. We particularly engage with our industry ticket pricing, which encourages people from within the opera community to support the art of their peers and that which they themselves participate in. We also do performances in the community prior to shows. We've done (and will continue to do) pre-shows at Opera On Tap events, and we are looking at other ways to perform in the community. In terms of geographic accessibility, we perform throughout the city of Chicago at venues which are easily accessible by public transportation. We further practice accessibility through our programming, which is both thematically and linguistically approachable by audiences in Chicago, whether or not they are fans of opera already — who doesn't want to see a show about professional wrestling or a 20-something having a quarter-life crisis at Comic-Con?

If you could snap your fingers and change one thing about the way the opera industry functions, what would it be?
If I could change one thing about the industry, it would be the perception of the general public that "high art" such as opera and classical music doesn't have value for them, and so they shouldn't have to pay for it with their tax dollars. The lack of publicly-available funds for classical music, especially for smaller organizations, is critically low. Ticket sales aren't enough, and donors are sick of being asked for money every year. If the availability of funding for the arts doesn't improve, nothing less than our collective culture as a nation is at stake.

However, this means that opera companies themselves have a responsibility when it comes to their financial management; I don't believe many of them have been holding up their end of the bargain. The financial priorities of major institutions are WAY out of whack, in my opinion. My philosophy when it comes to budgetary allocation is one of both extreme frugality, and extreme egalitarian generosity when it comes to the performers and artists. Our budgets, comparatively to larger institutions, are extremely small, but a majority of our funding goes to paying our artists for their work. Further, our artists are paid based not on what their resumes look like, but on the size of the role that they have within the production, with the difference between the highest-paid cast member and the lowest-paid being pretty small. I would never sacrifice the ability to equitably pay my artists in order to build something on the stage. You do not need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a set to make great art. You also do not need to spend half the show's budget to hire someone with name recognition in order to make great art. I'm highly skeptical of the cult of celebrity in general, but I find it particularly problematic that it continues to thrive in a time of financial distress in the classical music industry at large. You may recall a couple of years ago when San Diego's (now former) general director decided that he was going to shut down the company, because he would rather have no opera in San Diego at all then to have opera where he couldn't afford to hire "the level of talent that our audiences deserve." I was personally and deeply offended by that from a managerial perspective, as well as from that of an audience member — to demand Renee Fleming or no one is to entrench even more deeply the perception that opera is elitist and exclusionary.

Where do you see your company in five years? What are some of the major goals you'd like to achieve in this time frame, both artistically and financially?
In five years, I hope to be paying my artists at the level of other larger regional companies, to have the financial capability to bring in artists from out of town, to have the ability to use an orchestra for every production if we desire, and to have a small-but-paid administrative staff. I also hope that we will be in a position to be commissioning works on a relatively regular basis. I would also LOVE to have a regular rehearsal and performance space.

Tell us a little about your upcoming season. What operas are you producing, and why did you choose them? Is there an overall theme to your season, or do you choose productions that stand independent of each other?
Our upcoming season is going to be two fully-staged operas: Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris by Eric Lindsay in September, and a double-bill of Dust of the Road by Marcus Maroney and Bobok by Andrey Komanetsky in March. There will also be a fundraising concert mid-year, TBA. Cosmic Ray will be performed in a "World Premiere Edition," with Act II commissioned by the company. The company performed what is now Act I as a stand-alone work in 2015. The double bill in March is not thematically related to Cosmic Ray, but the two works are related to each other in terms of content. They both deal with the influence of the supernatural, and concepts of human morality and mortality, and come away with VERY different conclusions. Dust of the Road is based on a play by Kenneth Sawyer Goodman, in which a married couple struggling with a difficult moral dilemma are visited by an otherworldly guest who guides their decision. Bobok, on the other hand, is an adaptation of a Dostoevsky short story in which a drunk writer stumbles into a graveyard, where he encounters the spirits of a variety of recently deceased people, who in their new state of being are having some serious existential crises. Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris will be performed September 1-3 and 8-10 at the Mason Theatre. Information for the performance location double- bill will be forthcoming.

What was a production from your past seasons that you were particularly excited about or proud of? What do you believe this production helped your company to achieve?
It's really hard to pick just one! I've got a few to choose from below:

  • The 2015 world premiere of Where the Foremost Flag was Flying was my directorial debut, as well my lighting-design debut. In a totally non-egotistical way, I'm still really blown away when I watch the video of that production, which is due in large part to the scarily-good acting chops of Preston Orr. He deeply understood my vision for the piece, even when I didn't think I was expressing myself clearly at times. The piece, by Quinn Dizon, is also a remarkable composition. Video of the complete work is on our YouTube channel, and having a video of this production was a big step for us as well. The video of that production is a huge asset to us as we apply for grants for the first time this year.

  • The 2016 US premiere of Robin Haigh's The Man Who Woke Up was our first production of a work by a non-US-based composer. It was lauded by several music professionals in Louisville, KY, as "by far the best work [we'd] ever done". The composer came all the way from the UK to see the premiere (it was the staged premiere as well as the first performance in the US) and did a fantastic Q&A with the audience afterwards. That piece was the epitome of what I like to do with the company-- it was musically challenging and incredibly well-crafted, hilarious, shocking, and weird as hell, and had an absolutely phenomenal cast and team. The level of craft that the company achieved with that production was something that I want us to aspire to in all our future work.

  • Our 2017 Chicago production of The Final Battle for Love was a fantastic artistic success, and had our first truly sold-out performance. The Saturday performance sold not only every seat in the house, but also an additional row of chairs that we set up in front of the stage. The response to that production was universally positive, and more than half of the tickets we sold for that performance were sold after opening night. That showed us not only that the quality of our work was excellent, but also taught us something about the Chicago market. As a result of our experience with that show, we're going to be playing our fall show over two weekends to capitalize on our word-of-mouth promotion after opening.

I see that you personally have a background in performance. What drew you to arts administration/producing? Can you tell us a little about your personal pathway to where you are now?
During my undergrad at the University of Michigan, I joined the Executive Board of the Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and absolutely loved the work. I like being the person who can solve a problem, and be there in a time of crisis to make things work. I stayed on the board for the next four years, and with the skills I learned there, produced TSOC's first show in Ann Arbor in 2011. I wasn't originally intending to create a company, but just to produce that one show. However, during the first year of my Master’s degree in performance in Louisville, I found myself really missing the production work, and took my love of the music of my peers and my love of opera and production and turned it into a festival. I do still perform actively, both in Chicago and around the country. I feel that my work as a performer informs my work as a producer, and vice versa. I want to give performers in my company the things that I find that I want as a performer, and I also want to avoid subjecting them to things I've experienced as a performer that I've hated.

Many of our readers are singers themselves. As someone who has been on both sides of the audition table, can you our readers a little about what Thompson Street is looking for in auditions, and how you choose your artists for your productions?
We tend to look for, first and foremost, singers who are demonstrably good musicians and good communicators onstage. If I had to say which of those two things is more important, I would say being a good communicator. We perform all of our works in English at this point, and the vast majority of the time they are without super titles. That means that the audience has to understand the words that the singer is saying at every possible level as they come out of the singer's mouth. Musicianship is also very important, as we perform all works by living composers, which often means that the music itself is complicated or at the very least not stylistically what singers are used to encountering in standard repertoire. You can have the best instrument I've ever heard, but if I can't understand anything you're saying, and your audition leads me to believe you can't count or successfully sing a tritone, I'm not going to hire you. We hold auditions every season, both live and recorded.

With regard to pre-casting, I did tend to rely on it before the company moved to Chicago. Because of the somewhat-limited applicant pool in Louisville, it was crucial to consider who might be available for a given work before taking the risk of choosing a new piece to perform. I had run into trouble before with choosing a very ambitious piece in terms of casting demands, and then not having the right number of qualified singers available for the roles. There is not nearly such a shortage in Chicago. Sometimes I will have people in mind before I choose the works, but this is usually only true for a role or two in each show, and in some cases not for any of the roles. Our upcoming fall show had one role precast, which was clearly marked on the audition call. Over 50% of the cast for the fall show are people that I have never worked with before. They gave great auditions, and I decided to hire them. I want the best person for the role, regardless of where they come from. But part of what makes someone ideally suited for a role might be the fact that they are reliable, in addition to the fact that they sing well, are good musicians, and good communicators. If I've worked with someone before and I know they're reliable, that is a check in their column. I would like to emphasize that as a company, we want very strongly to bring as many people into the fold as possible. Art-making should be an inclusive enterprise, and we want to have as many different perspectives as possible involved in a production.

I want to emphasize one other criteria we look for (and I imagine many other places do as well): we want to work with people who aren't assholes. The fastest way to not get hired or rehired is to have a reputation for being hard to work with, unreliable, or generally unpleasant. There are plenty of other people we can hire instead of you; please don't flatter yourself.

As a singer yourself, is there any advice that you would offer singers as they head into the audition season?
The first piece of general advice that I would give to all singers going into auditions, not just for my company, is really pay attention to what that company is asking you for. Commit to each specific opportunity individually before you apply. It may be tempting to just throw a bunch of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, but believe me when I say that administrators can tell if you actually want to audition for their company, or if you just want to audition for any company, and theirs is just convenient. Make an effort to learn about their season. Make an effort to learn about the company itself, especially if it is a local opportunity. What we do is more than just a job, and the people who are hiring you, for the most part, recognize that as well. If something in your application indicates that you didn't read the audition call, or that you did not put very much care and attention into your application, that does not reflect well on you before you even get into the audition room.

The second piece of advice is be a good communicator. Opera is theatre. Theatre is text. If you are singing in English, we better damn well know what you're saying. If you're singing in a foreign language, we better feel like you're singing in your native language, and understand you even if we don't speak the language. I had a singer sing for me this year who sang a Mozart aria in Italian that I swear could have been in English. I knew EVERY. SINGLE. THING she was saying-- the inflection was perfect, the body language was perfect, everything was perfect. That is the standard for companies now, especially companies performing in smaller houses. Park & Bark is dead, and may it rest in peace.

Third piece of advice, stolen from my pervious answer, is don't be an asshole. It'll catch up with you eventually, and perhaps sooner rather than later.

Thompson Street opens their 2017 season this September with Eric Lindsay's Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris. Click here for tickets. (via Brown Paper Tickets)

More information about Thompson Street Opera Company can be found at their website.

Emily Cox
Emily Cox is a versatile performer who has been seen across the nation in musical theatre, cabaret, opera and solo orchestral works. Her numerous roles ... more