Arts News: How Lyric Opera is Bridging the Classical/Pop Gap

Classical music concerts in the 21st century can seem intimidating. Tickets can be costly. Venues are usually in the center of the city, making parking difficult. And then there’s the question of what you wear.

But what we now call “classical” music was once “popular” music. They had Farinelli. We have Lady Gaga. They had Liszt. We have Elton John.

Bridging that perception gap, the gap that makes classical music seem inaccessible and keeps new audiences away from the concert halls and opera houses, is a primary goal of many, if not most, performing arts organizations, including the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

This season, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City launched a new initiative called the “Explorations Series,” four performances featuring adventurous programming that are each designed to cross musical boundaries and highlight what classical music and popular music have in common. Held, usually, in the Lyric’s Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building in the East Crossroads, the concerts are intimate, the dress is casual and the parking is easy.

It all started in September, with an inaugural “Meet the Resident Artists” program featuring soprano April Martin, mezzo-soprano Samantha Gossard, tenor Casey Candebat, baritone John Viscardi, and coach-accompanist Kyle Naig. The second outing in this series was in October, when the music of 19th-century composer Franz Schubert shared the program with music of the Beatles. A collaboration with the New York Festival of Song, the concert premiered in New York, then travelled to Moab, Utah, before taking the stage in Kansas City.

Steven Biler, artistic director of New York Festival of Song, originally came up with the idea of the Schubert/Beatles mash-up and created most of the arrangements.

“I tried to build a bridge between the two,” he said. “The minute you take microphones and percussion away from Beatles songs, you instantly have a new format, a new atmosphere. They are up to the scrutiny of an intimate treatment.”

The Lyric wants to build more bridges than the one they built between Schubert and the Beatles. Executive Director Deborah Sandler sees the Explorations Series as a tool not only to deepen the relationship with current opera subscribers, but also to attract a future audience that will help keep opera alive.

“We’re looking to make connections with new people. We expect people to leave these programs smiling,” she says.

Next on the docket is the most challenging of the programs. “The Juliet Letters,” a set of 17 songs for voice and string quartet, were conceived in the early 1990s by Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet (Michael Thomas, Ian Belton, Paul Cassidy and Jacqueline Thomas). Costello was inspired to begin the project when he discovered that people write letters to Shakespeare’s Juliet and leave them at her supposed balcony in Verona, Italy. Costello and each quartet member created their own stylized letters and set them to music, using the idea as a platform for the exploration of young love.

The Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s version of “The Juliet Letters” will be sung by the Lyric Opera Resident Artists accompanied by the internationally renowned, Utah-based Fry Street Quartet. Fenlon Lamb, director of opera at UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, will direct. Jeff Ridenour, who earned his Master of Fine Arts from UMKC, will design the set.

“The combination of voice and string quartet is somewhat unexpected,” Sandler says. “We’re not just going to do a concert; we’re going to create an environment. It will almost be an ‘art installation’ with singers.”

“That’s what we’re trying to do,” she adds “We’re trying to do neat things.”

Elvis Costello’s “The Juliet Letters” will be presented at 8 p.m. Jan. 28 and 2 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Lyric Opera’s Michael and Ginger Frost Production Arts Building, 712 E. 18th St. A reception follows the concert; tickets cost $30 for subscribers and $35 for non-subscribers. For tickets and more information, www.kcopera.org.

Above: Next up for the Lyric Opera’s Explorations Series is “The Juliet Letters,” to be performed Jan. 28 and 29 by Lyric Opera Resident Artists accompanied by the Utah-based Fry Street Quartet. © Andrew McAllister

Krista Lang Blackwood

Krista Lang Blackwood is an award-winning educator, performer and freelance writer. When she's not teaching or performing, she combs the greater Kansas City region for off-the-beaten-path arts and culture offerings, usually in the company of her husband and precocious, French-speaking son. 

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