Lidiya Yankovskaya Takes Opera into The 21st Century

Chicago Magazine

Chicago, IL

Graham Meyer

The musical head of Chicago Opera Theater doesn’t look like most bigtime opera conductors. For one, Lidiya Yankovskaya turned 33 in March, which is toddlerhood for maestros. For another, she’s female, unique among major U.S. companies. More important, she rides on a new wave, bringing a repertoire that ranges from grand spectacle to electric intimacy.

COT’s season opener pairs Aleko, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s first opera, and Everest, also a first, by the contemporary composer Joby Talbot. Aleko addresses core opera themes such as love, jealousy, and murder among a band of Roma; a little-known Russian opera, it plays to Yankovskaya’s expertise of heritage — she is a native of St. Petersburg. Everest adapts Jon Krakauer’s true-adventure thriller Into Thin Air. Both are Chicago premieres, as are all COT productions this season (same as last season, Yankovskaya’s debut with the company). “There’s a great deal of new opera out there,” she says, “but I think very little of it has been seen in Chicago.”

Opera experimentalism has flourished in the past decade among a gaggle of startup companies around the city. Yankovskaya is taking that energy and injecting it into a major company. To incarnate the voice of the mountain, Everest employs a big chorus (as does Aleko), which would be a deal breaker for the kind of smaller outfit that would typically perform it. Naysayers accuse opera of resuscitating a permanent past. Here is where you can see the present.

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