They don't give a Figaro
The multitasking Millennium Chamber Players do their own thing.
“There are so many great, young musicians in Chicago who are really struggling to get any work at all,” says Robert Katkov-Treviño, artistic director of the Millennium Chamber Players, when asked why Chicago needs another small opera company. He’s giving those musicians another way to earn some cash. In its second year, Katkov-Treviño’s ensemble tries to do it all: It’s not just an opera company, and not just a chamber-music ensemble. “Most ensembles focus on specific genres and time periods. We don’t do that,” Katkov-Treviño says. “Because we program new music, chamber music, opera and orchestral music, we feel like we’re integrating an entire company,” adds Brian von Rueden, the MCP’s opera director.
The two put on a strong and affecting staging of Britten’s small-scale The Rape of Lucretia in January and a string of operas by lesser-known composers through the spring, as well as chamber-music concerts that mixed new music in with the standard repertoire. Next week, with Katkov-Treviño conducting and von Rueden directing, they hugely expand their goals to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in Lakeview’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. “Most of the companies [in Chicago] do a bit more standard work, but all of last year we did obscure [operas],” says Katkov-Treviño. He admits that Figaro’s hardly obscure, but he and von Rueden are approaching it differently, they both say.
In the scrappy tradition of Chicago’s theater scene, the MCP grew out of a bunch of college friends who decided that they could do better if they pooled their talents instead of striking out on their own. The ensemble of singers and instrumentalists was largely drawn from Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, where Katkov-Treviño and von Rueden, who graduated just last spring, hatched the idea of a collaborative organization.
“That grew out of animosity,” says Katkov-Treviño, half-joking. In one of those academic charades that seem monumental at the time but end up being much smaller, von Rueden had been given control over an operatic project at Roosevelt that was originally in Katkov-Treviño’s hands. “After a summer ruminating over the experience, we came back with projects for the next year, and I said, ‘Hey! What would you think about conducting?’?” von Rueden says. Both had been burned by the previous experience, and figured that making their enemy their friend was the easiest way to ensure it didn’t happen again.
Performances of Figaro tapered off last year, but it was a difficult opera to miss in past seasons. Daniel Barenboim conducted it at Ravinia, and both Chicago Opera Theater and L’Opera Piccola—another shoestring operation like MCP—mounted productions recently. Katkov-Treviño and von Rueden are planting their flag in the opera scene by sticking closer to the characters’ plotlines than other companies may have done. “Very often when Figaro’s done, it’s very clear who the director was sympathizing with,” von Rueden says. Not so in his Figaro.
“To make the audience understand why the machinations of the plot are happening, each character has to know that they are right,” von Rueden continues. If the Count is always presented as the bad guy, the story is mindlessly simplified. “The Countess,” the aging wife whom the Count spurns for the younger Susanna, “isn’t an entirely sympathetic figure,” von Rueden says. “She’s in a depressive funk, so it makes sense that the Count is going to go out hunting.”
Such youthful impudence makes a night at this opera fun—and, at the very least, unpredictable: Many of the performers haven’t sung these roles before. “People deserve that opportunity, and a lot of times, they’re not getting it,” says Katkov-Treviño, who relishes the chance to help someone out.
Figaro’s six-night run begins Wednesday 27.