Linden Christ gives kids a voice in her Opera Play-House.
“The only thing more expensive to mount than opera is war,” goes a popular saying in the music business. What with sets, a backstage crew, singers and an orchestra, producing an opera on one’s own is a costly proposition, so any idealistic singer who thinks it’s a good way to advance a career had better have a gimmick. Luckily for her, Linden Christ does.
Christ, a soprano and Roosevelt grad, started Opera Play-House late last year with the idea of creating productions that work as outreach vehicles for schools, churches and retirement homes. She’s sung with Chicago Opera Theater’s outreach program for two seasons and has a bubbly personality that could win over a roomful of kids instantly. The company has performed her slimmed-down English version of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel seven times throughout Illinois already, with another on Tuesday 26.
“I had this idea to perform [Hansel and Gretel] with kids when I was with the Rome Opera Festival” in 2005, Christ says. She sang the role of Gretel, and thought the opera would be strong enough to hold children’s attention. Last summer, she took scissors to the score and cut the 2 1/2-hour work down to 40 minutes so it would fit into a school’s convocation time, and not be overly long. “I was gearing it to elementary schools, in particular,” she says.
To slim the opera down, Christ excised a number of roles and some orchestral music. “I took out the father,” she says, “and I eliminated the overture and the pieces that are just the orchestra. I took out some of the repeats, and tried to keep the story intact.” That turned out to be the hardest part, Christ says. Opera Play-House also dispenses with an orchestra, using only a pianist to play the entire score.
One key element remains, and that’s the set. Christ worked with a painter friend from high school, Eva Pfaff, who created three backdrops for the opera. But Christ hit a snag: “I don’t have a car,” she says. So she’s had to rely on others to help cart the drops around.
Christ sees no reason to try expanding to fully staged operas that aren’t part of an outreach program. “We just want to do more performances,” she says, adding that they’re doing more in churches, and have another coming up in March at the Harold Washington Library. Churches, not known much today for their openness to opera, have been surprisingly receptive, “because Hansel and Gretel has that religious content,” she says, of good triumphing over an evil witch. And it didn’t hurt that the churches she contacted all have children’s choirs.
Yet Christ’s company won’t be doing Hansel and Gretel forever; she’s working with composer Leo Van Asten on a version of the Three Little Pigs. (Van Asten’s wife, Wendy, sings in Hansel and Gretel.)
While both the Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theater have outreach programs, Christ’s guerrilla version is remarkable. She’s managed to do it on a small budget with the help of friends who sing; she negotiates the fees the schools and churches pay; and she has done all the musical and administrative work herself. That’s pretty impressive, but it’s also part of a larger make-it-your-own-way ethos that so many young Chicago musicians have right now.
“There are a lot of schools that haven’t been reached yet,” says Christ, who stands as good a chance of introducing kids to the surprises of opera as anyone.
Opera Play-House presents Hansel and Gretel in Roosevelt University’s Ganz Memorial Hall Tuesday 26.