Inside the Lyric's off-season
What happens after the fat lady sings?
In March, the Lyric Opera marked the end of another season when the curtains fell on Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Alas, budget constraints meant no closing party. But life at the Civic Opera House never comes to a grinding halt. The riverside building provides a stately rental space for ritzy weddings and graduations. When we showed up one April afternoon to peek around the maze of offices and dressing rooms, the elevators brimmed with young ballerinas getting limber for American Ballet Theatre rehearsals.
Technical director Peter Schwob sat in his opera-memorabilia-strewn office, arranging a shipment of Lyric’s Susanna set, props and costumes to an opera house in Bilbao, Spain. “People are surprised to hear that the Lyric has about a hundred year-round staff,” the Oak Park resident says. “The tech department is already at work on the next season.” New opera sets are usually delivered by the end of July (older sets, unless rented out, are kept in the Lyric’s South Side storage warehouse), and the tech staff spends a few weeks lighting each show scene by scene, ironing out kinks in preparation for September’s rehearsals. Verdi’s Macbeth, the last show to tech, will remain onstage until the opening night of the 2010–11 season. “Macbeth is going to be magical,” Schwob says. “It’s an all-steel set, which we’ll project images onto.”
After storing his coifs backstage for future engagements (a good wig typically lasts several years), wig master and makeup designer Rick Jarvie traveled to Georgia to work on Atlanta Opera’s The Magic Flute. Back in Chicago, he’s focused on Northwestern University’s production of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, which opens Friday 21. “Everyone has powdered wigs like Marie Antoinette,” the 49-year-old, who teaches wig making and maintenance at DePaul, tells us by phone. “I certainly won’t be going off to Hawaii, but it would be nice to have a little time to recharge my batteries. But the job’s great fun. It’s like Halloween every day.”
Assistant principal violinist Sharon Polifrone, who does pick-up gigs with local companies such as Chicago Opera Theater, has a pressing duty to attend to: running a one-woman farm, Oaks N Hill. (Assistant conductor and prompter Susan Hult also retreats to a farm in Iowa.) For the past two years, Polifrone has devoted the five acres of land surrounding her home an hour west of Chicago to raising chickens, dairy cows and beef cattle—and she’s adding 20 heritage turkeys this year. “There are some chores over the winter, but luckily the quietest time on the farm jibes with the busiest time at Lyric,” she says. The 54-year-old practices violin every day during the spring and summer, but it’s clear her passion for farming is as serious as her love of music.
Minutes after we meet her in a nondescript conference room on an upper floor of the Lyric, Polifrone whips out photos of her land and livestock. She presses a copy of Michael Pollan’s foodie bible Omnivore’s Dilemma into our hands: “Take it. It’s my dog-eared copy, and I’ve got more at home.” The down-to-earth brunet, who calls the book a revelation, modeled Oaks N Hills on Joel Salatin’s “beyond organic” Polyface Farm in Virginia, which Pollan extensively discusses.
After many years researching Salatin’s sustainable-farming methods, Polifrone ordered 12 silver-laced wyandotte birds from Ohio in 2008. They were sent to her local post office. “It’s the only time I’ve gone to pick up a package and it peeped back at me!” she says. The jovial farmer points to calves in the photos: “That’s Marcus, and that’s Suzy Q.” But she’s far from sentimental. “A restaurant in Geneva’s already bought half of Marcus,” she says with delight.
Word of mouth among neighbors and colleagues has been more than enough marketing for Polifrone’s tiny but bustling farm. “Most of the names on my egg list are opera people,” she says. “I made two egg deliveries downstairs before I came to meet you.” She reaches into a plastic bag and hands me a dozen: “Here you go. They laid them for you this morning!” As for those new turkeys? Polifrone is taking Thanksgiving orders from the Lyric staff. For the birds, like the divas onstage, it’s bound to end tragically.