Jesse Case (left) plays piano as well as Richard Wagner alongside bonafide opera singers Jonah D. Winston (center) and Tracy Cantin (right) in “Longer! Louder! Wagner,” a collaboration between the Lyric Opera and The Second City (photo by Todd Rosenberg).
The Lyric Opera opened its 2016/17 season with Das Rheingold, with Die Walküre coming in 2017/18, Siegfried in 2018/19, and Götterdämmerung in 2019/2020. The full Ring cycle will be presented three times in three weeks in April 2020.
For those terrified of opera, check out the Lyric’s second Second City collaboration to prepare for those weeks of Wagner. Longer! Louder! Wagner! runs for six performances only through this weekend, for a brisk 90 minutes rather than 15 hours over four days, to make sense of what sounds like “bad things happening to confused people.”
Written by Tim Sniffen, whose Death of A Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf skewered and celebrated the American theater canon at Writers Theatre last summer, this lampoon does similar service to opera tropes and expectations.
“Sixteen measures of a single chord,” Sniffen’s singers intone. “Who does that?”
Jesse Case, who composed the original music, narrates and moves in and out of the 1848 and modern day action as lingerie-loving Wagner, “part OCD, part jerk.” He also plays a mean grand piano, placed on a Persian rug, as the primary scenic element in the Lyric’s William Mason Rehearsal Hall, transformed into a cabaret venue with simple stage apron and six footlights, complete with food and drink service.
Case is as comfortable with classics as well as Nationwide jingles, the Harry Potter theme, and Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’. He’s also the glue around which several plots (“leitmotifs or musical Legos”) and seven actor/singers pivot.
Some of these operatic threads include an intellectual WFMT “classical music monster” (Sayjal Joshi) hosting “Opera Talk,” a show that airs “between the BBC and 11 minutes of silence,” alongside a morning zoo jock (Randall Harr); plus Wagner’s own “das muses” as well as his great-grandson Fred (short for Siegfried, Tim Ryder), who is directing ultra light operas in Schaumburg as girlfriend Karen (Alice Stanley Jr. (a female junior!)) pursues a library science doctorate (from whom we learn that “acid paper is the literary equivalent of child murder”).
Fred gets to take his Chicagoland singers – Jiffy Lube worker Valerie as Brunhilde (Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center graduate, soprano Tracy Cantin) and Morgan as Wotan (basso profundo Jonah D. Winston, who debuted at the Lyric in The Merry Widow last season) – to the Bayreuth, Germany, Festival, home of an opera house designed by Wagner, via Lufthansa and its “Cross Fit robot flight attendants.” Both classically trained singers deliver with verve on the original music, and show comedic chops to boot.
Wagner’s history is sprinkled throughout the intermissionless production, including bad puns from Franz Liszt and Friedrich Nietzsche in 1861 Zurich, and revelations of the first recorded instance of “gay for pay” with his patron, Bavaria’s King Ludwig II (Travis Turner, who also plays this Ring Cycle’s designer: “to make gray lighting we take white light and turn it down”).
Jesse Case as silk-lover Richard Wagner (left) and Travis Turner (right) as his patron, Bavaria’s King Ludwig II (photo by Todd Rosenberg).
The vicissitudes of operatic performance make appearances as well, notably Morgan’s lament about bass singers only being cast as Pirate Kings or Satan, who never get a Disney solo, and having “the screams of children be our brass section.”
Sniffen’s show is an excellent primer for the uninitiated, who will learn “it’s Wagner; someone has to die,” as well as an appreciation for “the power, the music, and everyone racing for the exits.”
Longer! Louder! Wagner! The Second City Wagner Companion runs through October 30th at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive. Tickets and information available at 312-827-5600.