"People in Chicago no longer will have to deal with an opera company director with an English accent," jokes Andreas Mitisek. "Now all they will have to adjust to is dealing with one with an Austrian accent!"
In fact, the change of regime at Chicago Opera Theater from that of the British-born Brian Dickie to the Vienna-born Mitisek has been taking place in carefully planned stages. Dickie stepped down from the general director's post, after 13 years at the job, on June 1, but not before putting in place the artistic and production team for a new COT production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" that is set to open Saturday at the Harris Theater near Millennium Park.
That means Dickie's valedictory to the company will be the first show to be administered by his successor. The energetic Mitisek has been hard at work firming up COT's 2013 schedule, the first full season under his command, months before his five-year contract took effect early this summer.
Dickie brought his own distinctive style to COT's repertory and production concepts, but he believes Mitisek's equally venturesome perspectives will be beneficial for the company, and for opera in general in Chicago.
"Andreas is extremely well equipped for the kind of work COT does in these very difficult times," he says. "He's used to working within the creative, minimalist financial situation we are all in, so it seems to be a rather good fit."
For his part, the 50-year-old Mitisek speaks of the necessity of "reaching out to people who aren't normally interested in opera, breaking down perceptions of what opera is and removing the hindrances that prevent people from exploring opera." A tall order, perhaps, but Mitisek did not get to where he is by thinking small.
His calling-card season will begin in late February with the Chicago premiere of Philip Glass' "The Fall of the House of Usher." Mitisek himself will conduct the Edgar Allan Poe-inspired opera, in a co-production with California's Long Beach Opera, of which he has been artistic and general director since 2003. Astor Piazzolla's "Maria de Buenos Aires," in a production originating in Long Beach this year, will follow in April.
Verdi's "Giovanna d'Arco" ("Joan of Arc"), a project announced by Dickie as part of his "People's Opera" fundraising initiative in 2010, will round out the COT season in September 2013, as the company's contribution to the Verdi bicentennial. Castings for all three operas will be announced shortly.
What made Mitisek a natural to follow in Dickie's progressive footsteps is his zeal to make opera, per the company's current advertising tag, "out of the box, provocative, engaging, relevant and adventurous." As much could be said about his work in Long Beach, a company he will continue to direct during his COT tenure.
Not only has he gone in for an eclectic repertory mix and edgy stagings, he also has cultivated new audiences for opera by bringing site-specific productions to nontraditional spaces — a nightclub, a parking garage, an Olympic swimming pool and even the engine room of the Queen Mary, the retired Cunard liner docked in Long Beach. This weekend, Long Beach Opera is giving the U.S. premiere of British composer Gavin Bryars' "The Paper Nautilus" — at the city's Aquarium of the Pacific.
While it's easy to imagine Mitisek staging, say, Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" at the Lincoln Park Zoo, bear in mind that this artistic iconoclast is also a fiscal realist. Like Dickie, he is a practiced hand at cooking up the operatic equivalent of gourmet meals on a hamburger budget. He's done lots of that in Long Beach.
Beyond serving up repertory Lyric Opera won't and shouldn't touch, Mitisek is keen on applying the Long Beach model to Chicago — bringing opera to places in the community where nobody would expect to find opera. His plan to mount an as-yet-unannounced contemporary work in a factory warehouse in the Bridgeport area of Chicago as a season "add-on" in fall 2013, will depend on COT's being able to raise some $250,000 beyond its regular fundraising, no mean task in today's tight economy.
Fortunately a $500,000 grant to COT from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, announced last month, will support new American works and help the opera company create its first cash reserve fund.
"It's a wonderful way to start my tenure at COT," says Mitisek.
Speaking of expanding boundaries, Mitisek continues to prove himself a master-of-all-trades, having added the roles of stage director and designer to his already well-established side career as conductor. Not only will he take up the baton for the COT premiere of "Maria de Buenos Aires," he also will serve as stage director and production designer.
Hey, if you've got the skills, why not put them all on the table?