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Jane Austen Musical at Athenaeum

By Patty Wetli | Friday, September 9, 2011

Chicago Chamber Opera's "Persuasion" runs Sept. 10-11 and Sept. 17-18. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Chamber Opera website.

Ever watched one of those Jane Austen adaptations on Masterpiece Theater and thought, “You know, it would be totally awesome if Mr. Darcy broke into song”? Have we got an opera for you.

The Chicago Chamber Opera is mounting a production of Austen’s Persuasion (the novel that is neither Pride & Prejudice nor Sense & Sensibility) at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., on successive weekends: September 10-11 and September 17-18.

Barbara Landis, the five-year old opera company’s general/artistic director, spent two years crafting the script. “I tried to keep as faithful to [Austen] as possible,” says Landis. “When I had a choice between my own words and Jane Austen, Jane Austen was always better.”

For lyrics, she occasionally drew from Austen’s private letters and for the music, Landis turned to composers who would have been Austen’s contemporaries or were referenced in her manuscripts. Jane Austen’s House Museum even provided recordings from the novelist’s personal collection. “They were so kind,” Landis says of the museum. “They like to encourage projects.”

While Persuasion is no Tosca, that’s precisely the point. Landis cedes the “standard warhorses” to the Lyric Opera and obscure baroque pieces to Chicago Opera Theater, preferring to occupy a more accessible, affordable niche (the highest ticket prices are $30). Think Andrea Bocelli instead of Pavarotti.

“We get a lot of first-timers,” Landis says of a typical audience. “We introduce people to opera through works that are more popular and in English. We want them to enjoy the stage, enjoy the theater; we want them to be moved. And hopefully they get hooked.”

In focusing on works with wider appeal, Landis aims to dispel the image of opera as stuffy and old-fashioned. “Most people think of opera as too high brow, like more of an acquired taste,” she says. “But there are many forms of opera and pieces for everyone. It’s a wide genre.”

Sing it Captain Wentworth.

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