When I think about places that tell the secrets of a city’s past, opera houses are pretty low on that list, especially outside of Europe. Let’s face it: Wrigley Field probably tells more about Chicago than the Civic Opera House. But what I learned from touring opera houses all around Europe is these ornate theaters actually reveal a lot of about the city’s cultural and historical past — and, surprisingly, the Civic Opera House in Chicago is no different.
The other day I was thinking how crazy it is that the basement of the Paris Opera House is completely flooded (inspiring the Phantom of the Opera) and how people used beer to put out a fire at the Munich Opera House when I realized I’ve never toured the Civic Opera House in Chicago, despite having season tickets to the opera for two years now. So I signed up for the Lyric Backstage Tour and what I learned about the opera house surprised me.
5 Incredible Facts About the Civic Opera House in Chicago:
1. It was not built as a love token to Samuel Insull’s wife.
There’s a story told on Chicago’s architecture boat tours to describe the Civic Opera House. Legend says the owner, Samuel Insull, built the opera house for his opera singer wife because she didn’t get hired at the Met in New York. The building was designed to look like a chair supposedly turning its back on New York as a snub to The Met. Aww, love!
Unfortunately for all the architecture tour guides (and those partial to love stories), the reality is Samuel Insull built the opera house because he loved the arts. His wife, a popular New York singer, sang Broadway — not opera. And the chair-like design was the idea of architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. Geez, the love story is a little better, isn’t it?
Fun fact :: the same architects are also responsible for some of Chicago’s most famous buildings, like the Field Museum, Wrigley Building, and the Merchandise Mart.
2. It’s actually two theaters combined into one.
When architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White built the Civic Opera House in the late 1920s, they included a smaller theater behind it. The 878-seat Civic Theater was originally home to classic plays, then later a studio for ABC in the 1940s. It returned to theater and dance in the 60s, but struggled off-and-on until 1993, when it was engulfed by the Civic Opera. The space allowed the Civic Opera to expand the backstage, create a rehearsal hall, dressing rooms, and scenery storage space.
Fun fact :: remnants of The Civic Theater, like the doorway on Wacker Drive and the wall inscription on Washington, still exist today.
3. The Second City is home to the second largest opera house in North America.
Chicago’s nickname as The Second City (thanks to that infamous fire, not a comparison reference) stands strong in opera, too. The Civic Opera House is the second largest opera theater in North America, with 3,563 seats. That’s only slightly smaller than the largest, The Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, which seats 3,794.
(In comparison, the largest opera house in Europe is the Opera Bastille in Paris, with 2,700 seats, followed by the Vienna Staatsoper, with capacity for 2,276.)
The theater is an entire city block long and 8 stories high. It was specifically designed to enhance acoustics, with a megaphone-like flare emerging from the stage. It was built with concrete (which sound bounces off) and wood (which reverberates noise). Even the velvet seats were replaced with wood to further enhance the projection of voices on stage, since there is no amplification or microphones in opera.
4. Singer Maria Callas helped shape the Lyric Opera… then vowed never to return.
Chicago is no stranger to scandals and not even the opera world is immune. This one involves infamous soprano Maria Callas known for both her stunning voice and a love affair with a certain married man named Onassis (yeah, the one married to Jackie). The American singer was a sought-after star in Europe but had never performed in her home country.
She made her American debut at the Civic Opera House during the Lyric Opera’s first season in 1954. Because of her notoriety, the company’s first season was a success. At the time, she was being sued by her alleged agent but managed to avoid getting served. That is, until the process server snuck backstage after her performance of Madame Butterfly, catching her off-guard. A reporter snapped a photo of her furious, still in her kimono costume. The photo encouraged rumors she was a high-maintenance diva, hurting her reputation so badly she vowed never to return to Chicago.
Fun fact :: This was the only time Maria Callas sang Madame Butterfly, even though she was known for almost 50 different roles.
5. There’s more behind the scenes than meets the eye.
They say it takes a village to raise a child and the same is required to put on an opera. Besides the performers, orchestra, ticket-takers, office staff, and bartenders visible to opera-goers, there’s a whole team behind the scenes. Full-time seamstresses alter costumes that require nearly 35 dressers to get performers into them. Six full-time wig makers create one-of-a-kind wigs using real human hair for almost every performer. Sixteen people staff the props department making weapons, props, and food to be eaten on stage. Even lighting takes 13 people!
All of these people buzz behind, beneath, above, and around the stage, working tirelessly to put on an outstanding performance. The Civic Opera House tour includes many of these departments and it really made me appreciate the cost of my opera tickets!
Fun fact :: Yak hair is used for beard wigs. As for head wigs, each one takes 40 hours to complete, since every hair is sewn in by hand. (And I thought my job was tedious!)
Civic Opera House Tours in Chicago
Tours of the Civic Opera House are held throughout the year. The hour-long tour includes the stage, costume and wig rooms, prop and scenery departments, dressing rooms, orchestra pit, and even a walk along the catwalk — six stories above the stage! The tours are surprisingly interesting and also great for movie buffs, since much of the make up and prop departments resemble those of movie sets.
Classic tours are $45/person (with an optional lunch for +$15) and VIP tours with a luncheon and lecture are $150/person. Private group and student tours are also available. Learn more here. Shorter, backstage-only tours are $15.
Disclaimer :: I was graciously treated to the tour of the Civic Opera House. As always, all opinions are my own.