Yankovskaya departs Chicago Opera Theater. What’s next for the company?

todayDecember 5, 2023 7

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“The Nose” wasn’t planned as Lidiya Yankovskaya’s swan song from Chicago Opera Theater, the company she’s led as music director since 2017.

But Dmitri Shostakovich’s absurdist political satire, composed when the composer was in his early 20s, is as fitting a farewell as they come for the conductor. Yankovskaya — named the Tribune’s 2020 Chicagoan of the Year in Classical Music — has raised the profile of COT immensely, her interpretations bracing and repertoire head-spinningly varied: She led 25 new-to-Chicago works, 11 of which were world premieres. She’s also fashioned COT as a primo stop for artists growing their careers by formalizing COT’s Young Artist Program and founding its Vanguard Initiative, which pairs first-time opera composers with accomplished librettists to trial-run a new work.

With “The Nose,” the company even convinced Francesca Zambello, artistic director of Washington National Opera, to devise a brand-new production. Attracting that kind of high-profile talent would have been unheard of for the lean company a few short seasons ago.

“(We’re) pushing to do things at the highest artistic level possible,” Yankovskaya says. “I think that’s what allows us to get someone like Francesca Zambello to want to work with COT on such a complicated piece.”

To Yankovskaya, age 37, “The Nose” is also personal. Both Shostakovich and the Yankovsky family hail from St. Petersburg, where “The Nose” is based: a petty bureaucrat loses his nose, only for the appendage to take on a life of its own and incite chaos around the city. Like Shostakovich, Yankovskaya’s great-grandparents — academics at St. Petersburg University — were targeted by Stalin’s regime. Her great-grandmother was sent to Gulag camps twice; her great-grandfather was abducted and assassinated.

“They started purging philosophy departments at universities, and Jewish intellectuals in particular — anybody who might have asked questions,” Yankovskaya says.

In 1995, Yankovskaya and her mother emigrated from St. Petersburg to the U.S. as refugees, fleeing extreme antisemitism in post-USSR Russia. St. Petersburg, at the time of their departure, was about one-third Jewish, at the time legally considered an ethnic distinction rather than a religious one. Long interested in Jewish themes and subjects, Shostakovich nods to the city’s sizable Jewish community and the state oppression they faced in “The Nose”: a bagel-seller appears as a bit part, harassed by city police.

“It totally mocks the police and the police inspector, this guy who’s obsessed with power and likes to feel important. These are archetypes we see everywhere, in all periods, in all places,” Yankovskaya says.

Though “The Nose” is the last production to feature her on the podium this season, Yankovskaya departs formally in the spring, at the end of Chicago Opera Theater’s 50th anniversary season. Now in demand as a guest conductor at orchestras and opera companies across the country, Yankovskaya says her freelance schedule and COT commitments have become increasingly hard to reconcile. She delayed her timeline of stepping away until the company had named a replacement for COT general director Ashley Magnus, who stepped down in March.

With new general director Lawrence Edelson, the founder of opera incubator American Lyric Theater, now at the helm, Yankovskaya felt confident COT was entering a chapter where she could depart with minimal upset. She will remain involved in the company’s Vanguard Initiative and likely return as a guest conductor in future seasons, as her schedule allows.

“We have a magnificent general director who brings so much experience, knowledge, thoughtfulness and experience in all the administrative areas that the company needs strengthening in. Larry’s a stage director, a former dancer and singer, and he’s developed new work for a long time,” Yankovskaya says. “It’s a good time for stable leadership in the company.”

In interviews, both Yankovskaya and Edelson emphasized their mutual respect for one another, dating back to Yankovskaya’s leadership of American Lyric-hosted workshops of “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” a decade ago. That opera had its fully staged premiere at COT last year.

Edelson says future seasons will carry some of Yankovskaya’s stamp, particularly the range of artists and narratives she cultivated.

“She championed artists — not only composers and librettists, but singers, conductors and directors — that are reflective of the diversity of society. I think that’s important, that opera really be reflective of the society we live in. That absolutely will be continuing under my leadership,” Edelson says.

“The Nose” promises to be a high point in what’s been a rocky anniversary season for COT so far. One of Edelson’s first major decisions as general director was to ax the company’s spring production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Platée,” after inflation up and down the supply chain, the cessation of government COVID relief and overestimated audience return figures exacerbated a budget shortfall.

Then, with a week before curtain, star baritone Nathan Gunn — another major get — withdrew from COT’s season-opening monodrama “Soldier Songs” due to a family emergency. The performance went on as planned, with David Adam Moore making a blistering last-minute substitution.

Edelson believes the COT’s ability to take these bumps in stride should be considered proof of the company’s stability, not cause for panic.

“The decision, for example, to cancel ‘Platée,’ if not viewed through the whole context of what’s happening in not only the company but in the field, might be something that (makes) people say, ‘Oh, is this a huge issue?’ It’s not — it’s actually demonstrating that we have a clear picture of our capacity, and that we now have a team in place that understands what needs to be done to start addressing some of both the internal and external challenges of operating an opera company in the current environment,” Edelson says. “Yes, people can be disappointed that we canceled the production — I’m disappointed that we canceled the production. But it was still the right decision.”

In another change that will affect COT’s books going forward, the Oct. 24 news release announcing Yankovskaya’s departure says the company will not “immediately” bring on a new music director. Instead, it will hire a “head of music” to provide musical continuity while invited guest conductors lead productions.

The news release’s language remains vague as to whether COT will ever hire a replacement for Yankovskaya. That’s intentional, says Edelson.

“I’ve been here a couple of months, and I think it would be premature for me to jump to conclusions about what the company needs long-term. A lot of opera companies our size don’t actually have a music director, and (for those that do), a music director’s job typically includes the development of the orchestra. We don’t have our own orchestra,” Edelson says. “When Lidiya shared this news with me, we had some real conversations about what she has been doing, because a lot of it actually hasn’t been the job of a music director. She’s been doing a lot of things that, in most companies, fall to a head of music staff.”

Opera America, the membership organization that includes more than 200 opera companies in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico, denotes Chicago Opera Theater as being in its second budget tier, alongside peers like Opera Philadelphia and Atlanta Opera and some summer festival companies (Glimmerglass, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Des Moines, Cincinnati Opera). Of those peers, about half do not have a music director or resident conductor position; of those, six — Arizona, Fort Worth, Kansas City, Minnesota, Omaha and Pittsburgh — have a titled head of music.

Yankovskaya agrees that the move makes sense for a company like COT.

“There’s become this culture of music directors who fly in for the shows they conduct and fly out. That’s not good, but it’s become the norm and the expectation. COT, for me, hasn’t been that, because I live here; I have a family here. But COT only does three big productions and a couple of smaller ones a year, and it’s never good to only have one conductor lead everything — I’ve always brought in one or two guest conductors every year, at least. It’s more practical for the company — right now, at least — to have a head of music staff whose primary responsibilities will be to oversee all of the musical goings-on of the organization.”

As for what the next 50 years might hold at COT, Edelson says the company has “multiple world premieres in the pipeline” to start, including a project that “will be the first full-length opera for two particular artists.” (“I really shouldn’t say more than that … I’m being Mr. Vague here!” he jokes.) COT also has a number of American and North American premieres in its sights, pending board approval.

Edelson also promises updates later this year which “specifically address the long-term financial stability of the organization.”

“I think of opera as a living art form, which is also our tagline. I love that because it doesn’t just mean new work, and it doesn’t mean just our current artists. For me, it offers a lens through which we look at the world,” Edelson says. “‘The Nose’ is a perfect example of that. … It’s one of the most imaginative and eclectic scores, and kind of an operatic roller coaster. If we can be presenting things like that, I think I’m doing my job.”

“The Nose” will be 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 3 p.m. Dec. 10 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph St.; tickets $45-150; more information at

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains editorial control over assignments and content.

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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