Emily Cox
Emily Cox is a versatile performer who has been seen across the nation in musical theatre, cabaret, opera and solo orchestral works. Her numerous roles ... more
Written on ban Cities & Scenes.

Last update on .

Cities and Scenes: Chicago

In our inaugural "Cities and Scenes" post, Soprano Emma Cox breaks down the vocal music scene in the Windy City for fans and singers alike.

After what feels like an eternity, it is finally summer, which can only mean one thing: graduation. Thousands of young professional musicians will find themselves suddenly free of barriers and juries, and instead will be faced with more difficult decisions such as relocation. In the past, New York or Los Angeles were the obvious choices for professional musicians seeking work. However, in the past few years, the 'Third Coast' has proved itself to be a massive cultural epicenter for musicians who desire a variety of performance opportunities.

At first glance, Chicago is a Midwestern city known for big shoulders and even bigger appetites. But when it comes to the classical music scene, it could be said that Chicago is more of a tapas city — it is a city that is made up of smaller, individual plates that are unique, exciting, and often feature unusual combinations. The Lyric Opera, with its historical significance, is often seen by outsiders as the sole provider of performance prospects. However, the local artistic scene is actually burgeoning with talent and opportunities. In an age where opera lovers are often lamenting the 'death' of their art form, Chicago is celebrating the reemergence of smaller regional companies, complete with provocative productions and lively artistic opportunities.

I've compiled a list of companies, cooperatives and choruses that the newly-arrived Chicagoist might find worth a closer look. This list is in no way all-encompassing; rather, it features several companies that I have noted as being extremely engaging to the young professional singer. The following companies offer unique performance opportunities, and are known for consistently presenting high-quality productions.

Lyric Opera of Chicago
The Windy City’s International house, and the second-largest company in the United States. In the 2017-18 season, the Lyric presents nine full-scale productions – eight opera and one musical theatre – at the Civic Opera House featuring some of the biggest names in opera. They will also present one new work at the Athenaeum Theatre. More info.

Chicago Opera Theater
Now in its 43rd season, but is still considered by many to be the 'new' opera house in Chicago. The company has striven to be an 'innovative, nationally-recognized opera company', producing newly-composed and lesser-known operatic productions alongside standard repertoire. A champion of 17th, 18th and 20th century works, Chicago Opera Theater is known for unusual and exciting productions; at least one production per season is virtually unknown amongst loyal opera fans, and young artists generally can count on placing a world premiere on their résumés during their tenure. More info.

Haymarket Opera
For the specialized early-music singer, Chicago houses one of the nation's foremost companies, Haymarket Opera. A well-respected and revered company on both a regional and a national level, Haymarket is touted as the most active early music opera company in the United States. They specialize in early-music operas and oratorios from the 17th and 18th century, and delight in bringing forth obscure gems that have been buried by history. Productions from this past season included Francesco Cavalli's rarely-seen La Calisto. Haymarket Opera strives to be authentic in every aspect of its productions, from period instruments, elaborate costumes, and historically-informed vocal practices and staging. The company made its international debut this past January in the Valletta International Baroque Festival in Malta. Local artists can audition by contacting the company through their website for future engagements, and pay is negotiated in professional contracts. More info.

Chicago Fringe Opera
However brightly Chicago may shine in the early-music realm, it is in the contemporary musical world that Chicago finds its niche market. Several companies and collectives have established themselves as major advocates of contemporary music in the past three years alone. Chicago Fringe Opera is one of the newer companies on the Chicago opera scene, but it has quickly established itself as a serious proponent of contemporary music.

The brainchild of local singers and conductors, Chicago Fringe features a staff whose joy at producing music seems to know no end. The company is devoted to producing 20th century operatic works in English. Recent productions include The Turn of the Screw in a historically-preserved mansion (in which the audience moved from room to room as the opera's ghostly plot thickened), and a minimalist version of William Bolcom's Lucrezia in the plush, eclectic basement of the Chopin Theater (featuring a cabaret beforehand of the composer's more intimate works). The company produces several smaller productions a year, all of which feature prodigious talent, remarkable staging and have been well reviewed by the Chicago Tribune. There is a paid stipend-per-production, and auditions are generally held on an invite-only basis. More info.

Thompson Street Opera
Thompson Street Opera is a newly-relocated company within the Chicagoland area. Originally founded in 2011 in Louisville, KY, the company relocated to Chicago in 2016, where it quickly garnered respect within the classical singing community for its innovative productions. Thompson Street Opera is strictly dedicated to producing newly-composed operatic works to non-traditional audiences, while actively advocating for contemporary opera. Their seasons feature operas in English by living composers, many of whom collaborate with the company during the rehearsal processes. Past productions include the world premiere of The Final Battle For Love, a professional-wrestling opera by Philip Thompson (no relation to the opera company). Performers are paid a stipend-per-performance, and out-of-town artists are housed at no additional cost. Auditions are held once a year in the spring, both live and by submitting materials online. More info.

Chicago Folks Operetta
Perhaps you are a singer who is seeking a little lighter performance season. If so, Chicago Folks Operetta would be just what you're searching for. This suburb-based company exists solely to promote the performance of lesser-known operettas, both Viennese and American, from the early 20th century. The popular and accessible musical gems are well-accepted by both audiences, singers and critics alike. The company has been praised extensively by the Chicago Tribune for its beautiful and high-quality work. All productions are performed with full-orchestra (a rare opportunity in the Chicagoland area), and are often collaborated with members of the Chicago Shakespeare and Chicago theater community. Auditions are held once a year in the spring, and there is a paid stipend-per-production. More info.

• Chicago Symphony Chorus
One of the most-respected choruses in the Chicagoland area, the CSO Chorus is known for its tours in the United States and abroad, and for its many award-winning recordings, and is considered by many critics to be one of the finest ensembles of its kind in the world.

They perform at the historic Concert Hall in downtown Chicago for the regular season (Sept-Apr), and are regular performers at the famed Ravinia Festival each summer.

Auditions: New and returning singers auditioned each year around February. Singers are paid a stipend per-performance. The Chorus is an AGMA signatory, so those who are not members will be asked to join the union. More info.

• Grant Park Music Festival Chorus
Simply "Grant Park" to Chicagoans, this summer festival runs May-August and includes a fully-professional chorus that performs in the beautiful downtown Grant Park proscenium. Concerts are free and open to the public, and are always well-attended and highly-anticipated. Guest conductors and professional soloists are brought in both nationally and internationally, but the Chorus is open to local singers.

Auditions: Annually in spring and as-needed, typically for a two-year term. The Chorus is an AGMA signatory, so those who are not members will be asked to join the union. More info.

• Lyric Opera Chorus
The choral auxiliary of the storied Lyric Opera comprises Regular (full-time, salaried) and Extra (part-time, per-production) units, and is featured in each production in the Lyric’s season.

Auditions: Annually in early spring. The Lyric Opera is an AGMA signatory, so all artists who are not current members will be asked to join the union. For more information: More info.

• Roosevelt CCPA
Offers Professional Diploma in Opera, in which 4-5 students per year are simultaneously employed as Resident Artists with Chicago Opera Theatre, where they perform main stage chorus and comprimario duties with the company, in addition to CCPA-sponsored productions. More info.

• Northwestern University
Home to a prestigious vocal program, Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music features a renowned faculty in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility, the Ryan Center for Musical Arts, and grants Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctoral degrees to singers. The streamlined Doctor of Musical Arts program requires only two years of resident doctoral coursework, and grants full-tuition scholarships to all admitted doctoral candidates, plus the opportunity to earn stipends for teaching applied lessons or undergraduate practicum, or working in the Bienen School Voice Lab. More info.

• Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago
For over four decades, the Ryan Opera Center has been recognized as one of the most-prestigious young artist programs for emerging singers. The 15-member ensemble, selected each year from among 400 auditions, performs comprimario and cover duties in the Lyric’s main stage productions, and receives training in a variety of disciplines from some of the finest teachers in the world. Most singers are engaged for a two-year term, and many continue on to the world’s greatest stages. More info.

• COT Resident Artist Program
A joint venture with the Performance Diploma in Opera program at Roosevelt University-CCPA, would-be Resident Artists must be admitted to Roosevelt and the PD program at CCPA in order to be eligible.

Applications open in the fall, and auditions are generally held in the spring. More info.

For the singer who is interested in introducing opera to the young, there are many educational outreach programs within the Chicagoland area that hire local artists. The largest outreach programs are run by Chicago Opera Theater and the Lyric.

• Chicago Opera Theatre
The same bold attitude that COT takes towards repertoire is reflected in their outreach efforts; COT offers no less than three separate programs for educational outreach that bring opera to students all over the city: COT for Teens, a partnership with After School Matters, a statewide nonprofit that targets at-risk teens from ages fourteen to nineteen; Opera for All, which works primarily with elementary students; and the Vocal Conservatory, which allows students to work one-on-one with professional artists in pedagogical vocal development. More info

• Lyric Opera of Chicago
A few blocks away from COT, the Lyric Opera's educational outreach department has expanded significantly in the last three years. “Lyric Unlimited” is the newest revamping of the Lyric Opera's educational outreach program. There are three separate classroom-based programs under the Lyric Unlimited banner: Elementary Opera Residencies for K-5th graders, “Explore Opera” for 6th-12th graders, and a high school choir residency program. There is also "Opera in the Neighborhood,” which features local singers in abridged versions of classic tales and standard repertoire, specifically crafted for young audiences (grades 3rd-6th). More info

For both companies' outreach programs, teaching artists/singers are paid a stipend per-performance or engagement. Auditions for both are generally in the spring.

Vox3 Collective
Vox3 Collective is a professional chorus that seeks to explore the possibilities of the human voice through art song, opera and cabaret. The collective is known for their excellence in concert series, which feature multiple performers throughout the year in a myriad of performances. These concerts vary widely in performance venues and content, from Baroque madrigal concerts in a bar to contemporary cabaret in a church. Auditions are held in the late spring on an as-needed basis. More info

Third Eye Theatre Ensemble
For the socially-conscious contemporary singer, there is Third Eye Ensemble. An adventurous local company, Third Eye presents high-quality productions of new or rarely-performed operatic works that 'inspire conversation while advocating for human rights and social justice'. Most of their past seasons have featured contemporary operatic works in English, as well as art song recitals; however, this season the company is bucking its own language trend and is performing a series of concerts and productions in Spanish to raise awareness for the Latinx community. The company has recently garnered praise from the Chicago Tribune for their quality productions, and was deemed the Debut Company of 2014 by the Chicago Classical Review. Live auditions happen once a year in the spring. More info

Chicago Vocal Arts Consortium
If you've just moved to a new city, chances are you are simply seeking networking opportunities. The Chicago Vocal Arts Consortium is an amazingly-diverse group of classical musicians that provides remarkable opportunities for its members. The group is comprised of local singers, directors, Alexander Technique specialists, coaches, teachers and more, all of whom are striving to collaborate and continue their own artistic development. CVAC's mission is to 'create a supportive community and subsidize continuing education for Chicago singing artists', and to strive to make Chicago “the most singer-friendly city in the US”. The group meets formally once a month to poll the members for ideas as to what they would like to see offered in the upcoming weeks. Classes have included everything from Russian diction coachings to 'How to survive a dance callback' workshops. The meetings are informal and friendly, and panelists lead members in discussions of upcoming workshops, as well as to pass out a monthly compilation list of upcoming auditions within the Chicagoland area. If you aren't a member yet, I HIGHLY recommend that you consider joining. More info


• St. James Cathedral

The Chicago cathedral of the Episcopal Church, St. James presents a full slate of choral services, including regular Sundays and Evensongs, a regular concert series and a slate of 5:45pm "Rush Hour" concerts, for those who prefer listen to expertly-presented choral music while they wait for rush hour traffic to dissipate. The Cathedral Choir employs paid section leaders to supplement their volunteer base. More info.

In short, Chicago proves to be an ever-expanding market for the classical singer's varied musical tastes. A young professional can easily establish an eclectic performance résumé from a myriad of local and regional companies without leaving Chicagoland. Between the reasonable housing market, the ambitious musical community, and the plethora of coaches, teachers, and mentors, Chicago is truly a cultural epicenter of the country.

Emily Cox
Emily Cox is a versatile performer who has been seen across the nation in musical theatre, cabaret, opera and solo orchestral works. Her numerous roles ... more