A billionaire’s birthday bash is not the most likely place for a pair of offbeat artists to have a meeting of creative minds. Yet, in 2008, when real estate magnate and Tribune owner Sam Zell threw himself a party, two of Chicago’s leading fringe creators found themselves mingling.
“I remember standing behind Rod Blagojevich and his giant muscle men, watching the Eagles, who were headlining,” recalls Mickle Maher, an avant-garde playwright who was drafted to write a short opera for the festivities. He adapted a chapter of Don Quixote using both operatic and rock singers. It was his first foray into the genre. Also on hand that evening was Maher’s buddy and former collaborator, Mark Messing, cofounder of the mad, high-energy marching band Mucca Pazza.
At first appearance, Messing and Maher make a curious pair. Wild-eyed composer Messing sports bushy muttonchops and a wonderfully abrasive laugh. Maher is a bespectacled, blazer-clad lecturer at the University of Chicago. The two previously collaborated on Maher’s adaptation of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at Redmoon Theater in 2005. Zell’s fete drew the pair together again.
“A few months later, I was mowing my lawn, which is when I get a lot of the ideas that most amuse me, as well as some of my worst,” Maher says, as he settles down into a swivel chair in Messing’s recording studio, a huge, instrument-filled warehouse space in Logan Square. “I suddenly thought, How about turning my play, The Hunchback Variations, into an opera?”
Maher received a modest grant from the NEA to adapt his theater piece into an opera, and asked Messing to write the music. Penned in 2001, Maher’s two-person play has been a consistent hit at his own Theater Oobleck, as well as doing the rounds in St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Germany. The subsequent opera, The Hunchback Variations Opera, like the play, takes the form of a discussion between Victor Hugo’s hunchbacked Quasimodo and Beethoven, who is depicted as a contemporary figure. Over the course of 11 acts, or variations, the hearing-impaired duo attempt to create a mysterious sound effect called for in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard—a sonic conundrum that has befuddled stage directors for decades.
“I constantly expose myself to music of all kinds, so the piece is very much influenced by chamber and pop more than any particular operatic tradition,” says Messing, a graduate of Baltimore’s Peabody Conservatory. Scored for piano, cello and two voices, the absurdist work breaks the framework of standard operatic composition. George Andrew Wolff, as Beethoven, and bass Larry Adams, as Quasimodo, sing a libretto that is unchanged from the play’s original dialogue. “The characters have their historical references, with each singing in native tonalities of their time. Quasimodo even explores some of his church roots,” Messing says, with a raspy laugh.
Despite the grant and private donations, producing the opera form has proved a challenge. “Opera is just so expensive,” says Maher, who regularly drives to Chicago from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. “The resources it takes are enormous—even on this small scale. It’s kind of amazing to me that there’s this fringe opera scene springing up everywhere. It’s much harder to pull off than a storefront theater piece.”
The Hunchback Variations Opera runs Wednesday 25 through February 19 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater.