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Barbara Gaines: A Chicago arts success story
by Scott C. Morgan

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Barbara Gaines is a shining example of a Chicago arts success story.

As the founder and artistic director Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Gaines shepherded the company from a small troupe performing above the now-closed Red Lion Pub in 1986 to its sparkling $23 million venue at Navy Pier in 1999. Since then Chicago Shakespeare Theater has continued to grow and was honored in 2008 with a Regional Theatre Tony Award.

But one thing Gaines has never done is stage an opera. That changes in October when Gaines makes her operatic directing debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with a brand new production of Verdi's Macbeth from 1847 ( also revised by the composer for a Paris production in 1865 ) .

Lyric Opera general director Bill Mason approached Gaines about three years ago to direct Macbeth with famed American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role.

"It just seemed to make sense," said Mason, who boasted that he and his wife have been long-time Chicago Shakespeare Theater subscribers dating back to the company's days at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. "Verdi's Macbeth is not Shakespeare's Macbeth and the preparation and the work that she's put into this has just been remarkable. I've always admired her work and her as a person."

When interviewed via telephone during a rehearsal break, Gaines was very modest about her new commanding role at the Lyric.

"Look, it's my first opera so I'm not going to pretend that I'm an old hand at this," Gaines said. "So I look for all the help and wisdom and guidance that I can find."

Gaines immersed herself in Verdi's score and worked with Italian and musical coaches to discover how the music and Italian text made her feel. She says it's not unlike when she plans on directing a Shakespeare play—finding out how the musicality of the language itself shapes her perception of the work.

Gaines wanted to "really understand each word and the meaning of each word so I could connect it to the crescendos." Gaines intense familiarity with Shakespeare's original play also proved to be helpful in researching the opera.

"Verdi stayed very close to it, Gaines said. "He cut it greatly, but in some ways I think he improved the text" in terms of the depictions of the main characters and reducing the stage time for minor characters. Gaines also loves the huge choral piece Verdi included that gives voice to the country's war-torn refugees.

Following the advice of Chicago Shakespeare Theater associate director Gary Griffin ( who made his Lyric directing debut last season with The Merry Widow and stages The Mikado for the company this season ) , Gaines hired a production team that she "trusts and loves." Along with set designer James Noone, costume designer Virgil C. Johnson and lighting designer Robert Wierzel, Gaines is setting this Macbeth in a sort of timeless era.

"I wasn't very interested in going Elizabethan or in the year 1100—I've done all that and I thought for our production, since I have so much imagination in the people around me, let's create a new world that could have happened thousands of years ago or today," Gaines said. "Let's face it, the core of this play is as old as life on this planet—people who want to control other people. I hope I touch upon this in a way that is more universal than just a specific period."

Gaines also insisted on working with a cast of singing actors who would be willing to explore the characters along with her. When interviewed, Gaines was about to start staging the work with Hampson and German soprano Nadja Michael who portrays Lady Macbeth. Though it's Gaines' first time directing these opera stars, she has chatted directly with both of them far in advance about where they think the characters stand psychologically and with their motivations.

With Macbeth, Gaines joins a distinguished roster of local Chicago theater directors who have worked for Lyric. In addition to Griffin, Gaines joins the ranks of Court Theatre's Charles Newell ( Regina ) , Steppenwolf Theatre's Frank Galati ( La Traviata, The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, A View from the Bridge ) and the Goodman Theatre's Robert Falls ( The Consul, Susannah ) . Chicago-based opera director Harry Silverstein is also at the Lyric this season, staging a revival of Carmen.

"My God, the theatrical talent we have here," said Lyric Opera's Mason, noting that many so great European opera directors got their start as great theater directors. "So yeah, you do want to utilize that talent in your own back yard."

Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell, who co-directs the Gershwins' 1935 opera Porgy and Bess at his company later this season, is glad to see Gaines making her operatic directing debut at Lyric.

"This is the theatrical capital of our country, and so the Lyric Opera is very smart in looking to Chicago artists of all kinds to be doing the best work at their place as well," Newell said. "It was a thrill just to be in that space and get an opportunity to work at that scale and with those kinds of resources."

When asked if she had ambitions to direct other operas, Gaines demurred at naming an operatic wish list.

"What I did say at the beginning was there's going to be no talk of anything until I completely finish the process," Gaines said, noting that she loves her job at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, but is also enjoying being so close the music while working at the Lyric Opera. "Since I'm in the middle of it, I'm just in 'Macbethland' right now."

The Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production of Verdi's Macbeth plays nine performances at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, including the gala opening night at 7 p.m. Oct. 1 ( $75-$600 ) . Other performances are at 7:30 p.m. Oct, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 30 and at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 and 24. Regular run tickets are $33-$207. The opera is performed in Italian with projected English titles. Call 312-332-2244 ext. 5600 or visit .

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