Lyric's 2015/16 mainstage opera season might not start until September 26, with opening night of a brand-new production of The Marriage of Figaro, but that doesn't mean the company is at a standstill. Quite the opposite! The staff behind the scenes is busy preparing for all of the aspects that go into creating a new opera season.
Here's a look behind the curtain at what happens during the summer. We kick off this new series with an interview with rehearsal assistant Jason Byer from Lyric's Rehearsal Department. He is spending his summer working on visas for the 40 or so international artists who will be appearing on stage next season. Read on to find out more about how he makes sure everyone's travel documents are arranged and how he takes special care of every artist that comes through Lyric's doors.
What are you doing this summer?
I'm finishing all the visas for the 2015/16 season, which means getting in contact with all of our artists' agents, helping them set up consular interviews—anything that will get them into the country.
Is this mostly done over the phone or email or a combination?
Most of it's done over email. I've never had to call a consulate. I do occasionally have to call agents, mostly European agents who maybe need things explained to them about the process. It's complicated. There's a lot of red tape and bureaucracy. I also collaborate with other companies, like San Francisco, the Metropolitan Opera, or Houston Grand Opera; if we share any artists over the season, we try to make it so they only have to get one visa. We combine the applications and make sure that we are authorized to petition on behalf of the other companies.
Why is this work essential?
If I didn't do this, then nobody would be here! We couldn't do any shows!
How does your job evolve once the opera season starts?
In addition to continuing the visa work for 2016/17 (hopefully 2015/16 will be done!), I go back to the rehearsal department where I help with scheduling, booking appointments for artists, fulfilling the "I'm hungry, can someone go get me lunch" requests, and all of the assorted tasks that we deal with on a daily basis. It's the care and maintenance of our artists.
Byer backstage with Karen Slack, who portrayed Serena in Porgy and Bess in the 2014/15 season
What are you most looking forward to during the 2015/16 season?
I have never seen a full Rosenkavalier. I'm really, really excited for this cast. I've been copied on a bit of the correspondence from the director, and hearing some of the plans that are in the works is really exciting.
So that's another interesting aspect of your job, that you learn a little bit about what's going to happen on stage before it becomes reality?
I am privy to this wealth of information that I need to do my job, but it's funny for me as an opera fan to step back and think, "I'm working on Sophie Koch's visa!!"
What made you want to work at an opera company?
I graduated from Northwestern last year with my degree in voice. I knew that I wanted to sing as my career, but I felt like I had a really terrible sense of the business and that I didn't know anybody. So I said, "You can always go back to school, but here's a job that you should go and do now." I started interning at Lyric last year doing visas, and it was a really natural transition to go to the rehearsal department. And now suddenly I'm Facebook friends with Laura Osnes, which is pretty cool!
Why do you love working at Lyric?
I love working in a theater. I love that my job involves sitting at a desk for part of a day, but then I get to go and run around backstage or I get to run up and see rehearsal. I like being around creative people; even if I'm not creating art myself, it's important for me to be around people who love theater or at the very least have an appreciation for the creative process.
What's your favorite opera?
Thinking about the 2014/15 season, I loved Tannhäuser because it's one of my favorite scores, but my favorite overall production would absolutely have to be The Passenger.
What is your favorite Lyric moment so far?
My favorite moment is really just how wonderful it is to work with opera singers. In the rehearsal department, we're always going the extra mile to make sure that the artists have a wonderful experience when they are at Lyric, but I didn't expect them to notice. On one of my first days here, Marina Rebeka, our Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. stopped by the office to thank me for everything I'd done to ensure her arrival in Chicago was absolutely seamless. It was a great introduction to working with and helping opera singers. They're grateful people!
Byer with Marina Rebeka at the Diamond Ball
When you're not at your desk, we'll find you…
Practicing or cooking. I love to cook. I also actually just did a cabaret at Davenport's, where I accompanied a friend on piano.
- Jason Byer portrait by Lyric Opera of Chicago
- Backstage photos courtesy Jason Byer