Lyric Opera of Chicago

Youth Opera Council – Young Opera Lovers Unite!

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Stephanie Smelyanski, Youth Opera Council Member.

Members of the Youth Opera Council meet Joyce DiDonato.

Youth Opera Council meeting with Elise Sandell and Bill Walters.

What do you get when you gather a group of 22 high schoolers and opera fans and give them unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to Lyric? Pure joy!

Lyric Unlimited's Youth Opera Council was launched as a new initiative in the 2013-14 season, and their first year was an unqualified success. This dynamic group of young opera lovers met regularly, speaking with Lyric staff about the operations of an opera company, attending productions, and meeting guest artists.

“Lyric Unlimited established the Youth Opera Council to engage students who are passionate about opera, giving them an inside look at an opera company and the many career paths they can take as they look toward college,” said Cayenne Harris, director of Lyric Unlimited. "Through in-depth discussions with company members and artists, Council members develop the ability to engage and involve their peers, creating opera house experiences that are appealing to young audiences. This first year has been a delightful exploration marked by successful events and boundless enthusiasm, and a noticeable increase in youth presence at opera performances.” 

Stephanie Smelyanski, a 17-year-old junior from Chicago, was an inaugural member and has reapplied for membership next season. Her interest was initially piqued because she wanted to learn more about how an opera company works. But even more than that, Stephanie says she was looking for a way to spread the word: “I really wanted to get more people my age involved in opera because I think it's a shame that today's youth don't even get an exposure to it. Opera is one of my favorite art forms, and I want to share that with the world.” 

As part of their regular gatherings, the Council had the opportunity to meet some of the stars of productions, including Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard, and Alek Shrader of The Barber of Seville. They also spent a very special evening with La Clemenza di Tito star Joyce DiDonato, which was one of the highlights of Stephanie’s entire year.

“Meeting Joyce DiDonato was amazing, especially after getting to see her live in La Clemenza de Tito as Sesto. Her voice was so stunning that it left me in tears, and she—as a performer but also as a person—has been a role model for me for a while now,” she noted. “I felt like I was meeting an icon because in my mind, Joyce DiDonato is the Beyoncé of opera.”

Council members also got special behind-the-scenes access, including an exclusive backstage tour led by Lyric's Audience Education Manager Jesse Gram and visits with Lyric General Director Anthony Freud, Lyric Unlimited Director Cayenne Harris, Public Relations Director Alexandra Day, Barber of Seville Assistant Director Elise Sandell, and Assistant Stage Manager Bill Walters.

Seeing Lyric from the inside gave Stephanie an even greater appreciation for opera. “I think what surprised me most is the number of people who are part of the production process and how long it takes to make a production,” she reflected. “Opera feels overwhelming at first, but that feeling of being overwhelmed is nothing compared to the production of an opera and the breadth of people involved in an opera. It truly stuns me and brings about a profound admiration for the art form.”

After experiencing this amazing year, what does Stephanie love most about opera? “I love the mixture of music, theatre, and stage design. It's food for the eyes, ears, and soul all at once. Nowhere else have I laughed as much or cried as much in one day as at the opera.” 


Joyce DiDonato talks with Youth Opera Council members during an intermission of a Rusalka student matinee performance.


Get a glimpse of Youth Opera Council’s “A Night at the Opera” at the February 1 Barber of Seville opening.

This sold-out pre-concert reception gave 200 of the Council’s close friends and family a chance to meet Lyric Opera Orchestra and Chorus members and even try on costumes!


Photos: Alejandra Boyer, Jenn Gaudreau, Andrew Cioffi




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