Arias in the Area: The South Shore Opera Company brings a new sound to the neighborhood

Joelle Lamarre, Sean Harris, and Isaiah Robinson sing along to Roberta Thomas''s improvisation (Mehves Konuk)

Joelle Lamarre, Sean Harris, and Isaiah Robinson sing along to Roberta Thomas''s improvisation (Mehves Konuk)

The South Shore Cultural Center lives a delightfully serendipitous existence of split artistic allegiance. On its west side, a bedlam of auto garages, chop suey joints, and conjoining railroad tracks perform an urban dance of crackling vitality. On its east side, swaying trees and rolling green grass intermingle with the soft sighs of Lake Michigan. The location is a juxtaposed oddity and confusion to the senses, but for the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago (SSOCC), this is home.

“We are here because people in the community really do enjoy opera; they really do enjoy classical music,” said Marvin Lynn, founder and executive director of the SSOCC. Lynn, a lyric baritone and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, founded the predominantly African-American opera company in November 2008 to help make opera more accessible to audiences on the South Side, with a particular focus on pieces that feature African-American artists by African-American composers, as well as some classic repertoire.

The SSOCC has so far conducted two shows, featuring gorgeous vignettes from pieces like “La Bohème,” “The Marriage of Figaro,” “Carmen,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Falstaff,” and “Don Giovanni.” Both shows boasted an impressive turnout, with about six hundred people attending the February 2009 show and a thousand attending the June 2009 performance, which were both free of charge.

The cast is a conglomerate of 35 mostly local artists of obvious passion and indubitable talent. Lynn has performed at several prestigious venues such as the Annapolis Opera, Dreamstreet Theater, and the Maryland Arts Festival. SSOCC Artistic Director Elizabeth Norman Sojourner–a lyric coloratura soprano–has performed at the White House and Kennedy Center, and appeared with symphonies throughout Europe and Africa.

Yet what is most impressive about the lively group is the infectious vitality and joyous vibe they exhibit when sharing the stage. Their peculiar ability to match mature beauty with charming jest allows them to stimulate the classics with just a hint of gospel sentiment. “For repertoire, it’s good to work with people you like and respect,” said performer Sean Harris, a tenor. And indeed they do. Watching them playfully crowd around a piano during rehearsal, singing together in graceful synchrony to the jazz classic “Lullaby to Birdland,” it’s hard not to run up there and belt out a few rusty notes yourself, just to be able to join in on the chaos of snapping fingers and pealing laughter.

In addition to offering opportunities to local African-American vocalists, youth outreach is a primary goal of the SSOCC. Lynn is currently developing a comprehensive educational program for children and adolescents who are musically interested, but who may be unable to pay for singing lessons. The program will be free of charge, and the students will be taught by the cast members, with whom they will then perform.

The SSOCC’s next event will be the “Broadway Regards” event on October 23. Conducted once a year, this benefit raises money so that Lynn and the rest of the SSOCC may “offer as many free performances as we can.” The upcoming show will be the first musical show they have performed, and the first that will all be in English. The event will feature pieces from “Dreamgirls,” “The Wiz,” “Sweeney Todd,” “West Side Story,” “Showboat,” “Ragtime,” “Into the Woods,” “Chicago,” and “Firefly.”

The event will be held in the South Shore Cultural Center’s Robeson Theater, whose recent renovation was funded by SSOCC’s partner, the Chicago Park District. Lofty gold-trimmed Corinthian pillars, polished white marble floors, and a few stunning crystal chandeliers ornament the Mediterranean-style center. A line of large glass windows open out onto the lawns. And the occasional snippet of a bus horn makes it all the more striking.
Robeson Theater, 7049 S. South Shore Dr. October 23. Friday, reception at 5:30pm, concert at 7pm. $65 for dinner and the concert, $20 for concert only. (773)241-6147.