Brian Dickie to exit Chicago Opera Theater

January 13, 2011

Brian Dickie

Brian Dickie, the man who transformed Chicago Opera Theater into a lively, high-profile component of the city’s music scene with well-cast, imaginatively staged productions of rarely heard repertoire, will be leaving his post in August of 2012 when his current contract expires.

“All things come to an end,” he said philosophically Wednesday afternoon, sitting in the conference room of Chicago Opera Theater’s Lake Street offices, surrounded by posters of the company’s many triumphs over his 11-year tenure as general director.

“I will be 71 when I leave here,” said Dickie. “Which is not old but I will have been working in opera for 50 years. I’ve been running companies since 1967. I think I’ve done my bit.

“I love it here and I love the work. But at some point you’ve got to accept the point that enough is enough.”

Dickie said that with his young daughter Beatrice reaching the age of starting school in London, he felt it was time to return with his family to England.

There is no doubt of Dickie’s accomplishments in Chicago. Shortly after his arrival in 1999, Dickie raised the profile of a company on the margins of the city’s music scene to international prominence. Making the most of the small resources of COT, Dickie carved out a distinctive niche, presenting an eclectic mix of early and Baroque opera, Benjamin Britten and contemporary works. During his tenure, Chicago Opera Theater produced twenty local premieres, including such popular audience successes as Orfeo, Death in Venice, and Nixon in China.

Still, despite the critical acclaim and artistic successes of his 11 years helming the city’s number two opera company, COT’s offbeat repertoire and provocative productions have not always found a similar enthusiastic response at the box office.

“We’ve alway struggled,” Dickie said with some weariness. “But we’re still here. We’ve been surviving. As long we continue to do good work, and can cobble together enough money to maintain our standards, then I’m sure we’ll continue to be here.”

The company’s budget for 2010-2011 was a modest $2.3 million for its three spring productions. The 2010 audit is not yet completed but at the end of 2009, COT was running a deficit of $102,000—not disastrous by any means, but also not an enviable financial position for any arts organization in the current economy.

Though he said it’s preferable not to be struggling on a weekly basis, Dickie believes the budgetary restraints that COT has long labored under have proven to be a spark to its creative Minimalist stagings.

“It does focus one very much on the important things,” said Dickie. “Unlimited money is actually not necessarily a very good idea.

“A painter works within the canvas he is given,” he added. “We just have to make sensible judgements and not try to overreach or do something unrealistic. Just keep the right scale, get the right people and create the right conditions to do the work.”

Highlights of his tenure that were especially meaningful for the witty Engishman? “I thought the Death in Venice was wonderful. The Agrippina was a bit of a breakthrough. We had a marvelous production by Lillian Groag and Emanuelle Haim conducted. That was really thrilling. The same year I think we did The Turn of the Screw with a remarkable performance of Quint by Robin Leggate.”

Dickie was also pleased with COTs’ Chicago premiere of Adams’ Nixon in China “John Adams came here and he said he was blown away. He said we had absolutely got it right.”

Among the disappointments were that COT’s Handel operas didn’t attract a larger audience after the success of his first Handel production, Agrippina. Dickie also was let down that the company’s Don Giovanni, the final installment of COT’s cycle of the Mozart-da Ponte operas, was poorly received in some quarters. “It was very radical and there was a lot of sex in it which, of course, was an entirely inappropriate thing to have in Don Giovanni.”

Dickie is not an official member of the search committee for his successor, but he said he will be talking with those involved in the search and promises “a smooth, amicable transition.”

Among other commitments, he also chairs the International Jury for Preselections for the Bertelsmann Foundation’s biennial Neue Stimmen Competition.

His biggest regret, Dickie said, was not leaving the company in better fiscal condition. “We were always having financial problems,” he said. “It’s just so regrettable that I couldn’t leave the company in a better financial situation than the one I found it in.

“I mean I think I left it in a better artistic situation. But certainly not better financially. And that’s sad.”

Dickie repeatedly mentioned how much of a home Chicago has become for him, his wife Nell, and their seven-year-old daughter, Beatrice “I spent five years in Toronto and 11 years here—two of the nicest cities in the world. I feel I’ve been very fortunate. And I hope I continue to be fortunate!

“But I will miss Chicago like mad. We really, really love it here.”

Chicago Opera Theater’s 2011 season opens April 2 with Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers. The season also includes Charpentier’s Medea, and “He/She,” a double bill of staged song cycles: Janacek’s The Diary of One who Disappeared and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman’s Life and Love).; 312-704-8414.

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