In 1893, a parade kicked off at Ashland Avenue, heading east on 18th Street through the heart of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, past barkeep John Dusek’s grand, new Thalia Hall.
The Chicago Daily Tribune reported: “The floats, of which there will be many, will illustrate the victory of the Bohemians over the Tartars, the founding of the University of Prague, Prince Krok and his three wise daughters, the introduction of Christianity into Moravia, and the victory of the Hussites over the Crusaders.” The newspaper put the August revelers at 10,000 strong.
That afternoon 8,000 of them, still bedecked in red and white, packed Bohemian Day at the World’s Columbian Exposition to hear Czech national hero Antonín Dvořák (at right) conduct what’s now the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Dvořák spoke with the Tribune about a new symphony in the works, calling it “an endeavor to portray characteristics, such as are distinctly American.” He told Chicago readers:
Every nation has its music. There is Italian, German, French, Bohemian, Russian; why not American music? The truth of this music depends upon its characteristics, its color. I do not mean to take these melodies, plantation, Creole or Southern, and work them out as themes; that is not my plan. But I study certain melodies until I become thoroughly imbued with their characteristics and am enabled to make a musical picture in keeping with and partaking of those characteristics.
And he downed steins of pilsner at the Midway’s “Old Vienna” taverns while Czech musicians serenaded away the summer.
Dvořák enjoyed 10 festive days in Chicago, four months before his Symphony No. 9 (From the New World) received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall in December 1893. (The composer lived in New York from 1892 to 1895.) The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under guest conductor Cristian Macelaru, will explore the New World’s American-inspired melodies at concerts Nov. 7-8.
Whether Dvořák visited Pilsen, then the center of Chicago’s Czech community, or attended mass at nearby St. Procopius isn’t easily determined. If he did, Thalia Hall’s tavern had plenty of pilsner on tap.
Built in 1892 as a public hall, the building now has landmark status. A city plaque notes that Thalia Hall’s theater is “modeled after that of the Old Opera House in Prague,” probably a charming myth in burnished brass. It’s doubtful Dvořák would have recognized the classicism of his hometown’s 1783 Estates Theatre, 1883 National Theatre or 1888 State Opera in the Romanesque arches at 18th and Allport Streets.
(As a practical matter the Commission on Chicago Landmarks’ staff report makes no mention of Prague opera houses, while the Historic American Buildings Survey suggests that Thalia Hall is “modeled after an opera house in Hamburg, Germany,” perhaps meaning the 1843 Thalia Theater, now lost, which Chicago’s outpost doesn’t much resemble, either. Pilsen’s 19th-century Czechs knew Thalia as the Greek muse of comedy; its 21st-century Mexican-Americans most likely know her as the Queen of Latin Pop.)
Plenty has changed in Pilsen since Dvořák’s sojourn long ago; Thalia Hall hasn’t much. Witness a new generation of decked-out bohemians, but not much opera-house decorum, at a recent, rowdy screening of the cult movie “The Big Lebowski.” Hipsters finally got the venue they wanted — John Dusek’s Allport Street theater on Friday night.
At the screening, hints of old Europe curiously, even randomly, prevailed — and in English, too. Nothing really tied the room together. Here a Pomeranian barking onscreen, there Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition blaring off the soundtrack, two women in Valkyrie helmets rushing about the theater — maybe they had seven more girlfriends on the way — and someone with a T-shirt emblazoned “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps.” (Better Google that.) Has the old world gone crazy?
On Dec. 4, opera makes an improbable return to this raucous setting, with a powerful, burly bass who might be just as comfortable bouncing folks outside Thalia Hall as he is shaking rafters inside the theater. Andrea Silvestrelli, a Lyric Opera of Chicago favorite, will headline the New Millennium Orchestra production of Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s sinister one-acter about a wise daughter who turns a little too curious.
Conductor Francesco Milioto likewise got the venue he wanted, “something that would set the mood for this incredibly intense and dramatic work.” He considers Bluebeard’s Castle “a project interesting enough to bring people to a new space that they might not be used to going to. Pilsen is a lively neighborhood and Thalia Hall is really interested in having classical music return.”
Milioto, who recently led Chicago Opera Theater in the Ernest Bloch rarity Macbeth, realizes that he once again has his work cut out for him. “Any time you go into a new hall, it’s going to be challenging,” he says. There’s no pit, the 60-piece orchestra will be on a tall stage and the two singers will progress through boxes and balconies behind the conductor. (Italian bass Silvestrelli shares top billing with American soprano Kara Shay Thomson.) Milioto is excited: “It’s really going to be an up-close experience. … It’s going to sound awesome!”
Milioto might not liken Thalia Hall to Prague theaters, but he recognizes its “shoebox shape is identical to a lot of the European opera houses.” Rehearsals for Bluebeard’s Castle haven’t begun, so Milioto is gauging the theater’s acoustics from “a rock band and a country band” that he has seen there recently.
Whether it’s power ballad, honky-tonk or park-and-bark, Thalia Hall always keeps the bar open — there’s plenty of pilsner for modern-day Dvořáks.
Milioto isn’t worried. “You can buy drinks, and Thalia Hall is conscious of the effects that can have on the performance, but they do serve everything in plastic cups and all of those things that would not make noise, and the bartenders know to not be yelling.”
So operagoers with a mind toward tossing suds at singers might douse them but won’t clock them.
Still they’re likely to enrage a homicidal villain sung by a 6’8” bass, and provocation isn’t something Milioto recommends.
“If you want to throw anything at Andrea, I mean, the guy can pick me up with one arm.”
This aggression will not stand, man.
Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.