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One of the top American opera companies, the Lyric attracts the very best singers in the world for its lavish productions. Opening night in September remains the quasi-official kickoff of the Chicago social season, but don't be scared off by the snooty factor; audiences here are relatively casual, and you don't need a tux (or even a suit) to fit in. Talented musicians and performers satisfy opera devotees, while newcomers are often swept away by all the grandeur (English supertitles make it easy to follow the action). Another plus for both opera newbies and veterans: An hour before each performance, audience members are invited to hear a lecture about that night's show. (It's free, but you'll have to show your ticket to get in.)

The Lyric Opera performs in the handsome, massive 3,563-seat Art Deco Civic Opera House, the second-largest opera house in the country, built in 1929. If you're sitting in one of the upper balconies, you'll definitely want to bring binoculars. (If you're nice, the regulars sitting nearby may lend you theirs.) There's only one problem with catching a show at the Lyric: The season, which runs through early March, usually sells out months in advance, although single tickets are sometimes available on shorter notice. Your other option is to call the day of a performance, when you can sometimes buy tickets that subscribers have turned in.

If you're in town in February or March, you can check out the theater by taking a tour (offered only during those months; call tel. 312/827-5626). The opera has an adjunct, the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, which in spring and summer performs in smaller venues around town.