After more than a year of pandemic-related closures, the culture world is bursting back to life in a big way this fall. We’ve already compiled a list of the best Broadway shows to see this season, but you don’t have to be in New York City to experience fantastic theater, dance, opera, classical music and art. Here, our list of the top 21 cultural events worth traveling for this fall, from a Liza Minnelli–inspired Ancient Greek comedy to a surprisingly timely Beethoven opera to a new Cirque du Soleil show inspired by Disney animators.
ATLANTA: Darlin’ Cory at the Alliance Theatre (Sept. 8–Oct. 3)
This world premiere musical, set in a tiny mountain hamlet in 1920s Appalachia, is by playwright and novelist Phillip DePoy (71) with a folk-country score by Kristian Bush (51), one half of the Grammy-winning country duo Sugarland. Haunting and suspenseful, the plot tracks an ambitious young woman’s clash with a conservative pastor.
Buy tickets: alliancetheatre.org
CHICAGO: Bug at the Steppenwolf Theatre (Nov. 11–Dec. 12)
More than a decade before he won a Pulitzer Prize for August: Osage County, playwright Tracy Letts (56) debuted this unsettling black comedy, set in a seedy motel room in Oklahoma. In this acclaimed revival — which was shut down by the pandemic — Letts’ wife, Carrie Coon (from The Leftovers and Fargo), stars as Agnes, a lonely cocktail waitress who begins an affair with a young drifter (Namir Smallwood) before the two descend into paranoia, conspiracy theories, and madness.
Buy tickets: steppenwolf.org
SAN DIEGO: The Gardens of Anuncia at the Old Globe (Sept. 10–Oct. 17)
Composer Michael John LaChiusa (59) earned five Tony nominations for his lush musicals, and his latest work is inspired by the life of Broadway legend Graciela Daniele (81), who directs and choreographs this show. The tango-infused work takes audiences back to her childhood in Juan Perón’s Argentina and shines a light on the women who sacrificed to help Daniele become an artist.
Buy tickets: theoldglobe.org
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FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS: Designing Women at TheatreSquared (Sept. 22–Oct. 24)
If you were a fan of the late ’80s and early ’90s sitcom about an Atlanta-based interior design firm, you’ll love this raucous new play by Linda Bloodworth Thomason, 74 — who just happens to be the TV show’s creator. The timely comedy imagines what the quartet would be up to in 2020, complete with discussions of the election and the pandemic, and the cast includes Broadway’s Carmen Cusack (50) as Julia and Amy Pietz (52) as Suzanne.
Buy tickets: theatre2.org
LOS ANGELES: Lizastrata at the Getty Villa (Sept. 9–Oct. 2)
Each fall, the Getty Villa presents a work of classical theater in its Roman- and Greek-inspired amphitheater. This year’s offering is a musical retelling of the nearly 2,500-year-old Aristophanes comedy Lysistrata, about a woman’s mission to stop the Peloponnesian War by organizing a sex strike, but it comes with an unexpected twist: a mashup of Liza Minnelli (75) hits!
Buy tickets: getty.edu
NEW HAVEN: The Chinese Lady at the Long Wharf Theatre (Oct. 12–31)
This darkly poetic new play by Lloyd Suh recounts the true story of Afong Moy, who is believed to be the first Chinese woman to arrive in the United States when she was brought here in 1834 from Guangzhou. For decades, she was displayed as a sideshow known as “The Chinese Lady,” and people would come to see what she ate, what she wore and how she walked with bound feet.
Buy tickets: longwharf.org
OPERA AND CLASSICAL MUSIC
NEW YORK: Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera (Sept. 27–Oct. 23)
The opening show of the 2021-22 season will, amazingly, represent the Met’s first opera by a Black composer, Grammy-winning jazz musician Terence Blanchard (59), who has earned two Oscar nominations for his scores for Spike Lee (64) movies. Based on the 2014 memoir by New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow (51), the opera features a libretto by Harriet director Kasi Lemmons (60).
Buy tickets: metopera.org
CHICAGO: Florencia en el Amazonas at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Nov. 13–28)
When it premiered in 1996, this magical-realist work by Mexican composer Daniel Catán was the first Spanish-language opera commissioned by a major American opera house. Inspired by the works of Gabriel García Márquez, the piece tells the story of Florencia Grimaldi, a famous diva traveling by riverboat to the opera house in Manaus, Brazil, deep in the Amazon.
Buy tickets: lyricopera.org
SAN FRANCISCO: Fidelio at the San Francisco Opera (Oct. 14–30)
In Beethoven’s only opera, a woman disguises herself as a guard to rescue her husband from prison. This modern-day version is set in a contemporary detention center where activists are being held, but despite the 21st-century trappings, you’ll be just as moved by the famous Prisoners’ Chorus (“O welche Lust,” or “Oh what a joy”) when a group of detainees get a taste of freedom.
Buy tickets: sfopera.com
WASHINGTON, D.C.: Come Home: A Celebration of Return at the Kennedy Center (Nov. 6–14)
The first Washington National Opera performance of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary season features an all-star lineup, including South African soprano Pretty Yende. The homecoming show, which includes a Champagne toast in the Grand Foyer, honors the memory of one of America’s greatest champions of the artform, former Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with selections from her favorite operas.
Buy tickets: kennedy-center.org
CLEVELAND: Sheku Kanneh-Mason at the Cleveland Orchestra Severance Hall (Nov. 4–7)
After appearing on Britain’s Got Talent in 2015 and being named the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year the next year, the now-22-year-old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason rose to prominence when he performed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. You can catch him in Cleveland this November, playing works by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Edward Elgar, and Antonín Dvořák.
Buy tickets: clevelandorchestra.com
PHILADELPHIA & NEW YORK: Jasper Johns: Mind/Mirror at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art (Sept. 29–Feb. 13, 2022)
Perhaps best known for his iconic American flag paintings, Jasper Johns is still making art at the age of 91. To celebrate his seven-decade career, two Northeast institutions are collaborating on the largest Johns retrospective in history, featuring 500 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, including many from the artist’s personal collection that are being shown publicly for the first time.
SAN FRANCISCO: Judy Chicago: A Retrospective at the deYoung Museum (Aug. 28–Jan. 9, 2022)
Featuring more than 130 paintings, ceramic sculptures and other pieces, this retrospective charts the boundary-breaking career of one of America’s most influential feminist artists, Judy Chicago (82), from her 1960s works with the Light and Space Movement to her recent pieces exploring themes of mortality and environmental destruction.
Buy tickets: famsf.org
DENVER: Meow Wolf Convergence Station (from Sept. 17)
If you haven’t heard of Meow Wolf before, think of this Santa Fe–based arts collective as the successors to Walt Disney or Salvador Dalí: They create massive, Surrealist-inspired immersive installations that are part interactive funhouse, part contemporary art exhibit and part highbrow theme park attraction. Their latest project is a four-story space where 300 creatives (including more than 110 from Colorado) collaborated on 79 rooms, with an otherworldly theme that combines alien landscapes and immigrant narratives.
Buy tickets: meowwolf.com
HOUSTON: Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Oct. 17–Jan. 23, 2022)
Comprising nearly 90 works from a previously unexplored archive in Santa Fe, this will be the first exhibition dedicated entirely to the painter’s work as a photographer. From her subjects (yes, lots of flowers!) to her use of light and shadows, O’Keeffe exhibits many of the same Modernist trademarks you’ll find on her canvases, and you’ll love the shots of her beloved Chow Chows.
Buy tickets: mfah.org
WASHINGTON, D.C.: Laurie Anderson: The Weather at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (Sept. 24–July 31, 2022)
Grammy-winning multimedia artist Laurie Anderson, 74, has been setting artworld trends for decades with her avant-garde art, music and films. The largest exhibition of her works ever presented in the United States will include 10 new pieces, plus highlights from throughout her career, including Habeas Corpus (2015), a video sculpture that tells the story of Mohammed el Gharani, a teenager who had been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.
Learn more: hirshhorn.si.edu
INDIANAPOLIS: THE LUME at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields (open now)
Occupying the entire fourth floor of Indiana’s world-class art museum is a new permanent digital gallery, where 150 high-definition projectors transform the space into an immersive, multisensory world. The first exhibit, which runs through May 2022, allows visitors to walk through floor-to-ceiling video recreations of Vincent Van Gogh paintings, such as The Starry Night and Sunflowers.
Buy tickets: discovernewfields.org
PORTLAND, OREGON: Queen Nefertari’s Egypt at the Portland Art Museum (Oct. 9–Jan. 29, 2022)
Pharaoh Ramesses II’s Great Royal Wife lived more than 3,000 years ago, and this exhibit — with 230 pieces drawn from the collection of Turin’s Museo Egizio— celebrates the role of women in Ancient Egypt, from queens to commoners to goddesses.
Buy tickets: portlandartmuseum.org
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS: Ayodele Casel: Chasing Magic at the American Repertory Theater (Sept. 25–Oct. 9)
Lovers of tap dance shouldn’t miss this joyful evening of movement and music that explores ideas of ancestry, creativity and collaboration. Even if you know nothing about the artform, you may still want to give the show a try: The New York Times listed Casel among their “Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019,” and her image was even printed on a USPS postage stamp this summer!
Buy tickets: americanrepertorytheater.org
CHICAGO: Home: A Celebration at the Joffrey Ballet (Oct. 13–24)
For its inaugural season in Chicago’s Lyric Opera House, the famed Joffrey Ballet is performing a mixed repertory that highlights both works by rising stars and company classics, including two world premieres: Under the Trees’ Voices, a celebration of community in the era of social distancing, and Boléro, which is set to the orchestral piece of the same name by French composer Maurice Ravel.
Buy tickets: joffrey.org
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA: Drawn to Life at Disney Springs (from Nov. 18)
Is it a circus? Is it a play? Is it an acrobatic dance show? We’re not sure! But this first-time collaboration between Cirque du Soleil, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering is sure to be a whimsical spectacle. When the daughter of a late Disney animator finds an unfinished drawing of his, she’s whisked away into a world of imagination and childhood memories by a guide named Mr. Pencil.
Buy tickets: cirquedusoleil.com
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.