ML - Michigan Avenue

2014 - Issue 1 - Winter

Michigan Avenue - Niche Media - Michigan Avenue magazine is a luxury lifestyle magazine centered around Chicago’s finest people, events, fashion, health & beauty, fine dining & more!

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 107 of 123

n 1979, Chicago Tribune critic Claudia Cassidy authored a lavishly illustrated 25th-anniversary tome on the Lyric Opera, in which she noted, "By a kind of miracle, for nothing else really explains the survival of the major arts in a difficult time, Lyric is still there." As the Lyric enters its 60th season, its leadership—past and present—considers its continuing success in even more difficult times less a matter of the miraculous than the meticulous. From management practices to artistic decisions, the Lyric has weathered the storms that regularly howl at the door of all arts organizations and sometimes claim permanent victims. (Consider the recently shuttered New York City Opera and the demise of symphony orchestras in Honolulu, New Mexico, and Syracuse in recent years, along with the ongoing labor disputes that have decimated the Minnesota Orchestra.) Lyric has never been shy about going big. Its first season in 1954, when it was called Lyric Theatre of Chicago, featured Maria Callas's American debut, in Norma. (She also performed La Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor that same short season.) In the 1981 biography Maria Callas: The Woman Behind the Legend, Arianna Huffington (then Arianna Stassinopoulos) bluntly proclaimed, "Maria had launched the Lyric Opera of Chicago into international orbit." Founders Carol Fox (herself a trained singer) and Lawrence Kelly (a real estate agent and insurance broker) were just 28 when they opened Lyric's doors on February 5, 1954, with conductor and fellow cofounder Nicola Rescigno presiding over previews of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which set the stage for a three-week fall season. Kelly and Rescigno departed in 1956 to form Dallas Civic Opera, but Fox and her successor as general director, Ardis Krainik, continued to raise the company's profile and operations over the decades—from creating a training center to commissioning world premieres—while building a subscription base that remains the envy of other arts groups. And though the Callas appearances were bought at a premium (Huffington's book notes that the diva was paid $12,000 plus expenses for six performances in Chicago, as opposed to the $1,000-per-evening "ceiling" then in place at the Metropolitan Opera), the company has largely avoided the deficits that have served as the death knell for other arts groups. Lyric's financial stability—the company has operated in the black for 25 of the past 26 years—is a source of great pride. Former general director William Mason, whose 14-year tenure encompassed the economic downturn of the early 2000s, says, "It's a tribute to the board and the mentality of the city. You don't spend money you don't have, and it's served us well." But the balancing act for the Lyric doesn't just involve spreadsheets—it also involves new programming and partnerships designed to expand both the operatic canon and its audience base without alienating longtime supporters. If the company tips a few sacred cows in the process, so much the better: In November, the Lyric won two Joseph Jefferson Awards—the first Jeffs in company history—in partnership with The Second City for the collaboration The Second City Guide to the Opera. The comedy revue played a one-night-only performance last January, with Renée Fleming and Patrick Stewart joining Second City performers as well as members of the Ryan 106 Opera and Lyric Opera Orchestra in spoofing opera story lines and fans (thankfully, without resorting to breastplate-and-helmet clichés). Lyric turned its large stage into a cabaret-style theater with onstage seating for an extended run in June, sans Fleming and Stewart. The Second City partnership symbolizes what Fleming, named the Lyric's first-ever creative consultant in 2010 (SEE SIDEBAR), describes in a video interview on the Lyric website as an example of her interest in "developing new works and also in making opera accessible to everyone and naturally expanding our audience." Bringing in new voices, visions, and audiences are all part of any arts organization's long-range plans. But opera companies face unique economic challenges given the astronomical costs incurred by the art form. Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of the national service organization Opera America, says, "Producing opera grows more expensive at a rate comparable to the rising costs of healthcare or education." Especially as season subscriptions decline and single-ticket buyers become more the norm, finding the right mix of shows in a season becomes ever more important. Lyric seeks a balance between reliable go-to names in the canon (aka the "Barber-and-Butterfly" options); lesser-known works from well-known composers (such as Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka, which makes its Lyric premiere in February); and—less frequently—brand-new work. All must fit within the eight-show season. Lyric music director Sir Andrew Davis points out, "Eight operas [in a season] is not a huge number. It's more than the small companies do, but the Met does [something like] 24." The Lyric hasn't presented a world premiere since William Bolcom's A Wedding in 2004. But at Fleming's urging, the company has commissioned Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett's 2001 best-selling novel, for the 2015–16 season. The piece marks Peruvian composer Jimmy López's operatic debut and features a libretto by Pulitzer Prize– winning playwright Nilo Cruz. General director Anthony Freud, who has been on board since 2011, attests, "I would say unequivocally that creating new work is a very important, non-negotiable part of our responsibility as a great opera company. If we ignore that responsibility, then opera becomes purely a heritage art form." In 2012, Freud unveiled the Lyric Unlimited program, which he says "is designed to encompass basically anything that isn't main stage opera" and to create "newly commissioned pieces but for unconventional forces in unconventional performance spaces." A major goal for Lyric Unlimited, according to Freud, "is to build bridges and form relationships with communities around the city, particularly communities for whom opera and opera companies have had no relevance up until now." Lyric Unlimited brought José "Pepe" Martinez and Leonard Foglia's Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon), billed as "the world's first mariachi opera" (and the first Spanish-language work in Lyric's history), in from Houston Grand Opera, where it was commissioned during Freud's five-year tenure as general director. After premiering at the Civic Opera House last April, it then traveled to communities with large Latino populations, including Pilsen and Waukegan. Short family-friendly versions of main stage offerings, such as the 60-minute The Family Barber slated for March 22, also fall under the Lyric Unlimited umbrella. In addition to brand-new work, the Lyric has also dipped its toes into more populist waters (and bolstered single-ticket sales) through the American Musical Theater Initiative. Thus far, the company has staged MICHIGANAVEMAG.COM 104-109_MA_FEAT_Opera_Winter_14 106 1/9/14 5:10 PM

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of ML - Michigan Avenue - 2014 - Issue 1 - Winter