Planet Opera: Opera in Chicago Avoids Troubles Seen Elsewhere

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 - 12:28 PM

The Civic Opera House in Chicago The Civic Opera House in Chicago (

I adore Chicago. It is my second-favorite American city after my hometown of New York.  It combines a love of the old (baseball’s Wrigley Field from 1914 and the Civic Opera House from 1929) and the cutting edge. Its people, drawn from a rich ethnic mix, are friendly and direct. Chicago has excellent universities, a vibrant theater scene, gorgeous architecture, wonderful museums and a love of art in public places. There is a superb music scene, including the marvelous Lyric Opera, the great Chicago Symphony Orchestra, gospel, jazz, blues and WFMT radio. 

The city benefits from having an important second opera company, the Chicago Opera Theater, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It has produced nearly 120 works, including 35 Chicago premieres. This gives opera lovers more variety and serves to keep the Lyric nimble. Since 2012, under Andreas Mitisek, COT has co-produced many works with the Long Beach Opera, which serves a similar function as the feisty little brother of the big Los Angeles Opera.

The city is not perfect—as its stubbornly high crime rate and grinding social inequality demonstrate—but its energy and humor make it a pleasure to spend time in. My heart lifts whenever I am there. In March I went for a speedy two-day stay to see the Art Institute’s new wing, have a bowl of pasta at the bustling new Eataly, see friends, attend two performances at the Lyric and speak with its general director Anthony Freud.

On March 19, there was a gala concert with Renée Fleming and Jonas Kaufmann, two stars whom Chicagoans, with their love of “big,” doted on. Kaufmann made his U.S. debut here as Cassio in Otello in September 2001 in a production that starred Fleming and Ben Heppner. 

Fleming has been the Lyric’s creative consultant since 2010, working on outreach to schools and forging partnerships with numerous arts institutions around town. Fleming and Freud have spearheaded Lyric Unlimited, a collection of expected and unusual initiatives that link opera to education, other art forms and even the awareness of hunger as a social scourge. Following performances of Hansel and Gretel (in which hunger is an important issue), the company collected 1,599 pounds of food donated by audiences to be distributed by the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

I was especially eager to attend La Clemenza di Tito on March 20. I can never get enough of this opera, the last one Mozart wrote, and I find its themes of truth and reconciliation eternally relevant. Joyce DiDonato’s gripping Sesto is a performance I will never forget. She was matched by Matthew Polenzani in the title role. While I had a couple of reservations about the generally strong production (originally by David McVicar, staged here by Marie Lambert), the confrontation in the second act between Sesto and Tito was the best-directed scene in opera I have witnessed in many a year. Anyone who says opera is not great theater should have seen this.

My particular interest in attending Tito came in the fact that, apart from DiDonato, all members of the cast (Emily Birsan, Cecelia Hall, Amanda Majeski, Polenzani and Christian van Horn) are products of the Ryan Opera Center, the Lyric’s young artists program.

La Clemenza di Tito at the Lyric Opera of Chicago (Dan Rest)

A Rich History

Chicago has had opera since 1850, both from touring companies (including the Met) and homegrown organizations that boomed and busted when ambition outstripped financial resources. The Lyric was founded in 1954 by the triumvirate of Carol Fox, Lawrence Kelly and Nicola Rescigno. After a “calling card” production of Don Giovanni, the official opening was Norma on November 1 with Maria Callas in her American debut. Kelly and Rescigno left to create the Dallas Opera in 1957 and Fox continued until 1980.

The Lyric was a singer’s house, nicknamed “La Scala West” for the emphasis it put on world-class voices rather than memorable productions. Great stars flocked to Chicago and some (including Mirella Freni, Tito Gobbi and Alfredo Kraus) spent more time there than New York. Bruno Bartoletti was a fixture in the orchestra pit for five decades starting in 1956, leading approximately 600 performances of 55 operas.

Under Carol Fox finances were often rocky. She stepped down in 1980 and was replaced by Ardis Krainik, who began with the Lyric singing small roles, and whose tenure was a golden age. Krainik, whom I revered, had incredible aptitude for decisive management while promoting opera as an art form. She could say a firm but cheerful no when necessary but also created an initiative called “Toward the 21st Century” in which a contemporary American and European opera was were presented each season for a decade. The Lyric became a big attraction, subscriptions soared and most performances sold out.

Following Krainik’s death in 1997 William Mason took over and ran the company effectively until 2011. Mason began as the shepherd boy in Tosca in 1954 and he, Krainik, Bartoletti and others ran the company based on what was tried and true.

Freud is the first general director to not rise up in the company. A self-described “teenaged opera nerd” who grew up in London, Freud structured his life around the seasonal announcements of repertory and casting at the Royal and English National Opera companies. He was general director of the Welsh National Opera (1994-2005) and the Houston Grand Opera (2006-2011) before coming to Chicago.

I was struck, in our conversation, about how well he understood the Lyric’s particular history and is eager to incorporate the best of the past while also opening new pathways and dealing with the realities of today’s opera world. “We are large enough to do things at the highest level but small enough to do things right,” he said. Singers are still front and center but more emphasis is given to theatrical values. Together with music director Sir Andrew Davis, Freud created a decade-long repertory plan including more co-productions with theaters in North America and Europe. He has added a run of a Broadway musical to end each season: The Sound of Music runs April 25-May 25.

While certain critics have taken the company to task for what they consider the conservative recent programming, the pride and connection Chicagoans have with their opera company is still strong. The Lyric under Freud has 25,000 subscribers (which he says is the largest of any U.S. company) and sells 70 percent of its tickets on subscription. “Our subscribers see themselves as stakeholders,” said Freud. It's a philosophy that seems to guide the 60-year-old company through even these trying times in the opera field.

WQXR listeners can hear broadcasts from the Lyric Opera’s 2013-2014 season on Saturday afternoons starting on May 17.


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Comments [8]

kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

THE LYRIC OPERA OF CHICAGO has a noble history. Don't follow the normal way major opera companies make casting decisions by casting only from those under contract with their company. Do not cast for merely the youngest nor the most experienced, but cast for the best.

Jun. 21 2014 03:59 PM
Fred Plotkin from Toronto

Lincoln, Actually the article was not a foil to anticipate the upcoming Lyric Opera broadcasts on WQXR. I made two trips to Chicago recently for reporting on this story and will actually be back in the summer--no opera, I just like the city and have a reunion. The fact that the broadcasts are coming up merited mention but was not the "peg" on which the story was hung.

May. 11 2014 02:02 AM

Fred - thank you!
I should say thank you for even mentioning COT - most writers skip over the City's second company like a 4th chair violist over a coda! I have to say that I continue to see the more interesting story in Chicago how Andreas has taken a company that was about to close and brought it back to life. I also understand that the your story was actually a foil for letting Operavore reader and listeners know about the coming Lyric season on WQXR (yay!). The "we" is the collective voice of all COT devotees and sophisticated opera lovers everywhere.... of which I know, Fred, you are one. We look forward to seeing you in Chicago for your follow up story on COT! :-)

May. 02 2014 04:53 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To Lincoln (Great Illinois name!): I devote the second paragraph of my article to COT. As I have not seen a production there lately, I could not speak to that in more detail. You will notice, toward the end of the article, there are two links to articles written in Chicago that take the Lyric to task for what they consider conservative programming and choices. I think that part of the story (and the DNA) of the Lyric is the memory of really rocky financial problems until the arrival of Ardis Krainik. Ardis had a real knack for fundraising and creating buzz around her company but also knew to push the artistic boundaries beyond what might have been her personal taste. That was part of her success. But she also had the advantage of being manager in a period of many great stars who would come to the Lyric. Some of these--especially Catherine Malfitano--had productions each year of both traditional repertory and new works that made Lyric an essential destination. Nowadays, the fact that the Lyric is solvent, basically stable, and presenting 8 operas of quality with pretty good to excellent singers is more than almost any other company can claim. That in itself is an achievement at a time when many companies have huge deficits and are struggling to survive. By the way, you refer a couple of times in your comment to "we". Please tell me who the "we" are that you refer to.

May. 01 2014 01:01 AM

Fred - Please....
While the Met continues to innovate (however erratic) Lyric continues its conservative and uneven productions year after year. It would have been great if you did a piece on Andreas at COT and how he's been bringing that company - which was on the brink of going under 4 years ago - back and invigorated the city with Opera worth of the edgy arts heritage the city has. We will look forward to that piece. PS - we are all hoping Anthony turns the singing and the productions in a new direction. The pieces should be both AND not either OR.

Apr. 30 2014 02:49 PM from Nassau

I sure hope they do not bite the dust. Have not gotten over NYC Opera no longer with us. Saw many fine performances there with young singers.

Apr. 24 2014 09:18 AM
Bernie from UWS

Interesting piece. But the whole drift towards doing long runs of musicals smacks of desperation to me. Why would a serious opera-goer want to go hear opera singers do "Sound of Music?" I'm not trying to be a snob, but that's not what opera companies generally do best. It's obviously they're worried about attracting a future audience and this is a crossover attempt on their part.

Apr. 23 2014 04:00 PM

Danny Newman is responsible for that high subscriber rate Lyric has...he was a master.

Apr. 23 2014 02:56 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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