New York — The Lyric Opera of Chicago is in its 30th year of presenting an international standard of operatic performances. Since 1981, it has been run by Ardis Krainik, who began with Lyric as a singer in the chorus in 1954.
That was the company's first season during which Maria Callas made her United States operatic debut. During the years the company was run by the late Carol Fox, Lyric Opera was the place to be if you wanted to hear the finest tenors (and many of the fine baritones) of the world in Italian opera, earning the company the nickname ''La Scala West.''
The autocratic Miss Fox was not altogether careful in the expenditures department, particularly when she commited Lyric Opera to the world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki's ''Paradise Lost.'' The work, and its production costs, wiped out an endowment fund and plunged the company in gallons of red ink; the losses finally forced the board to remove Miss Fox - a painful decision, given what luster she had created in her best years.
Miss Krainik, by then Lyric's assistant manager, had just accepted the top job with the Australian National Opera when Lyric's board asked her to fill Miss Fox's place. Under Miss Krainik's vital, vibrant leadership, the company has come back into its own. The $2 million-plus of red ink has been eradicated; the casting has begun to look like opera casting should be all over the world. The season is expanding from seven to eight productions next year, and thereafter will go up to nine.
That the company has not flinched in presenting Strauss's ambitious, costly ''Die Frau Ohne Schatten'' this year (it opened this past Monday) is clear indication that things are back to normal. As Miss Krainik noted in an interview I had with her in the Windy City in September, ''Chicago, in the golden days of opera, was a great opera town. It has a great opera history. So what we're going to do is bring that back.
''We slowed down a few of those years that we had the financial problems. And now that people realize we've solved those financial problems, we can forge ahead and make up for lost time.''
There is a decided upbeat streak to Miss Krainik, philosophically and personally. In a time when other opera directors are spinning tales of woe and worry about the financial well-being of this costly art form, she refuses to add her voice to the prophets of gloom. ''There is plenty of money out there for all of us - for everybodym. It's the creative finding of that money and getting people to think, 'I'd like to give it to Lyric Opera,' that's the most important thing. But it's not a lack of supply and I don't like people who talk about 'Oh, gee, we're all in trouble.' Because, what's going to happen if you say, 'We're all in trouble,' everyone's going to believe you! We've proved it in Chicago, because we were in trouble and people stopped contributing.''
Miss Krainik states simply that keeping the company on a par with any other international house serves the community: ''I don't think,'' she adds, ''that Chicago will support anything but a first-class international company. The thing about the arts is that they are what make a great city even greater. Without them, we are no longer international cities, we are just cities. The arts place this city (Chicago) not second or third in the nation, but one of the 20 great cities of the world. And that's how we in Chicago should look at ourselves. So whether everybody in the city likes opera doesn't matter. It gives the city a brilliant character.''
How does she view her role as head of a prestigious company? ''I think the general manager of any opera company. . . . must maintain the control over every aspect of it. It doesn't mean you do everything, it means you oversee everything. Once you have set the policy, then your lieutenants can do what has to be done.'' In comparing herself to the directors of yore - Sir Rudolf Bing, Miss Fox, and others - Miss Krainik observes, ''I'm a little quieter, and I think that my own personal style is one of - (pause) - instead of getting things done through fear, I will get things done through love. And I believe in warmth, in compassion for the artists, and I believe in having a one-to-one relationship with everybody in the company. I find that that works.''
One thing she is really down on is the attempt to change the name of the genre from opera to music theater. ''The generic name for opera is not music theater! I like to think of opera as an entertainment - the highest level of entertainment, yes, and you can call it an art form because it is. But the whole idea that this is something that not everybody can understand, and not enjoy, is wrong. It's an entertainment. That's how it started, and that's what it should be now.'' But like all encounters with the best of an art form, she says, ''Sometimes we stretch a little, sometimes we learn something more - the more you learn, the more you get out of it.''
The future looks bright in Chicago. There is a very good chance that '92 will bring a World's Fair to the city, in which case, Lyric Opera would no doubt play an important part. Miss Krainik would like to diversify the repertoire. ''Bruno (Bartoletti, artistic director) and I are going to be limited by the numbers of operas we do, but I would like to do American premieres, and another world premiere, when we get a little farther away from 'Paradise Lost.' Those things we must do, but we must also produce good 'Carmens,' good 'Giocondas,' bring the greatest artists, the great repertoire. You've got to have a balanced season, that you please your public.''