Revitalizing Chicago's Lyric Opera
Ten years ago Ardis Krainik took the helm of a faltering company and turned it around. Below, she tells how and talks about the future. At the left, she discusses leadership. At the right, a look at the Lyric's current season.
LAST February, when the Lyric Opera of Chicago closed the books on its 35th season, it found ticket sales had reached an unprecedented level - 103 percent of house capacity, a figure more likely for a Broadway megahit like ``Phantom of the Opera'' than a true opera company. Yet somehow, the musical world has come to expect extraordinary things from the Lyric, and the company, now in its 10th season under the leadership of general director Ardis Krainik, usually delivers.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The current season got off to a controversial start last month with a new staging of Gluck's ``Alceste,'' featuring singer Jessye Norman and stage director/designer Robert Wilson, both in their Lyric debuts.
Currently on the boards is Dominick Argento's ``The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe,'' the kickoff work of a bold new Lyric project called ``Towards the 21st Century.''
The credit for that project and the company's current renown goes to Ms. Krainik, who joined the company as a mezzo-soprano in its second season. Before long, to help supplement the meager wages most young singers earned in those days, Krainik started moonlighting by doing secretarial work in the Lyric's administrative office. Eventually, she gave up the stage entirely for the desk, working her way up to the post of assistant to her late predecessor, Carol Fox.
``I think I made the right choice!'' Krainik beamed when I spoke with her here. Under her leadership, the Lyric has become the most successful opera company in the United States, mounting some 68 performances of nine operas a year, from September to February.
Krainik herself has become a media celebrity in a city where sports - particularly the Chicago Bears - tend to dominate the leisure scene. Her new visibility is ``good for business,'' Krainik says with her trademark twinkling smile. ``When somebody sees me, they don't think, `There's Ardis Krainik.' They think, `There's the head of Lyric Opera of Chicago.' And that's how I want it. I have no interest in any personal success. I want the company to be successful, and then whatever I do feeds into the company's success, with the focus on Lyric Opera. But, of course, I am the spokesman for it.''
And, of course, she does run it.
She began her tenure as general director under difficult circumstances. Ms. Fox had been dismissed by the Lyric board because she wasn't making any headway against an enormous deficit. Krainik, who had already accepted a job as head of an opera company in Sydney, Australia, was asked by the board to stay on here and turn the Lyric around. By the end of her first year, she had erased the deficit and had begun to restore Lyric's sagging reputation.
The next crisis came in 1986, when a combination of events - a season expansion from eight to 10 (later reduced to nine) productions, a half-million-dollar increase in rent, sagging interest income, and exorbitant insurance expenses - combined to create a new deficit of nearly $1 million.
Krainik swung into action again to eliminate the red ink. ``In 1987, when we had actually budgeted for $400,000 deficit, we didn't have one,'' she explains. ``We turned it around with a [$1.1 million] swing in 1987, and that was very gratifying to everyone. The board of directors saw that we had the capability of turning things around fast.''
Krainik changed the company's artistic approach, too. Under Fox, star tenors were the focal point of the seasons, and operas were selected for the purpose of showcasing these stars. Krainik has turned the Lyric into what is broadly known as a singers' house.
``I felt it was very important to bring the prima donna back to Chicago, not just the tenors,'' she explains. ``I feel that my responsibility ... is to bring the best of our field to Chicago - all the best sopranos, all the best tenors, all the best mezzos, the best opera, the best conductors, the best stage directors, designers. ... It isn't just that I like them or that somebody on my staff thinks they're wonderful. It's what the opera world, in general, says about them,'' she adds, pointing to Robert Wilson.