For Lyric Opera's new manager, the bravas are booming
Chicago — You should know right off that the bird-of-paradise bouquet in Luciano Pavarotti's hotel room and the live horse briefly on stage during ''Die Fledermaus'' were exceptions to Lyric Opera's tight budget rules.
Both expenses were deemed essential by Lyric Opera general manager Ardis Krainik, who in little more than two years on the job has been hailed by the local press as a veritable ''Wonder Woman'' for putting the nearly bankrupt international opera company back on its feet.
Over the years, the Lyric had developed a reputation for extravagant spending. Under Miss Krainik, spending for hospitable and artistic amenities is down, but not out.
''The flowers will never go,'' she insists. In her view the cost of a floral welcome and being met at the airport - as was Mr. Pavarotti when he arrived to open the Lyric's fall season in ''Aida'' - is minor compared with the return. ''It makes the artists feel more comfortable and at home, which helps them to sing better. It's an investment.''
And when Miss Krainik found that her cost-conscious colleagues had failed to budget $2,400 for a live horse to pull Prince Orlovsky's carriage in Johann Strauss's ''Fledermaus'' a year ago, she quickly added the item. It was listed in the budget - and will be known forevermore in the Lyric family - as ''Ardis's horse.''
''You hardly saw it, but you had to have it,'' she explains.''To have had a person dragging the carriage would have been artistically unsupportable.''
A lively woman who can see the humor in almost any situation, Miss Krainik exudes a warmth and steady cheerfulness that are rare in a profession known for sensitive egos and temperamental outbursts. In conversation she enunciates each word distinctly in a rich mezzo-soprano voice that seems to suggest it might break into song at any moment.
In taking the Lyric's helm in January of 1981, she inherited a deficit of $ 309,000, a virtually wiped-out endowment that was once close to $3 million, and a South Side warehouse of largely obsolete sets and props mortgaged against a major loan for operating expenses.
By launching an intensive multimil-lion-dollar fund-raising campaign and an across-the-board edict to curb spending, Miss Krainik and her Lyric team have managed to pay off past debts, restore an endowment cushion of half a million dollars, and accumulate a $1 million cash reserve. The Lyric sold 98 percent of its seats last season (the national average is about 80 percent) and hit a record-high $5 million this season in advance sales.
''She dived right in and took the most difficult steps just in the nick of time,'' notes Lyric concertmaster Everett Zlatoff-Mirksy. ''And I think there's a very positive feeling now in the company that everything's OK.''
Lyric Opera was founded in 1954 by the late Carol Fox and is now widely considered one of the top three international companies in the United States (along with New York's Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera). It was at the Lyric that Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi made their American debuts.
High quality was always the aim, and Miss Fox developed a reputation of being willing to spend almost anything to get it. But Miss Krainik views her predecessor as unfairly maligned.
''Carol founded this company and built it, and she will go down in history as one of the world's great general managers,'' she says. ''She deserves to be remembered in the most wonderful way.''
In a sense, Miss Krainik understudied for the top job for 27 years. She had handled nearly every job in the company, from typing to singing in the chorus to working as assistant manager. And she had just accepted a position as general manager of the Australian Opera in Sydney when she was asked by Lyric's board of directors to take over.
She took voice and piano lessons in Wisconsin as a child and danced in her basement to recorded arias sung by coloratura soprano Amelita Galli-Curci, whose picture now rests in a glass cabinet on the wall of her comfortable office. In high school she often took the lead in plays and musicals. But she insists it is the experience gained from teaching speech and drama (her college major at Northwestern University) to high school students, as well as casting and directing school plays, that prepared her for the present challenge. ''I'm used to running things,'' she says.
Miss Krainik insists that crises - everything from missed planes to sets too large for the stage - are part of the business. She says the only way to handle them is to look on them as routine rather than exceptional. Still, she says ''nerves of steel'' are a necessary part of her job.
Involved in virtually everything the Lyric does, Miss Krainik sits in on most auditions and rehearsals and about two-thirds of the productions. She and all members of the company are on a first-name basis, and on occasion she mixes it up with the stagehands during rehearsal breaks by shooting baskets through the on-stage hoop.
That kind of staff-management rapport played a strong role in Lyric's belt-tightening success story.
Major savings have been made. By substituting the ''Tristan and Isolde,'' for which the Lyric owns the staging and production materials, for a scheduled costly new production of Wagner's ''Parsifal,'' some $350,000 was saved. Several extra rehearsal hours, at $5,000 each, were pared. But there were also savings from a more orderly system of budgeting established in each department.
''None of the cuts she has made affect the artistic quality of the company - it's the same as it always was,'' insists artistic director Bruno Bartoletti in an interview in his backstage office, where he takes a break from a Sunday afternoon rehearsal of Verdi's ''Aida.'' A few feet away, next to the tall Egyptian columns on stage, a soloist, the stage director, and Mr. Pavarotti discuss in Italian how a scene will be staged.
Miss Krainik cites her choice last spring of an innovative production of ''The Mikado'' against a backdrop of Sony and Toyota signs as proof that her administration is willing to move in new directions. The producer was 25 -year-old Peter Sellars, who in 1981 at Yale University had staged Handel's ''Orlando'' featuring astronauts in a Kennedy Space Center setting.
''I was told that there was this young man who was just wild to do a ''Mikado'' . . . but that I should know that the Mikado would be entering in a red Datsun,'' she recalls.
She thought about it for a couple of days and decided it was the thing to do. ''It would serve as a statement from this administration that we were going to introduce new musical talents that should have a showing.''
The production drew wide international coverage. ''Everyone knew that Lyric Opera was on the map again and in the most wonderful sort of way.''