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.
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.
``He's the darling of Europe,'' she explains. ``And so it was my responsibility, I thought, to lure Bob Wilson to America, which is also his birthplace, and to show Americans what it is that's the toast of Europe.
``It was a coup to bring him and Jessye Norman here. I don't think Jessye has sung opera anywhere outside of New York in America. For us to have her and Bob the same night [for] the opening of Lyric Opera, doing something really different instead of another `Boh`eme' - it was the right thing to do for the Chicago public.''
Putting the current season in perspective, Krainik observes, ``If you look at what we did in 1981, as compared to what we're doing in 1990, you'll see that things have escalated tremendously as far as the quality of the product that we're putting out.... And that's what I think we've got to do: Continue the improvement of our capability of producing opera.''
The ``product'' here sometimes receives national attention, as with the Wilson ``Alceste'' this season and the iconoclastic 1987 Peter Sellars production of Wagner's ``Tannh"auser,'' updated to the '80s, with a televangelist caught up in a sex scandal at its center.
``It was sensational,'' says Krainik. ``Some people didn't like it, but it made Chicago the center of the operatic universe. And all my colleagues from the International Association of Opera Directors came here for a meeting ... and saw it and went away talking about it.
``I think it's very important for Chicago, which I consider one of the great theater centers of the world, to be ahead of the pack on things when they can, when it's right to do so, like this whole `Toward the 21st Century' artistic initiative - a baby of which I am very pleased, very proud.''
One thing that pleases Krainik about the initiative is that ``we actually packaged something that's a program for 10 years. Rather than doing a new opera every year for 10 years, we packaged it into something of which people could say, `What a wonderful artistic initiative.''
The point of Toward the 21st Century, says Krainik, is to present an American work each year during the decade with a 20th-century European classic running concurrently. Three of American works will be Lyric Opera commissions. The first of these is an opera called ``McTeague,'' by William Bolcom. It is based on the Frank Norris novel of the same title, and it will have its premi`ere in 1992.
``I feel passionately committed to American opera, because this is the time when American opera had better make it. If it doesn't make it now, it never will. This last decade [of the century] is the one in which I think American opera can flower into its own individuality - not just warmed-over European stuff but very American.''
The European classics in the series will include works such as Prokofiev's ``The Gambler,'' Debussy's ``Pell'eas et M'elisande'' (which Krainik considers the seminal work of the modernists), and Alban Berg's ``Wozzeck'' (in a production shared with the Chatelet opera of Paris).
Given the general reluctance of American audiences to embrace even the conservative works of this century, one wonders why Krainik believes this programming will go over. She notes that Philip Glass's ``Satyagraha'' was an over-capacity sellout here, proving the Lyric's ability to program contemporary works.
``I have no intention of driving anyone away with 20th-century repertoire,'' she adds, ``but the 20th century is producing some wonderful shows, some wonderful entertainments, and those are the ones that I want to give our audience - things that are proved.''
Also in the planning for 1992 is the first installment of a complete Wagner ``Ring'' cycle, to be seen in its entirety in April 1996. It will be conducted by Zubin Mehta, and staged by the respected director August Everding. In the exploratory stages is consideration of a new opera house, as part of a major new arts complex here.