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Lyric Opera history | Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera history

Lyric Opera of Chicago is one of the world's great opera companies. It is renowned internationally for its artistic excellence. Founded in 1954, Lyric has always distinguished itself by presenting the finest international singers, conductors, directors, and designers in classic and less-familiar operatic repertoire and in world-premiere productions.

Additionally, Lyric is leading the advancement of opera in America—continually advancing artistic excellence, increasing relevance and reach for both traditional and new audiences, engaging our diverse communities through signature learning and exploration initiatives, and expanding our role as a cultural cornerstone in Chicago.

In the twenty-first century, Lyric Opera of Chicago is committed to redefining what it means to experience great opera. The company is driven to deliver consistently excellent artistry through innovative, relevant, celebratory programming that engages and energizes new and established audiences.

Lyric in 2020

Even under the profoundly challenging circumstances brought on by the global pandemic, Lyric has deployed several nimble and adaptive strategies to continue to engage and expand its audience in the virtual realm. Although the company was forced to cancel our new Ring cycle in the spring of 2020, along with our onstage performances and community-based activities for the 2020/21 Season, Lyric has successfully created an alternative season of online concerts, recitals, conversations, master classes, and continued opportunities for area students to create their own operas and learn about the pleasures and powers of this multifaceted and expressive art form.

Leadership

Lyric's leadership team is unparalleled. Anthony Freud, Lyric's general director, president & CEO, began his tenure in 2011. Sir Andrew Davis became Lyric's music director and principal conductor in 2000; his tenure will conclude in June 2021, at which time Enrique Mazzola, music director designate since 2019, becomes music director. Renée Fleming was named Lyric's first creative consultant in 2010, and now serves as Lyric's special projects advisor. She headlined Lyric's season-opening virtual gala concert, For the Love of Lyric, in September 2020.

Under the leadership of Freud, Davis, Mazzola, and Fleming, Lyric is dedicated to reflecting and drawing strength from the diversity of Chicago. Through innovation, collaboration, and evolving learning opportunities, Lyric offers ever-more exciting, accessible, and thought-provoking audience and community experiences.

Leadership

Lyric's leadership team is unparalleled. Anthony Freud, Lyric's general director, president & CEO, began his tenure in 2011. Sir Andrew Davis became Lyric's music director and principal conductor in 2000; his tenure will conclude in June 2021, at which time Enrique Mazzola, music director designate since 2019, becomes music director. Renée Fleming was named Lyric's first creative consultant in 2010, and now serves as Lyric's special projects advisor. She headlined Lyric's season-opening virtual gala concert, For the Love of Lyric, in September 2020.

Under the leadership of Freud, Davis, Mazzola, and Fleming, Lyric is dedicated to reflecting and drawing strength from the diversity of Chicago. Through innovation, collaboration, and evolving learning opportunities, Lyric offers ever-more exciting, accessible, and thought-provoking audience and community experiences.

The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center

Under the leadership of Freud, Davis, Mazzola, and Fleming, Lyric is dedicated to reflecting and drawing strength from the diversity of Chicago. Through innovation, collaboration, and evolving learning opportunities, Lyric offers ever-more exciting, accessible, and thought-provoking audience and community experiences. We also stand committed to training the artists of the future, through The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center; and to becoming increasingly diverse across our audiences, staff, programming, and artists—magnifying the welcoming pull of our art form, our company, and our city.

To keep opera a must-see, must-hear experience, the art form needs outstanding artists who can convey through singing and acting the emotional range and engaging storytelling that are opera's hallmarks. Lyric, through The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center, identifies exceptionally talented emerging artists from around the world and provides them with comprehensive training and performance opportunities. On the world's stages, the Ryan Opera Center's impressive roster of alumni continually proves the value of training at Lyric. The program is administered by Dan Novak, director; Craig Terry, music director; Julia Faulkner, director of vocal studies; and Renée Fleming, advisor.

Established in 1974 as the professional artist-development program for Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Ryan Opera Center has been recognized as one of the premier programs of its kind in the world for more than four decades. That standing is maintained by providing the finest up-and-coming singers and pianists with unparalleled training and experience.

Learning and creative engagement

Beyond the stage, and beyond the boundaries that often define opera companies, Lyric ignites creativity across Chicago. Through innovative learning opportunities, creative exploration, and artistic creation and collaboration, Lyric encourages students, educators, families, audiences, and Chicagoans from neighborhoods across the city to share their voices and embrace the power and relevance of opera as a catalyst for growth and change.

On average, 100,000 people experience this programming each season, which has encompassed several new works, including shorter operas for young people; family-friendly activities; engaging collaborative programs such as EmpowerYouth!, Chicago Voices, Youth Opera Council, teaching-artist residencies in area schools, Opera in the Neighborhoods, and more.

In 2012 Anthony Freud launched Lyric Unlimited — Learning and Creative Engagement as a long-term and evolving learning and creative programs initiative; Cayenne Harris oversaw the initiative as a Lyric vice president (2012-20).

Musical theater

Lyric expanded its programming with a series focused on grand scale productions of American music theater in 2013, presenting a classic musical each spring to conclude the company’s mainstage season. Extended runs of Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I, My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar, and West Side Story have welcomed thousands of first-time audience members to the Lyric Opera House and broken box-office records.

Musical theater

Lyric expanded its programming with a series focused on grand scale productions of American music theater in 2013, presenting a classic musical each spring to conclude the company’s mainstage season. Extended runs of Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I, My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar, and West Side Story have welcomed thousands of first-time audience members to the Lyric Opera House and broken box-office records.

Civic Opera Building & Lyric Opera House

The Civic Opera Building, at 20 North Wacker Drive on the east bank of the Chicago River between Washington and Madison streets, is the permanent home of Lyric Opera of Chicago. The elegantly spacious theater is second only to New York's Metropolitan Opera as the largest opera auditorium in North America. During the latter months of 2020 new seating has been installed, with improved accessibility, sightlines, and ergonomics.

Lyric Opera purchased the Civic Opera House (now known as the Lyric Opera House) and adjacent backstage spaces from the building's owner in 1993, the first time in the history of the opera house (built in 1929) that the resident opera company has actually owned the space. Lyric simultaneously launched a $100-million capital campaign: "Building on Greatness...An Opera House for the 21st Century," to finance the purchase and renovation of the art-deco house. The renovation was completed in time for the 1996/97 Season. In 1996 the Civic Opera House auditorium was named the Ardis Krainik Theatre for Lyric's second general director.

Toward the 21st Century

In 1989 Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its “Toward the 21st Century” artistic initiative—the most important artistic initiative the company had undertaken to date, and one with a far-reaching impact on American opera in North America as well as in the international opera community. Throughout the 1990s Lyric produced one 20th-century European and one 20th-century American opera each season as part of the regular subscription series.

Within this initiative Lyric commissioned three new works: William Bolcom’s McTeague (1992-93); Anthony Davis’s Amistad (1997-98); and Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge (1999-00).

The Ring cycle

Among other major artistic achievements was Lyric's first presentation of Wagner's Ring cycle in a single season within the span of a week, following the 1995/96 Season. Sold out months in advance, the three cycles had a total economic impact of $34.7 million on the Chicago metropolitan area. The Ring again sold out when remounted for three cycles during the 2004/05 Season.

Lyric introduced the first three operas of a new Ring cycle production 2016-19, and was poised to present the final opera followed by three full cycles in April 2020. Because of the global pandemic, Lyric was forced to cancel final rehearsals for those performances in mid-March.

Founders & general managers/directors

The company, originally known as The Lyric Theatre of Chicago, was formed in 1954 by Carol Fox, Lawrence V. Kelly, and Nicola Rescigno. The latter two founders withdrew after the 1955 season, and the company was renamed Lyric Opera of Chicago prior to the 1956 season. Carol Fox served as founding general manager (1954-80); she died in 1981. Fox was succeeded by Ardis Krainik, who had been with the company since its founding as an administrator and supporting-role singer; Krainik served as general director from 1981 until her death in 1997. William Mason served as general director from 1997 until his retirement in 2011. He is Lyric's first general director emeritus.

Artistic directors

Bruno Bartoletti and Pino Donati were co-artistic directors from 1964 to 1974. Bartoletti served as sole artistic director from 1975 until retiring in 1999. He was artistic director emeritus until his death in 2013. Bartoletti made his American debut at Lyric in 1956 and conducted more than 600 performances of 55 operas at Lyric (1956-2007). Matthew A. Epstein, who had been Lyric’s artistic adviser beginning in 1980, served as artistic director from 1999 to 2005.

Artistic directors

Bruno Bartoletti and Pino Donati were co-artistic directors from 1964 to 1974. Bartoletti served as sole artistic director from 1975 until retiring in 1999. He was artistic director emeritus until his death in 2013. Bartoletti made his American debut at Lyric in 1956 and conducted more than 600 performances of 55 operas at Lyric (1956-2007). Matthew A. Epstein, who had been Lyric’s artistic adviser beginning in 1980, served as artistic director from 1999 to 2005.

Lyric Opera of Chicago annually employs more than 1000 part-time and full-time staff annually including orchestra musicians, chorus members, stagehands, production and technical staff, stage management, administration, ushers, and more..

Artists

Over the course of the company's 66-year history, Lyric Opera of Chicago has consistently offered its patrons a world-class roster of singers, conductors, directors, designers, choreographers, and dancers in a wide-ranging repertoire. Browse below for a list of notable artists.

Major Events at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Major American Debuts and American Operatic Debuts* at Lyric Opera of Chicago

American and World Premieres at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Programs

Photos: Kyle Flubacker, Todd Rosenberg, Lyric Opera of Chicago