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Lyric Opera of Chicago is one of the leading opera companies in the United States. It was founded in Chicago in 1954, under the name 'Lyric Theatre of Chicago' by Carol Fox, Nicolà Rescigno and Lawrence Kelly, with a season that included Maria Callas's American debut in Norma. The company was re-organized by Fox in 1956 under its present name and, after her 1981 departure, it has continued to be of one the major opera companies in the United States.
The first opera to be performed in Chicago was Bellini's La Sonnambula, presented by a traveling opera company on 29 July 1850. Chicago's first opera house opened in 1865 but was destroyed in the Great Fire of Chicago in 1870. The second opera house, the Chicago Auditorium, opened in 1889. In 1929 the current Civic Opera House on 20 North Wacker Drive was opened, though the Chicago Civic Opera Company itself collapsed in the Great Depression. The old Auditorium continued to produce stage shows and musicals till it closed in 1941.
Carol Fox, America's first female opera impresario at the age of 28, began her first season in 1954 by bringing Maria Callas for her American debut in the title role of Norma, the first of many electrifying Callas performances in Chicago. However, this first eight-opera season in 1954 was not the result of a long apprenticeship in opera production; Carol Fox, fluent in Italian and French, had studied opera singing for many years, culminating in two years of intensive work in Italy. However, when she realized that performance was not to be in her future, she decided that it lay in bringing the performances of the world's finest artists to her home town of Chicago. Her success can be measured in one statistic regarding the filling of the Lyric's Civic Opera House: in 1954, the season ran for three weeks; in 2007-2008 the Lyric had an almost six-month season.
Fox also used her formidable persuasive powers on artists other than singers: she was able to bring Rudolph Nureyev to make his debut on an American opera stage at the Lyric; Vera Zorina, Alicia Markova, Erik Bruhn and Maria Tallchief also danced at the Lyric, and George Balanchine created choreography for the Lyric. The Italian composer Pino Donati was her artistic director. Bruno Bartoletti was principal conductor, but other conductors included Tullio Serafin, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Artur Rodzinski. Christoph von Dohnányi and Sir George Solti chose the Lyric for their American operatic debuts. Franco Zeffirelli staged operas as did Harold Prince.
Because of her illnesses and her refusal to lower her artistic standards despite the Lyric's dire financial state in 1980, her resignation was sought and given. Carol Fox died a few months later, survived by a daughter Victoria.
It was of the Lyric's founder that Saul Bellow wrote in 1979: "Miss Fox will be remembered, together with Jane Addams of Hull House and Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine, as one of Chicago's greatest women."
Throughout the many years at the Lyric, Carol Fox developed the confidence and authority to bring the following world-famous artists to the Lyric: Luciano Pavarotti (56 performances in 7 roles), Tito Gobbi, Eleanor Steber, Jussi Björling, Birgit Nilsson, Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe di Stefano, Giulietta Simionato, Richard Tucker, Boris Christoff, Eileen Farrell, Dorothy Kirsten, Leonie Rysanek, Leontyne Price, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Geraint Evans, Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Alfredo Kraus, Renata Scotto, Robert Merrill, Joan Sutherland, Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Marilyn Horne, Grace Bumbry, Monserrat Caballe, Tatiana Troyanos, Sherill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, Felicia Weathers and Jose Carreras. Anna Moffo also chose the Lyric for her American debut.
Carol Fox was succeeded at the Lyric by her longtime assistant manager, Ardis Krainik (1981–1996), after whom the opera house was named, and then by William Mason (1997–2011). Anthony Freud took over in October 2011.
Sir Andrew Davis is Lyric's music director and principal conductor, a post he has occupied since in September 2000. He led three complete cycles of Der Ring des Nibelungen in the 2004-2005 season to mark the company's 50th anniversary. Danny Newman was the company's long-time press agent from 1954 until his retirement in the 2001/02 season; Newman is largely credited as the founder of subscription-based arts marketing, the standard economic model for not-for-profit arts organizations in the United States. Philip David Morehead is head of music staff.
In addition to the standard operatic repertoire, Lyric also presents contemporary works. Recent productions have included Harbison's The Great Gatsby (2000–2001), Weill's Street Scene (2001–2002), and Floyd's Susannah and Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (2002–2003), and John Adams' Doctor Atomic directed by Peter Sellars.
The Lyric Opera productions were broadcast and nationally syndicated by WFMT Radio Network, from 1971 until 2001. The broadcasts ceased then because of a labor dispute with the Chicago Federation of Musicians, American Guild Musical Artists and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, over broadcast fees for musicians. The dispute was resolved at the 11th hour for the October 21, 2006 premiere of Richard Strauss's opera Salome starring Deborah Voigt.
The company's permanent home is the Civic Opera House, a building which it rented from 1954 until after the 1993 renovations. It is a 1929 structure with an Art Deco interior. Its 3,563-seat capacity makes it the second-largest opera auditorium in North America after the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. The interior was named The Ardis Krainik Theatre in 1996 in honor of Ardis Krainik, the former General Director, who was responsible for its renovation from 1993 onwards.
The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center (formerly Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, 1981–2006), established in 1974 by Carol Fox, is the professional artist-development program for Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The Ryan Opera Center is considered one of the most prestigious vocal programs in America, and has produced a number of notable singers. A few of the Ryan Opera Center's many acclaimed alumni include:
Approximately a dozen young singers are selected from the near 400 who audition annually, and they are in residence for twelve months. Over the course of the year they receive advanced instruction in numerous aspects of operatic performance, including voice lessons and coachings, language and acting training, and master classes with some of opera’s most renowned artists. The singers gain valuable performing experience by participating in recitals and concerts at many Chicago-area venues. During Lyric Opera’s mainstage season, they perform and understudy roles at all levels. The singers work with the world’s greatest opera singers, conductors, and directors, thus advancing the young artists’ professionalism. In 2005, author William Murray wrote a book about a year in the life of an entering class at the Ryan Opera Center.
Andrew Foldi was Director of the Ryan Opera Center from 1991 to 1995. He was succeeded by Richard Pearlman, who was Director of the program from 1995 until his death in 2006. Renowned soprano Gianna Rolandi, who had been the Ryan Opera Center's Director of Vocal Studies and principal instructor since 2002, was appointed Director of the program in 2006.