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October 2014
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Lyric Opera Timeline: the First 60 Years

The interior of Chicago's Civic Opera House

The interior of Chicago's Civic Opera House

In 1952, a student singer named Carol Fox chatted with her vocal coach, Nicola Rescigno, and insurance man Lawrence Kelly about ways to sustain an opera company in Chicago – a series of previous attempts had ended in bankruptcy. They agreed, if they were to attempt such a venture, they would need to marshal community support – and what better way to recruit supporters than to show them an opera?

In February 1954, the three pooled their resources, imported singers Nicola Rossi-Lemeni and Eleanor Steber, and staged two performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Nine months later, the fledgling company produced a three-week season.

60 years later, Lyric Opera of Chicago is in expansion mode. With Renée Fleming as artistic consultant, Sir Andrew Davis as music director, and Anthony Freud as general director, Lyric has begun to broaden its repertoire with new works and new audiences. They’ve partnered with The Second City of Chicago, the Lincoln Park Zoo, and have stepped up their work with the Chicago Public Schools. Their productions of American musicals are beginning to be picked up by other opera companies, and their young artist program, the Ryan Opera Center, is becoming a bellwether for tomorrow’s talent.

See the schedule for WFMT’s Lyric Opera Weekend.


1958 “Falstaff” with Anna Maria Canali, Renata Tebaldi, and Anna Moffo

Lyric Opera Timeline

1952 A student singer named Carol Fox, her vocal coach Nicola Rescigno, and insurance broker Lawrence V. Kelly begin discussing viable ways to start an opera company in Chicago.

1954 Lyric Theatre of Chicago opens with Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Rescigno conducting members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Nicola Rossi-Lemeni sings the Don, and Eleanor Steber sings Donna Anna.

1954 Maria Callas makes her American debut at Lyric.


Bruno Bartoletti, Carol Fox, and Pino Donati

1954 Ruth Page becomes ballet mistress and choreographer for Lyric.

1954 Future general director William Mason sings the Shepherd Boy in Lyric’s first performance of Tosca.

1954 Future general director Ardis Krainik joins the company as a typist and mezzo-soprano.

1954 Michael Lepore becomes Lyric’s chorus master, serving until 1974.

1955 Nicola Rescigno and Lawrence Kelly leave the company. Carol Fox changes the name to Lyric Opera of Chicago.


Tito Gobbi sings the role of Don Giovanni with Judith Raskin as Zerlina in a 1969 production at Lyric

1956 Georg Solti conducts Lyric’s first Wagner opera, Die Walküre with Birgit Nilsson as Brünnhilde. Future general director Ardis Krainik sings the part of Rossweisse. Birgit Nilsson returns to Lyric (principally in Wagnerian roles) into the 1970s.

1956 (3 days after Solti’s debut) 30-year-old conductor Bruno Bartoletti conducts at Lyric. Carol Fox appoints him co-artistic director with Pino Donati.

1956/7 Richard Tucker, Renata Tebaldi, Jussi Björling, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe di Stefano, and others become Lyric regulars.

1973 Native American ballerina Maria Tallchief is a solo dancer in the company debut of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda. She would collaborate with Lyric for the next five decades as dancer, coach, and choreographer.

1958 Lyric Opera of Chicago receives a subsidy of 10 million lire ($16,000) from the Italian government for the “importation” of Italian singers and crew.


Maria Tallchief served as ballet director at Lyric

Leontyne Price as Aida

1959 32-year-old African American soprano Leontyne Price debuts at Lyric as Liù in Turandot, followed by the title character in Thaïs. The next season she stars as Aida

1960  Renata Scotto, Robert Merrill, Christa Ludwig, Jon Vickers, Alfredo Kraus, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Grace Bumbry become Lyric regulars.

1961 Joan Sutherland stars as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, with sets, costumes, and stage direction by Franco Zeffirelli.

1962 Bulgarian bass Nicolai Ghiaurov sings the role of Philp II in Verdi’s Don Carlo. Ghiaurov continues to appear at Lyric into the 1980s.

1968 Placido Domingo debuts as Chevalier des Grieux in Manon Lescaut.

1973 Luciano Pavarotti debuts as Rodolfo in La bohème and begins to appear regularly on Lyric’s schedule.


Maria Callas after a performance of “Madama Butterfly” at Lyric Opera. Click to see video about this famous photograph.

1974 Lyric establishes an apprentice program to train young American singers, now called the Ryan Opera Center. More on the Ryan Opera Center.

1975 Co-artistic director Pino Donati dies, and Bruno Bartoletti becomes the sole artistic director.


Ardis Krainik served as general director of Lyric Opera for 15 years

1980 American bass James Morris sings one performance as the Don in Don Giovanni, covering for Richard Stilwell. Morris would become the reigning Wotan of his time, and continue to sing regularly at Lyric Opera. Most recently, he sang Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Lyric’s 2013 production.

1980s Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Samuel Ramey, and Jerry Hadley become regulars at Lyric. Placido Domingo, Kiri Te Kanawa, Marylin Horne, and Carol Vaness make several appearances at Lyric.

1981 Carol Fox steps down, and artistic administrator Ardis Krainik becomes Lyric’s second general director.

1987 Future Lyric Opera of Chicago Music Director Andrew Davis conducts the company premiere of La clemenza di Tito.


Lyric Opera Music Director, Sir Andrew Davis




Ardis Krainik with Luciano Pavarotti in 1986

Ardis Krainik with Luciano Pavarotti in 1986


1989 Ardis Krainik makes international headlines when she fires Luciano Pavarotti, saying, ”From 1981 through 1989, Mr. Pavarotti has, for a variety of reasons, canceled 26 of the 41 performances he contracted to do at Lyric Opera.” She went on to say she would ”not consider any other future engagements with Mr. Pavarotti.”


1989 Anne Sofie von Otter sings the role of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Her most recent performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago was October of 2014, as Clairon in Capriccio

1990s Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Ben Heppner, Ryan Opera Center alumnus Elizabeth Futral, Catherine Malfitano, and Susanne Mentzer become regulars at Lyric. William Bolcom serves as Lyric’s composer-in-residence, producing McTeague, A View from the Bridge, and A Wedding.


Cover art for the stagebill to Lyric’s 1996 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

1991 Donald Palumbo becomes Lyric’s chorus master.


William Mason, Lyric Opera’s 3rd general director, c. Dan Rest

1993 Lyric Opera of Chicago purchases the Civic Opera House.

1993 Renée Fleming sings the title role in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

1994 Lyric launches a new production of the Ring Cycle with James Morris as Wotan, Eva Marton and Jane Eaglan as Brünnhilde, and Siegfried Jerusalem as Siegmund and Siegfried

1995 Ryan Opera Center alumnus Matthew Polenzani sings the Captain in Simon Boccanegra and becomes a regular at Lyric.

1996 Lyric stages the complete Ring Cycle conducted by Zubin Mehta.

1997 Ardis Krainik dies. William Mason becomes general director

1998 Lyric stages Marriage of Figaro with Bryn Terfel as Figaro, Elizabeth Futral as Susanna, Renée Fleming as the Countess, Catherine Cook as Marcellina, Susan Graham as Cherubino, and Håkan Hagegård as Count Almaviva.

1998 Johan Botha appears in La Gioconda. He becomes a regular at Lyric.

Renee Fleming becomes Lyric’s creative consultant

2000 Sir Andrew Davis becomes music director of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Deborah Voight as Salome, c. Skrebneski

Deborah Voigt as Salome, c. Skrebneski

2000s Bo Skovhus, Patricia Racette, Frank Lopardo, and Ryan Opera Center alumnus Susanna Phillips become regulars.

2004 William Bolcom’s final work as composer-in-residence, A Wedding, premieres.

2006 Deborah Voigt thrills audiences and critics in a daring new production of Salome.

2007 After conducting some 600 performances of 55 operas, Bruno Bartoletti conducts his final performance (La traviata) at Lyric.

2010 Renée Fleming becomes Lyric’s first creative consultant.

2011 Anthony Freud becomes Lyric Opera’s 4th general director.

2012 Lyric produces Jerome Kern’s Show Boat and announces plans to produce one show yearly, 2013-2017, by Rodgers and Hammerstein II. more

Anthony Freud, general director, Lyric Opera of Chicago Dec. 4, 2012.

Anthony Freud, Lyric Opera’s 4th general director, c. Steve Leonard

2013 Michael Black becomes chorus master.

2013 Lyric stages its first mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna, with Mariachi Vargas.

2014 Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 60th anniversary season opens with Don Giovanni starring Mariusz Kwiecień, Ana María Martínez, Marina Rebeka, and Kyle Ketelsen. more 






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