HomeLife StyleA ‘Missionary for Opera’ Steps Down in Chicago

A ‘Missionary for Opera’ Steps Down in Chicago

He studied law but after school quickly took a job at Sadler’s Wells Theater, before joining Welsh National Opera. He rose to head of artistic administration, then left for a short stint at the record label Philips Classics, where he worked with eminences like Jessye Norman, Colin Davis and John Eliot Gardiner. He returned to Wales as general director, staying for 11 years before moving to Houston in 2006 and Chicago in 2011.

The two American companies were both founded in the mid-1950s, but Lyric feels closer to the 141-year-old Metropolitan Opera. “The sense of Lyric being a legacy institution — it’s older than its years,” Freud said. “Opera in Chicago goes back to the 1850s, and its building opened in 1929. The history of opera in the city belies Lyric’s corporate youth.”

There are advantages to being — or at least feeling like — a legacy institution, but it can also lead to an organization seeming stuck in its ways. Freud was the first of Lyric’s four general directors to come from outside the company.

And he brought new ideas to what was, well before the pandemic, already a struggling economic model. The company struck a deal to make its theater the home of the Joffrey Ballet, and increased its outreach to schools and communities through Lyric Unlimited — an ambitious education program modeled on one in Houston — as well as programming that drew on creators from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Freud planned huge projects like Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s “The Passenger” and the original French version of Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” The postseason musical runs, which required a special agreement with the company’s unions, were added to feed the bottom line, though not all the productions were financially successful. Just before the pandemic, Lyric hired Enrique Mazzola, a well-liked maestro, as its music director.

The Covid crisis, difficult for every arts organization, was particularly hard on Lyric, which was about to open three expensive, decade-in-the-making runs of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle when it was forced to lock down.

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