Company Man

It's a new era of general managers who keep an eye on the bottom line - and no one has a better track record than Lyric Opera of Chicago's William Mason. Megan McKinney reports.

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Photographed by Steve Leonard in Chicago's Civic Opera House
© Steve Leonard 2007
opera news
© Steve Leonard 2007
In late May, at Lyric Opera of Chicago's annual board meeting in the ballroom of the city's Four Seasons Hotel, Lyric general director William Mason stepped up to the podium and announced that the company had concluded the 2006-07 season with an estimated $143,000 surplus. His audience applauded with enthusiasm but without surprise. At a time when arts organizations worldwide face major financial challenges and other leading opera companies are hemorrhaging cash, Lyric has been in the black for nineteen of the past twenty years, with 2006-07 ticket sales in excess of 95 percent of seating capacity and half its performances sold out.

Lyric's amiable general director, who has led the company through roughly half this extraordinary era, literally grew up with the Lyric, absorbing its evolving style from its first season in 1954. That fall, twelve-year-old Billy Mason sang an offstage solo in Tosca, and he continued to sing in the children's choir during the years when Lyric's rather extravagant cofounder Carol Fox was spending top dollar to import Italy's finest artists for her "La Scala West." At twenty, Mason began working as assistant to Lyric's co-artistic director Pino Donati, while studying voice at nearby Roosevelt University's Chicago Musical College, and he has been associated with the company for all but three seasons since. In 1981, during a potentially devastating financial crisis, the board ousted Fox and replaced her with her assistant, Ardis Krainik, who almost immediately brought solvency to Lyric. Mason and the rest of the company quickly learned from the engaging but pragmatic new general director that Lyric could continue to excel artistically while maintaining financial responsibility. When the much-loved Krainik died, in 1997, she was succeeded by Mason, who has zealously adhered to her fiscal policies.

Those policies are accompanied by a remarkable stability and spirit of cooperation among those who participate in Lyric's financial success, with a staff that has been led by only three general directors for over a half century. Everyone is committed to controlling costs without sacrificing quality. The company, for example, does not maintain its own shops but sends designs for costumes and scenery to a number of furnishers for carefully scrutinized bids. At the same time, opera-loving Chicago provides Lyric with the kind of subscriber base that supports a full season without being dependent on the whims and schedules of tourists.

When I met with Bill Mason in his spacious corner office at the landmark Civic Opera Building a few days before the annual meeting, he credited the "incredibly healthy" state of the company to the Krainik legacy and to Lyric's generous but conscientious blue-chip board. "Ardis started running the company in a businesslike fashion in 1981, and it's something that we've continued ever since. The board insists on it, and it's ingrained in the culture of the company. So when we plan things, we try to do so with an eye to being careful about how we schedule what we schedule, and as a result, when we faced the economic downturn that began early in this decade, we tried to adjust accordingly."

Following the April 2005 departure of the gifted but controversial Matthew Epstein, artistic director since 1999 and artistic advisor from 1980 (the Associated Press reported Mason as saying, "Our ideas were not on the same page any more."), Lyric's artistic team now consists of Andreas Melinat, Epstein's former assistant, Pål Christian Moe, previously artistic administrator of the Paris Opera, and Nicholas Ivor Martin, in addition to Mason and music director Andrew Davis.

"We are implementing slight changes in what we do," Mason explains, "but nothing I would term cutbacks. We did have some staff layoffs at the end of the 2004-05 season, but we had a slightly heavier staff, because it was our [fiftieth-anniversary] gala season, and we did the Ring. But honestly, for the foreseeable future, I don't think cutbacks will be necessary. We don't put on three enormous new productions of complicated operas in the same season - we try to maintain a certain balance. In fact, balance is the key word for a lot we do here - for life - and the ultimate balance for Lyric is between artistic integrity and financial integrity."

Although Lyric's "Toward the 21st Century" commitment to presenting one American and one European twentieth-century opera every season has been completed, Mason says, "We will do two or three every five years - in fact, we're doing Porgy and Bess in 2008-09. Presenting American opera was something that we all passionately believed in, and we still do. It was wonderful, but the fact is that, when you are doing only eight operas a year and one of those operas is an American opera, it's a drag on subscriptions. We observed that it was, and also we had two studies done by the University of Chicago that confirmed what we already knew. I think American opera, and American music in general, was hijacked in the 1950s and '60s by the atonalists and by people who were writing music for themselves and not the public. I think this left in people's minds an impression of 'modern' music. When you write a twenty-minute orchestral piece that's difficult to swallow - well, it's only twenty minutes out of a concert - but if an audience is sitting through operas where the music is of such density and lack of any kind of tonal center, it's really tough for any audience.

"We'll continue to produce twentieth-century European operas. We did TheMidsummer Marriage last season, which was not at all successful with the public, to be perfectly frank, and we did The Cunning Little Vixen the season before. We've got some things planned for the future that would fall into that category. You try to present a balance, and we've found the balance for our public. You need a couple of the Carmens and Bohèmes in every season, and you have some repertoire that is standard repertoire but not done as often, then you have one, maybe two things that are unexpected - whether you're going back into the Handel, the Monteverdi, the pre-Mozart, or whether you're doing contemporary American opera. But we've found that if you do too much of that, you lose your audience."

Mason's theme of balance in conjunction with quality artistic talent extends to the upcoming 2007-08 season. The crowd-pleasing warhorses - La Bohème, directed by Renata Scotto, and La Traviata, starring Elizabeth Futral, and later Renée Fleming, as Violetta - will be countered by newcomer Doctor Atomic, under the direction of the edgy Peter Sellars. Rounding out the season are Lyric's new Die Frau ohne Schatten, with Deborah Voigt as the Empress and Christine Brewer as the Dyer's Wife; the highly anticipated Glyndebourne production of Giulio Cesare; the Met's Robert Carsen staging of Eugene Onegin; and Lyric revivals of Falstaff and Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Lyric will continue to mount new productions. "We're doing three next season, and after that we expect to do two or three a year," says Mason. However, the company's only new production for the 2007-08 season, Richard Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten, is one with an uncertain future. "Frau is not an opera that is done often, so it's not as if there are a lot of [companies] who will be borrowing [the production]. The orchestral demands, the vocal demands are such that it's realistically beyond the reach of most companies. So where this production may or may not go after this season I can't say. Some things you do because you know that they are going to have a life, but other things you do because artistically you need to do them. A company like ours needs to do Frau.

"Commissions are still an important part of what we're doing in the future. It makes a lot of sense if you can get a couple of houses to go in on something and give an opera a chance to be heard more than once, and then give the composer the opportunity of doing it in the future. This season's Doctor Atomic was commissioned by San Francisco, but we and De Nederlandse coproduced the production, so that at least it was assured of two more hearings." [The 2008-09 run of Doctor Atomic at the Met will be a revised version of the San Francisco production.]

Although Lyric has been aggressive in offering community outreach programs, it is not currently planning to launch the kind of high-definition simulcasts the Metropolitan Opera began last season. "It's exciting, an adventure," Mason says. "It's wonderful to be an innovator, but sometimes in certain situations you're better sitting back and seeing where it goes, seeing where the economics of it are. I'm sure that what they will be doing in a few years will be much different than what they are doing now. They will have learned lessons, have made improvements. So when the time comes that there is some financial incentive to get into this, we will have had the opportunity to see what others have done."

If Bill Mason is consistently conservative, it is because conservatism has worked for the Lyric. He has built on the Krainik legacy of fiscal caution within a context of artistic excellence but is alert to the possibility of erosion of the subscription base if productions veer too far from what Chicago expects. About his goals for the next decade, Mason laughs, "Well, I'm not going to be here for the next decade - not for all of it. I'm sixty-five years old. I took this job, fortunately, at a much easier time. I'm glad I had three or four easy years in the job, so that when the tough times came, I was better set up to deal with them. My goal for the company is for it to continue to remain healthy and prosperous, producing excellent and varied work. When I took the job, my only thought was to leave the company in as good shape as it was when I found it. Personally, that's still my goal."

MEGAN MCKINNEY is a Chicago-based magazine-writer and columnist.

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2