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Remembering Ardis Krainik

photo courtesy of Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Most of us in the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra remember Ardis Krainik as a force of nature. She served as our General Director from 1981 until her death in 1997, and was largely responsible for a great period of growth and artistic development in the company. But her beginnings with the company were humble. She started as a clerk/typist and secretary to founder Carol Fox in Lyric’s early years, having graduated in 1951 with a B.S. in Speech from Northwestern University and voice training as a mezzo-soprano. She sang supporting roles at Lyric until 1965 when she became Artistic Administrator, having knowledge of almost every department throughout the company by then. When Lyric Opera’s endowment shrank from $3 million to $6,000 in the final years of Carol Fox’s tenure as General Director and there was a deficit of $1.2 million, there seemed no prospect of advancement within the company for Krainik. But amazingly, on the verge of her leaving to accept the general directorship of the Australian Opera in Sydney, she was asked by the Lyric Board of Directors to take over the leadership role as Fox was forced out in 1981. Thus began Krainik’s 15-year bold, remarkable role as General Director. Within a short time she had turned things around financially, even raising enough money to undertake the $100 million renovation to Lyric’s auditorium theater that now bears her name and to purchase the first eight floors of the Civic Opera House in a condo arrangement.

The orchestra onstage in the beautiful Ardis Krainik Theater

Two decades have passed since Krainik’s death. Her legacy lives on in countless ways, and we remember some of her groundbreaking, sometimes controversial, creative accomplishments:

  • Her decade-long “Toward the 21st Century” initiative presented two 20th-century operas every season: 10 American and 10 European, with commissioned operas as well.

  • English translations in the form of subtitles/supertitles are now standard with almost every opera company, but she led the way when it was controversial to do so.

  • She received international attention and pleased her audiences by announcing that world-renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti would no longer be welcome at Lyric Opera of Chicago for having cancelled 26 of his 41 scheduled appearances.

  • The 1981-82 season, when she began her tenure, was 15 weeks long: at the time of her death, it had expanded to 24 weeks.

  • She initiated Lyric’s first full Ring Cycle, Wagner’s Das Ring der Nibelungen, with conductor Zubin Mehta, a stellar cast including James Morris, Eva Marton, and Jane Eaglen, the Lyric orchestra expanded to 100+ musicians, director August Everding, designer John Conklin, and even Cirque du Soleil. Programming Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, one each year leading up to the 1995-96 season, Lyric gave three full cycles over a three-week period in March 1996.

With a team that included the creative, inventive showmanship and genius of Danny Newman, author of Subscribe Now, the authoritative work on audience subscriptions, Lyric experienced over a decade of subscriber-sold-out houses. Lyric still enjoys some of the highest level of subscribership in the business.

Under Krainik’s leadership, Lyric gained the reputation of being a family. “We treat our artists with consideration and love. That’s the operative word at Lyric Opera — we love each other and work in a harmonious surrounding, and that’s how you put on the best music.”

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