June 17, 2024

Looking back: Lyric during the Anthony Freud years

The conclusion of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2023/24 Season, and the imminent retirement of General Director, President & CEO Anthony Freud, provides an excellent chance to look back at his exemplary tenure. Since 2011, the company has reached new artistic heights, expanded its mission across Chicago and beyond, and positioned itself as a leader for the art form's future.

Enjoy this four-part retrospective of the many high points, onstage and off, of the past 13 years.

Anthony Freud after The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center Final Auditions in September 2023.

Part 1: New heights, onstage

Over the past 13 years, Lyric Opera of Chicago has presented an extraordinary variety of work — 68 new productions and co-productions, including 32 Lyric premieres and 9 world premieres, to make just a partial tally. Artistic excellence, as always, has been the guiding principle — and, coupled with musicals and new work that have drawn audiences from the most far-reaching corners of Chicago and beyond, the diverse productions at Lyric have drawn critical acclaim and worldwide attention.

Here is a brief look at some of the high notes.

Glorious productions

In the 2014/15 Season, Lyric presented The Passenger, a rarely performed work by composer Mieczysław Weinberg.

A 1968 opera originally based on a radio play by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, the story takes place on the deck of an ocean liner and follows a former Auschwitz camp guard who recounts her harrowing past to her husband.

The production played an important role in supporting the legacy of this profound work; after being translated into a handful of languages, the opera had only just begun to enter the global repertoire. Lyric was one of the first American opera houses to produce The Passenger following the Houston Grand Opera premiere in 2014.

Amanda Majeski as Marta in The Passenger.

The colossal scale of Les Troyens (2016/17 Season), based on Virgil’s Aeneid, was another landmark production in Lyric’s recent history. Starring Christine Goerke, Susan Graham, and Brandon Jovanovich, this production was Lyric’s premiere of Berlioz’s five-act tour de force. Lyric’s set weighed 80,000 pounds; the number of costumes worn by the cast totaled 300; the artistic personnel consisted of 77 musicians and over 100 cast members; and the production took three years to plan, design, and construct. The production employed state-of-the-art set construction and projection technology afforded by the Breaking New Ground campaign. Above all, the musical intensity and dramatic power of this great masterpiece swept audiences off their collective feet.

The company of Les Troyens from Lyric's 2016/17 Season.

Also in the 2016/17 Season, Das Rheingold marked the commencement of Lyric’s new Ring Cycle. Grounded in a motif that played with storytelling on the stage of an old theater, the all-new production was scheduled to unfold as the first of the four operas of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The installments would be presented each year, culminating in three full cycles in April 2020. The first three operas, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, and Siegfried, were praised as “uniformly spectacular” (Chicago Sun-Times) with A-list performers, compelling direction, and innovative and spectacular design.

During rehearsals for Götterdämmerung, the fourth chapter of the Cycle, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and forced the cancellation of this globally anticipated operatic event. During this unprecedented time, Lyric’s incomparable family of donors showed their generosity and kindness through The Heroes' Fund, helping to mitigate the financial challenges of the time.

The opening scene of Das Rheingold.

In the 2017/18 Season, Lyric announced that the Joffrey Ballet would become the resident ballet company of the Lyric Opera House — two distinguished companies producing high-caliber classic and contemporary works, coexisting under the same roof. Many will remember Lyric's production of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, featuring artists from The Joffrey Ballet in Lyric's new production of the work.

Gluck intended Orphée et Eurydice to be a beautiful synthesis of song and dance, giving singers and dancers equal prominence. Orphée et Eurydice was the ideal opera for the occasion; the collaboration “[elevated the piece] to the superlative” (Chicago Stage Review). The production showcased the strengths of both companies and even captured the attention of the PBS Great Performances series, turning the on-stage production into a national offering aired on public television stations across the country.

Dmitry Korchak, Andriana Chuchman, and members of The Joffrey Ballet in Orphée et Eurydice.

The American Musical Theater Initiative

In the 2012/13 Season, Lyric delivered a rousing production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! as the inaugural production of the company’s American Musical Theater Initiative.

The implementation of this program marked a commitment to include one musical following each opera season, an initiative recognizing that the success of prior musicals had been a boon to Lyric’s audience base and an exhilarating use of the largest stage in Chicago. (A sold-out run of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat had proved a catalyst.)

Curtis Holbrook and the dance ensemble of Oklahoma!.

These early works and their successful Lyric premieres represent a historical and artistic bridge between the operatic and the American musical traditions.

Angela Renée Simpson and the company of Show Boat.

The darkest of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s evergreen collaborations, Carousel, provided a fascinating complement to the darker operas in the 2014/15 Season, which included Tosca, The Passenger, and Tannhäuser. Broadway stars Laura Osnes (Julie Jordan) and Steven Pasquale (Billy Bigelow), led the cast.

In other seasons, Lyric also produced The King and I, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Jesus Christ Superstar, and West Side Story (which became Lyric’s highest-grossing production in its history).

Laura Osnes and Steven Pasquale in Carousel.

Lyric's presentation of Fiddler on the Roof, which originated at the Komische Oper Berlin, was one of Chicago's most significant cultural events of the 2022/23 Season. Director Barrie Kosky, whose grandparents came from a shtetl in Belarus, brought a profoundly personal approach to the work. An internationally known innovator, Kosky peeled away preconceived images of this beloved show to give it a completely fresh look, while managing to center tradition in every aspect of the production.

The wedding scene in Fiddler on the Roof.

Bold new work

On top of executing extraordinary productions of the operatic canon, Lyric has been a driving force for commissioning new work. During Freud’s tenure, Lyric commissioned and produced Bel Canto, The Property, El Pasado Nunca Se Termina, Second Nature, Jason and the Argonauts, Rhoda and the Fossil Hunt, Earth to Kenzie, The Factotum, and Proximity.

The company of Bel Canto from Lyric's 2015/16 Season.

Among these, Bel Canto (2015/16), a new commission curated by the company’s creative consultant Renée Fleming, proved a high water mark for the company's national profile, becoming its first mainstage world premiere in over a decade.

To create the work, based on Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel about the 1996 hostage crisis in Lima, Peru, Lyric enlisted Jimmy López Bellido as composer and Nilo Cruz as librettist. The large-scale, multilingual work, with its eye-popping designs and bravura performances, was later shared with the world through PBS’s Great Performances.

The Factotum

In the 2022/23 Season, Lyric premiered a co-commissioned opera titled The Factotum, which received a three-performance, sold-out run in the Harris Theater.

Inspired by Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, the opera follows brothers Mike and Garby as they clash over the future of their family’s barbershop on Chicago’s South Side. The creators of The Factotum, Will Liverman (an alum of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center) and DJ King Rico, evoke a sense of Black joy in this genre-expanding work. The Factotum comprised a collection of musical styles including gospel, barbershop quartet, R&B, and jazz to funk, hip hop, and trap.

Lucia Lucas and the company of Proximity.

Later that season, Lyric presented Proximity, a triptych of interrelated opera works that put modern societal challenges under a microscope for us to explore through various lenses. Innovative director Yuval Sharon wove together the work of Pulitzer Prize, Grammy Award, and MacArthur Genius Grant-winning artists.

“The audience at Lyric Opera was audibly wowed by the vision and technical mastery on display at the opening of Proximity.” (Around the Town Chicago).

This commission and production demonstrated yet again Lyric’s commitment to excellence, innovation, relevance, and risk-taking.

Support for artistically excellent and thought-provoking Lyric productions is made possible by our generous donors. You can make a gift today to create more magical moments each time the curtain rises at Lyric.

Support the future of Lyric

Photo credits: Michael Brosilow, Andrew Cioffi, Robert Kusel, Dan Rest, Todd Rosenberg, and Cory Weaver