September 19, 2020

Trailblazing women who made Lyric history

Who runs the world? If Beyoncé is to be believed: “Girls!” That has certainly been the case at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Since the company’s earliest years, women have held positions of power on the staff and Boards. Today, that spirit holds true, with a large number of management positions being held by women. Read on to meet a few of the trailblazing women who helped make Lyric what it is today.

Carol Fox with the cast of Così fan tutte, 1959.

Carol Fox

Credited with restoring Chicago's pre-Depression operatic glory, Carol Fox stood out among opera impresarios of the time. In 1954, when Fox was just 28 years old, the Chicago native cofounded The Lyric Theatre of Chicago with Lawrence V. Kelly and Nicola Rescigno. Facing an unsolvable rift with her cofounders, Fox took control of the company in 1956, renaming it Lyric Opera of Chicago. She was general manager from 1956 until 1980 (she died the following year at age 55).

She brought sensitivity to the arts and challenged every major city, ending up with our having one of the top opera companies in the nation....She never settled for second best.

—Mayor Jane Byrne, following Carol Fox's s death in 1981


When Fox proclaimed, "I have very simple tastes—I only want the best," she wasn't joking. She brought innumerable distinguished singers, conductors, and directors to the company. Having begun as a singer herself, Fox put Lyric on the map by creating associations with some of the greatest artists of the day, from Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi to Joan Sutherland, Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, many of whom made their American debuts at Lyric. Among the Chicago premieres Fox presented with great success during her tenure were Berg's Wozzeck, Ravel's L'heure espagnole, and Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel. The Fox years also included Lyric's first two world premieres, Giannini's The Harvest (1961) and Penderecki's Paradise Lost (1978).

Carol Fox was a welcoming presence to all her artists, and was motivated through her entire career by a passionate, all-consuming devotion to opera. Because of this, the company's highest honor—The Carol Fox Award—is given to members of the Lyric Family for lifetime achievement and dedication to Lyric. A bronze bust of Fox can be found in the Nancy W. Knowles Lobby, welcoming audiences to the company she built and cherished. The next time you visit Lyric, you can stroll down Carol Fox Drive (an honorary designation for the block of North Wacker Drive occupied by the Civic Opera Building, between Washington and Madison streets) and stop by to say a quick "thank you" for the beautiful legacy she left us.

Ardis Krainik in the Lyric Opera House.

Ardis Krainik

Wisconsin native Ardis Krainik spent her entire professional career at Lyric. In the earliest years of the company, she worked initially as a clerk-typist while also bringing her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice to numerous supporting roles. She was named artistic administrator in 1965, and was ultimately appointed general director in 1981, replacing Carol Fox. She held the position until illness ended her tenure in 1996 (she died the following year at age 67).

Once she began as general director, it took only a few seasons for Krainik to place the company on firm financial footing. Her acumen as a businesswoman drew the attention of Chicago’s entire business community, while her tastes in repertoire, casting, and production brought her the admiration of the entire operatic world. Her enthusiasm for Lyric and for opera was infectious, and the exceptional warmth of her personality endeared her to her audience as well as to her colleagues in opera locally, nationally, and internationally.

In addition to the major artists (of which Marilyn Horne, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Renée Fleming, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are just a few) and creative teams she brought to the company, Krainik’s achievements included significant development of Lyric’s young-artist program; spearheading the purchase and extensive renovation of the theater and backstage facilities during the mid-1990s; producing Lyric’s first Ring cycle; overseeing the company during several years of sold-out seasons; and, above all, implementing Lyric’s “Toward the 21st Century” initiative throughout the 1990s, during which Lyric produced one contemporary American opera and one contemporary European opera each season, including three world premieres.

I want American opera to reach its zenith. I think it can blossom in the next 10 years. We have to have our own unique American opera, not just a hashed-over European art form. I think now is the time, and I want to be behind making it flower.

—Ardis Krainik in a 1990 interview with The New York Times

Among Krainik’s many distinctions was serving as a member of the National Endowment for the Arts and as chairman of OPERA America. She also held an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, Northwestern University. Lyric’s auditorium was named the Ardis Krainik Theatre at a star-studded 1996 gala in her honor. Also in 1996, she received the Chicago History Museum’s “Making History” Award for Distinction in the Performing Arts.

Maria Tallchief, Lyric's former ballet director

Maria Tallchief

Born in Oklahoma and Native American by family heritage, Maria Tallchief (1925-2013) rose to world fame as America's first true prima ballerina. The muse (and third wife) of legendary choreographer George Balanchine, Tallchief was still a teenager when she became a star with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1946 she joined the newly founded New York City Ballet. With her extraordinary technique and blazing energy, she set performance standards at NYCB in the Balanchine repertoire that confirmed her stature as one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.

Tallchief was seen on the Lyric stage as prima ballerina of two company premieres: Ponchielli's La Gioconda (1957) and Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (1962). In 1971 she was appointed ballet director at Lyric, a position she held for well over two decades. In 1974 she founded Chicago City Ballet, which performed for the next 13 years. Initially the resident ballet company for Lyric, it became an independent organization in 1980, ceasing operations in 1987.

For the entire Lyric family, Tallchief represented the absolute best in ballet. She was dedicated to Lyric as a longtime member of the Women's Board, and for many years her presence was anticipated at every opening-night Opera Ball. On those occasions, she prepared the principal artists for the Grand March with the same precision with which she would have prepared for a Balanchine premiere.

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Sylvia Neil, Board Chair.

Sylvia Neil

On September 8, 2020, Sylvia Neil made Lyric history when she became the company's first female Board Chair. Neil and her husband, Daniel Fischel, are longtime Lyric subscribers and donors, and have cosponsored multiple mainstage opera productions (most recently Elektra, Madama Butterfly and The Marriage of Figaro). Neil is a member of Lyric's Board of Directors, Executive, Production Sponsorship, IDEA, and Lyric Unlimited committees. She also serves as Chair of the Development Committee. Following the cancellation of our 2020 Ring cycle, Neil and her husband jumped into action by organizing and sponsoring The Heroes' Fund to help mitigate the financial losses suffered due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Neil has had a distinguished career in civil liberties advocacy and academia. She is a lecturer in law at the University of Chicago Law School, where she was former associate dean. She founded and chairs the Project on Gender, Culture, Religion and Law at Brandeis University and coedits its book series. She was an adjunct professor at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law and taught at DePaul School of Law and Roosevelt University. Neil began her career in poverty law litigation and served as legal counsel and Midwest region executive director of the American Jewish Congress. Neil has been a consultant to several not-for-profit institutions, including the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, where she initiated the prototype Jewish Women's Foundation. Among other honors, she was appointed Commissioner on both the Illinois and Cook County Commissions on Human Rights.

Sylvia Neil has had leadership roles in many cultural, civil rights, and academic institutions. Currently, she is a vice chair of the Art Institute of Chicago and sits on the boards of Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago High School for the Arts, Chicago Public Media and Brandeis University where she also chairs the Board of Fellows. She is life trustee and former chair of the Grand Teton Music Festival and trustee emeritus and former vice chair at the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the University of Chicago she serves on the Council for the Humanities and was recently appointed to the initial councils for the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge.

Shirley Ryan accepts the 2007 Carol Fox Award.

Shirley Welsh Ryan

Lyric cherishes the enduring friendship and dedication of Shirley W. Ryan and her husband, Patrick G. Ryan. Since 1966 when they first subscribed to Lyric as newlyweds, they have shared their leadership, talents, vision, and resources to advance Lyric's mission.

Over the past four decades, the Ryans have contributed generously to the Annual Campaign, Wine Auctions (which Shirley Ryan initiated in 1988), and the Breaking New Ground Campaign in support of the Innovation Initiative, and The Heroes' Fund. For many seasons the Ryans have sponsored Lyric Opera Commentaries, underwriting this special project to honor the memory of their parents. The company's artist-development program was renamed The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center in recognition of their extraordinary gift to the Campaign for Excellence. The couple serves as Honorary Co-Chairs of the Ryan Opera Center Board.

Shirley Ryan is a Vice President and a member of the Executive, Nominating/Governance, Development, and Lyric Labs committees of Lyric's Board of Directors as well as a distinguished former president of the Women's Board. In 2007 she was awarded the Carol Fox Award, Lyric's most prestigious honor, in recognition of her many years of devoted service to the company.

Shirley Ryan serves on the board of directors of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Alain Locke Charter Academy, and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She recently received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Notre Dame and was recently honored by the Chicago History Museum for distinction in civic leadership. The Ability Lab of Chicago's Rehabilitation Institute is named in her honor, as is the Opera Theatre of Northwestern University's Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center for the Musical Arts.

Renée Fleming takes part in a Bel Canto working session ahead of the opera's world premiere.

Renée Fleming

Renée Fleming is internationally celebrated as one of the finest artists of our time. The beloved American soprano has starred with every major opera company and orchestra, from the Met, the Royal Opera House, and the Vienna State Opera to the Boston Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic. Her astoundingly diverse repertoire has been documented in an extensive discography and videography. In addition, Fleming has established herself as one of her generation's most passionate, public-spirited advocates for music and the arts. Among her innumerable honors is the National Medal of Arts, awarded by President Obama in 2013.

Fleming enjoys a unique relationship with Lyric. After her triumphant company and role debut in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah (1993/94 Season), she returned to enrapture audiences and critics in eight additional roles with which she is closely associated: Marguerite, Countess Almaviva, Desdemona, Violetta, Thaïs, Countess Madeleine, Hanna Glawari, and Blanche DuBois. Her magnificent record of artistic achievement at Lyric also includes starring in numerous concerts and recitals. The 25th anniversary of her Lyric debut was celebrated with a gala concert on March 23, 2019, and she stars in the virtual concert For the Love of Lyric on September 13, 2020.

Renée Fleming serves as an Advisor to The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center as well as a Community Ambassador. In those roles, she has inspired countless young artists and students throughout Chicago. In 2010, she was appointed Lyric's first creative consultant and held that title until late 2019, when she moved into the role of special projects advisor. She has taken an active leadership role in the development of new programs that build audiences and increase awareness of our art form. Her efforts brought the world premiere of Bel Canto (López/Cruz) to the Lyric stage in 2015 and to audiences worldwide on PBS's Great Performances the following year. Fleming was also the force behind Chicago Voices, a wide-ranging initiative that combined public performances, masterclasses, school programs, an all-star concert and gala (which was also subsequently broadcast on PBS), and more.

It's made me think much more broadly about what the role of an opera company can be in society...I believe so strongly that we as human beings need—first of all—this creative outlet.

—Renée Fleming on what she has learned through her work at Lyric

Ana María Martínez leads a masterclass with students from Lyric's Vocal Partnership Program in March 2020.

Ana María Martínez

Beloved by audiences around the world for her nuanced portrayals of opera's leading ladies, Puerto-Rican-born soprano Ana María Martínez has a very special fan base in Chicago: students. She first began visiting Chicago-area schools in 2009 and was named an inaugural Community Ambassador in 2014. Over the years she has met with hundreds of students in schools throughout Chicago, leading discussions and masterclasses.

In her tenth role with the company, Martínez brought her renowned portrayal of Florencia Grimaldi in Daniel Catán's Florencia en el Amazonas to Chicago audiences in the 2021/22 Season. The title was the first Spanish-language opera performed on Lyric's mainstage. She has maintained an extraordinary performance standard at Lyric since the 2008/09 Season, singing roles as diverse as Nedda/Pagliacci (Lyric debut), Marguerite/Faust, Donna Elvira/Don Giovanni, Desdemona/Otello, Fiordiligi/Così fan tutte, Tatiana/Eugene Onegin, Mimì/La bohème, and the title roles of Rusalka and Madama Butterfly

Success in the prestigious Operalia competition propelled Martínez to international prominence at a young age. Her exceptionally beautiful voice, probing musicality, extraordinary acting, and luminous stage presence have brought her starring roles with every major company, from the Met, San Francisco Opera, Santa Fe Opera, and Houston Grand Opera (where she is the company’s first-ever artistic adviser) to Glyndebourne, London’s Royal Opera, and the Vienna State Opera, to name a few. The Grammy Award® winner has also memorably documented her artistry on CD and DVD. Among her honors is the National Association of Latina Leaders’ Groundbreaking Latina in Music award.

As with any collection, this list merely scratches the surface of all of the talented women who have worked for and alongside Lyric since its founding in 1954. We are proud to be a company that supports, celebrates, and lifts up female voices. To all the female-identifying employees, artists, and administrators who have called Lyric home over the years, thank you for being part of the Lyric Family.

To learn more about some of the female singers who helped put Lyric on the map, read our blog about Women of Lyric: 20th-Century Legends of Lyric's Stage.

Header image: Ardis Krainik with Mayor Eugene Sawyer at the Lyric Opera Bridge dedication in 1989.

Photos: Kyle Flubacker, Dan Rest, Todd Rosenberg, Jaclyn Simpson