Lyric Opera of Chicago today (April 21) named Anthony Freud, 53, as its new general director, effective October 1. The British-born Freud will be only the fourth leader of Lyric Opera in the company’s 58-year history. In a smooth transition, he succeeds William Mason who is retiring after 15 years in Lyric’s top post. Freud will guide a company with an annual budget in excess of $54 million. Lyric presents a seven-month season of eight productions in the 3,700-seat Civic Opera House on Wacker Drive, which the company owns.
Freud brings a combination of European and American experience which should give him a solid foundation to captain a company with a foot firmly planted on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Freud was general director of the Welsh National Opera from 1994-2005, and has held the same position at Houston Grand Opera since then. Both companies are known for innovative programming, undoubtedly another plus for Freud in the selection process. Since the late 1980’s, Lyric Opera has commissioned a number of world premiere works and new productions in a series dubbed “Towards the 21st Century.”
Just within the last year, outgoing general director Mason has committed Lyric Opera to exploring the American musical theater repertory, an area in which the company only has dabbled in the past. But Lyric really will jump into the pond in the 2011-2012 season with a new production of the 1927 Show Boat. Although it was long before Freud’s tenure, Houston Grand Opera mounted a famous production of Show Boat in 1980, and also a staging of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in 1976. Both productions toured widely, with stops in Chicago.
Freud will supervise a business, production and artistic team of hundreds which already has several marquee names attached to it, among them music director and principal conductor Sir Andrew Davis, and recently-appointed artistic consultant Renee Fleming. A star soprano, Fleming not only has increased her singing commitments at Lyric over the next five years, but also will be one of the chief architects of the foray into American musical theater. In addition to next season’s Show Boat, a presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma also is in development.
What Freud does not have is Chicago experience. Lyric’s three previous general directors—Mason, Ardis Kranik (1981-1997) and Lyric co-founder Carol Fox (1954-1980)—all were Chicagoans. Indeed, Mason and Kranik started out as singers and learned their opera management chops at Lyric Opera itself, rising through the ranks. However, the absence of local roots is not viewed as an impediment to running a world-class opera company such as Lyric, which deals in an international artistic circle.
Still, Mason has used his knowledge of local Off-Loop Theater to expand Lyric Opera’s roster of artists, especially directors and designers. Under his tenure, Chicago theater directors such as Robert Falls (Goodman Theatre), Barbara Gaines (Chicago Shakespeare Theater), Charles Newell (Court Theatre) and Gary Griffin (multiple associations) all have staged productions at Lyric. Freud’s background in Cardiff, Wales and Houston strongly suggests that he has a sharp eye for the theatrical qualities of opera as well as the musical qualities, but it nonetheless will take him time to build relationships with local theater artists. Freud’s initial contract is for five years.