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Anthony Freud

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s general director Anthony Freud will depart his post this summer. After leading opera companies for 30 years, Freud says it’s more important than ever to tell a diverse range of stories that feature a diverse range of artists.

Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

Anthony Freud bids adieu but believes Chicago opera can keep pushing forward

“I really want opera to be more radical, more inventive,” the outgoing Lyric Opera of Chicago director says.

🎧 Click on the red listening button to hear Anthony Freud walk WBEZ through Lyric Opera House

Anthony Freud is sitting in the very last row on the highest balcony of the Lyric Opera House. It’s a far cry from the seat traditionally reserved for the general director right in front of the stage.

But for Freud, an opera diehard since he was a teenager who led companies in Houston and Wales before nabbing Chicago’s most prominent operatic role, there’s no match for the sound quality up here.

“Generally speaking, the higher you go, the better the acoustic,” Freud says. “And so sometimes for rehearsals, I’ll sit [up here], because the sound is absolutely breathtaking.”

At the end of July, the London native is hanging up his hat as the head of the Lyric Opera, a role he has held for the last 13 years. In his tenure at Lyric, Freud led the company through a series of challenges, including a changing subscription model and the global pandemic. He also grappled with how to diversify an art form that’s hundreds of years old and keen on the classics.

Freud helped usher Lyric into a new era, launching a partnership with the Joffrey Ballet in 2017 that made the opera building their home and hiring Enrique Mazzola as the opera’s musical director.

But now, at 66, he says he’s ready for a new chapter. Freud says it’s a good time to leave Lyric, feeling like the institution has recovered well from the pandemic. His successor has not yet been named.

Freud recently gave WBEZ’s Courtney Kueppers a tour of the giant Lyric Opera building in the Loop — which Freud says he’s glad the company owns — while reflecting on his tenure, the organization’s giant footprint and his compulsion to radicalize the genre. “I really want opera to be more radical, more inventive. I want to be provoked and I want to be emotionally blown away by them.”

Here are some highlights of that conversation, which was edited for brevity and clarity.

On a boyhood dream realized

“If you’d asked me when I was 14 or 15 what I wanted to do when I grew up, I truly would have said, ‘I want to run an opera company.’ I’ve been able to earn my living by pursuing my passion. But I’ve been doing this a long time, so it’s time to enjoy other things.”

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Freud (center), with Sir Andrew Davis (right), Lyric’s longtime principal conductor who died in April and Enrique Mazzola (left), Lyric’s music director who was hired during Freud’s tenure.

Courtesy of Kyle Flubacker

On programming a very old art form for today’s audiences

“I think quality is an absolutely nonnegotiable, fundamental aspect of why we’re worth supporting and why we’re worth seeing. If we’re not excellent, we’re no good to anybody. I think ensuring that we tell a diverse range of stories, and engage a diverse range of artists to tell those stories, is increasingly important.

“Perhaps to a greater extent than any of the other performing arts, the heritage repertoire of opera continues to be important. A lot of that heritage repertoire when seen through a contemporary lens is problematic. It’s our job as the guardians of the art form, and the producers of repertoire, to actually acknowledge those problems, and to interpret those works in ways that reveal the problems and interrogate the problems.

5. LOC Aida - The Company of Aida - photo Bob Kusel (1).jpg

The Lyric recently performed Giuseppe Verdi’s famed opera Aida, one of the genre’s classics. “The heritage repertoire of opera continues to be important,” Freud said. But, he said, the shows have to be put in context.

Courtesy of Bob Kusel

“I believe passionately that these great works, which are 100, 200, 300, 400 years old, are worth producing today and are worth people’s interest and time. But they have to be interpreted; they can’t simply be neutrally communicated. I also think it’s really essential to combine, presenting in our season, both traditional repertoire and new and recent work.

“Opera, I believe, is a living, vibrant art form and form of entertainment. We’re lucky in that we have inherited a body of great work … But at the same time, in order to achieve the relevance that I believe the art form has, we have to tell stories of our time, stories of our communities, issues that affect us all.”

On diversifying opera’s fanbase

“Go back 20 years and Lyric’s seasons sold out on subscription. It was a very different time. And of course, selling out on subscription generates a level of financial security, which must have been very reassuring to those doing my job and running the company in those days. We still have a very large and important subscriber base — something like 60-plus percent of our audience is made up of subscribers. But it does mean that we sell a lot more single tickets than ever before and absolutely intentionally on our part.

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Lyric’s programming includes a shrewd mix of classics and contemporary operas, such as composer Terence Blanchard’s Champion, which Lyric staged last season.

Courtesy of Michael Brosilow

“We are working hard to make the prospect of coming to a performance at Lyric more appealing, more affordable in order to get audiences to be more diverse, in every way — and that is working. And it’s wonderful to see how our work becomes more appealing to more people. Add to that the presence of the Joffrey Ballet in the opera house and the numbers of people of all backgrounds coming into the house has been transformed over the last 10 years or so. And happily, our audiences are growing dramatically post-pandemic.

But it has meant that Lyric is very focused on understanding how we need to evolve and grow and develop in order to maximize the breadth and depth of cultural service we provide. How to be an equitable company welcoming to everybody. We want to be at the service of our city and all our citizens. And we’re very focused and committed to achieving that.”

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Like operas across the country, Lyric has seen its once steady subscriber base shrink in recent years. That opera now sells more single tickets than ever before.

Courtesy of Kyle Flubacker

On Lyric’s massive physical footprint downtown

“I think there is a conversation to be had about whether it’s an advantage or a disadvantage for an opera company to own its home. We are rare among North American opera companies in that we own the opera house that we reside in and work in. To me, on balance, there’s no contest, I’m thrilled that we own this house.

“Over the last 13 years, we’ve been able to develop a range of initiatives that are both important to the city, culturally exciting and, at the same time, fiscally strengthening. So the musicals that we were doing every year generated enormous new audiences and revenue that could be applied to the bottom line to help pay for our opera seasons.

The Joffrey Ballet_Photo by Todd Rosenberg.jpeg

In 2017, the Lyric announced a partnership with the Joffrey Ballet that made the opera building the ballet’s permanent home. The move helps bring in revenue, as well as attracting new audiences to the opera house, like for the fan-favorite Nutcracker performances during the holiday season.

Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

“And our partnership with the Joffrey Ballet has been incredibly important. And that will continue for the long-term future, again in attracting new audiences into the building, in being a revenue stream for Lyric, and in transforming the identity of this opera house. If you think of the great opera houses of the world, in London and Paris, in Vienna and Milan, by and large, their programming is made up of a regular alternating season of opera and ballet. And I think with Lyric, inviting and embracing the Joffrey Ballet as the resident ballet company of the Lyric Opera House, we allow this wonderful opera house to take its place alongside the great opera houses of the world. And in terms of the benefits to the city as a whole, I think that’s enormous.

“So I’m thrilled that Lyric owns this opera house. Owning a 1929 building, in which not enough investment has been consistently made over what will be nearly a century is itself a challenge. But we’re very focused on trying to raise funding to maintain investment and grow investment in the building to make sure that it’s not just fit for purpose, but a place that future audiences will break the doors down to come to.”

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The Lyric is rare among North American opera companies in that it owns its home building. But, Freud says it’s an advantage. Although, there are challenges to owning a 1929 building.

Courtesy of Kyle Flubacker

On the future of opera in the United States

“I think opera is in great shape in the U.S. If you look at the number and range of new pieces that have been created in the 21st century in the United States, it has really led the way in exploring the expansion of the range of our art form. Look at the range of companies of all sizes around the U.S., look at the range of venues in which opera is now performed on a regular basis, look at how we have really pushed the boundary of the art form and understood it to be completely universal.

“At the end of the day, what is opera? Yeah, on one level, you can think of it as a 400-year-old art form that had its origins in Europe. On the other hand, it’s telling stories through words and music. And nothing could be more universal than that. It transcends centuries, it transcends continents, it transcends cultures. And I think in the U.S., we’ve really embraced the breadth of that definition in a way that has allowed for extraordinarily exciting experimentation and boundary breaking.”

Courtney Kueppers is an arts and culture reporter at WBEZ.

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