A 'Missionary for Opera' steps down in Chicago

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A 'Missionary for Opera' steps down in Chicago
Anthony Freud, director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, at the Art Deco venue for the final full performance, “Aida,” of his 13-year tenure, in Chicago, April 7, 2024. After 30 years leading opera companies — Welsh National Opera and Houston Grand Opera before coming to Chicago — Freud is retiring as one of the field’s most experienced hands. (Evan Jenkins/The New York Times)

by Zachary Woolfe

CHICAGO, IL.- In 1975, Anthony Freud went to a performance that changed his life.

Still in his teens, he waited in line for hours to see a concert version of Benjamin Britten’s opera “Peter Grimes” at the BBC Proms in London. For the Proms, seats are removed from the Royal Albert Hall to create a vast standing room, and Freud found himself pressed against the stage, just a few feet from tenor Jon Vickers, who sang a crushingly intense Grimes.

“This is what I want to spend my life doing,” he realized, recalling the show with relish in a recent interview. “I want to be a missionary for opera.”

Last Sunday, Freud, now 66, was once again as close as he could be to the opera stage. At a matinee of Verdi’s “Aida,” the final full performance of his 13-year tenure as the general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Freud was front row, left aisle.

He usually sat there — in the theater’s traditional seat for the general director — only on opening nights. But “it seemed right to be in that seat today,” he said during intermission, as he made his way upstairs to greet donors.

After 30 years leading opera companies — Welsh National Opera and Houston Grand Opera before coming to Chicago — Freud is retiring as one of the field’s most experienced hands. Gentle and genial, with a deep knowledge of operas and voices, he has tried to balance his venturesome spirit with the sensibilities of audiences — to challenge without alienating the people he needed for support.

“He’s someone who brought a kind of European sensibility to American opera,” said Marc Scorca, the CEO of the trade organization Opera America, “but infused with the imperatives of doing it in an American context. He pushed the boundaries, but respectfully.”

When Freud announced in September that he would leave Lyric after this season — two years before the end of his contract — there was speculation, as there always is with early departures, that something had gone sour.

But he insisted that his decision was “personally motivated” — a desire on the part of him and his husband, Colin Ure, to return to London, his hometown, for a new chapter — and that, with a growth plan in place, the timing was right for a change in leadership at Lyric. And he is finishing on good terms internally, celebrated by the company’s board and staff.

“He feels like he’s leaving us in a strong place, and he is,” said Sylvia Neil, the chair of the board, referring to the growth plan now in its early stages.

It is also, though, an uneasy time for Lyric, as it is for nearly all nonprofit performing arts institutions. Long-term changes in audience behavior accelerated during the pandemic, making ticket sales for Lyric’s 3,276-seat theater more uncertain; costs have risen but donations haven’t increased enough to transform the bottom line.

Matthew Epstein, a former artistic director with the company, said Freud had “all the knowledge you need to have.” But, he added, “the problem is, the ability to raise funds the way Ardis Krainik did is done.” (Krainik was Lyric’s general director in the 1980s and ’90s.)

Next season in Chicago will be on par with the one that just ended: 40 performances of six titles, with a smattering of concerts. That is significantly lower than before the pandemic, when eight operas a season was the norm, often in addition to a monthlong late-spring run of a classic musical.

About a decade ago, as Freud was starting at Lyric, it put on 70 or 80 performances a season. About 20 years ago, that number was sometimes closer to 100, and the company was once renowned for its sky-high subscription rates. Now, just under half the audience is subscribers.

“The goal is to go back to eight operas, the number we had been at for a long time,” Freud said. But whether that will be possible — and how quickly — is unclear.

“Contributed revenue is the core challenge,” he said, referring to donations and grants as opposed to ticket sales. “And I don’t think we should beat around the bush: Our future success depends on growth in contributed revenue. That’s not a Lyric thing — that’s a U.S. arts thing.”

Freud, born in 1957, is the child of immigrants from Hungary who met in England; his mother was an Auschwitz survivor. His parents had a passing interest in the arts, but he developed a passion for music, ballet and theater.

“Opera emerged as my obsession,” he said. “And if you asked me when I was 14 what I wanted to do when I grew up, I would have said I wanted to run an opera company.”

He studied law but after school quickly took a job at Sadler’s Wells Theater, before joining Welsh National Opera. He rose to head of artistic administration, then left for a short stint at the record label Philips Classics, where he worked with eminences such as Jessye Norman, Colin Davis and John Eliot Gardiner. He returned to Wales as general director, staying for 11 years before moving to Houston in 2006 and Chicago in 2011.

The two American companies were both founded in the mid-1950s, but Lyric feels closer to the 141-year-old Metropolitan Opera. “The sense of Lyric being a legacy institution — it’s older than its years,” Freud said. “Opera in Chicago goes back to the 1850s, and its building opened in 1929. The history of opera in the city belies Lyric’s corporate youth.”

There are advantages to being — or at least feeling like — a legacy institution, but it can also lead to an organization seeming stuck in its ways. Freud was the first of Lyric’s four general directors to come from outside the company.

And he brought new ideas to what was, well before the pandemic, already a struggling economic model. The company struck a deal to make its theater the home of the Joffrey Ballet, and increased its outreach to schools and communities through Lyric Unlimited — an ambitious education program modeled on one in Houston — as well as programming that drew on creators from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Freud planned huge projects like Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s “The Passenger” and the original French version of Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” The postseason musical runs, which required a special agreement with the company’s unions, were added to feed the bottom line, though not all the productions were financially successful. Just before the pandemic, Lyric hired Enrique Mazzola, a well-liked maestro, as its music director.

The COVID crisis, difficult for every arts organization, was particularly hard on Lyric, which was about to open three expensive, decade-in-the-making runs of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle when it was forced to lock down.

“I think it’s important to learn the lessons of that nightmarish period,” Freud said. “Including flexibility — really understanding that old assumptions are not necessarily worth anything anymore. What seems right this month might well be wrong next month.”

Bruised by a brief orchestra strike in 2018, the company more recently came to a five-year agreement with its labor unions that parallels its broader budget plan, which extends to 2028 and is designed to allow for malleable planning depending on shifting financial conditions. The timing of Freud’s departure will presumably allow his successor to be in place, and acclimated to the job, before negotiations need to get underway with the unions on a new contract. (The search for a new general director is underway.)

Freud said he wasn’t sure what the immediate future would bring — perhaps traveling to look at Renaissance frescoes. Speaking a couple of days before the final “Aida,” he said: “I’ve not allowed the thought of leaving to interfere with my job. But the fact that there is only one performance to go — that feels a bit weird.”

“I care extraordinarily deeply about Lyric and the future, and I want to set it up to succeed,” he added. “Anyone in my position hopes that you leave the organizations better, fitter, stronger than they were when you found them. And instinctively, I think this is the right time to do it.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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