My April 22 Chicago Sun-Times and April 21 suntimes.com story (and "quick facts" sidebar below) on the announcement that Anthony Freud will be the new general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Lyric Opera general director William Mason (right) chats with his successor, Anthony Freud of Houston Grand Opera, on the mezzanine-level staircase Thursday afternoon at the Civic Opera House. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times.
Lyric Opera’s new chief Anthony Freud to start in October
Houston and Cardiff vet has big dreams for Chicago
BY ANDREW PATNER
They do things differently in Houston.
One of the many qualities that attracted Lyric Opera of Chicago board members to Houston Grand Opera CEO Anthony Freud in their search for a successor to their own general director William Mason was his great emphasis on community engagement, commissioned works, and CD releases of the Houston company’s live performances.
What they weren’t counting on were the loose lips of Houston’s board members and social set. Operating in a board culture where leaks just do not happen, the Chicagoans were shocked when reports that Freud, 53, would be named to the general director's post at Lyric started appearing in online versions of credible Houston outlets Wednesday afternoon, a day ahead of Lyric’s planned announcement.
But both Freud and Lyric leaders said the announcement scoop would hardly be a footnote, as one area where Houston and Chicago don’t differ is in their devotion to rolling up sleeves and doing the hard work. The London-born and -raised Freud plans to hit the ground running, and in fact, will start his five-year contract here on October 1, the day of Lyric’s season-opening performance and gala, and six months ahead of Mason’s originally announced spring 2012 retirement.
“Bill and I and the [Lyric] board all thought, ‘We’re ready to go,’ so that’s what we are going to do,” Freud said Wednesday morning in a telephone interview from his Houston office. Mason, 69, who has led the company for 14 years and spent almost his entire professional life at the Civic Opera House, will now serve as consultant for the 2011-12 season and then will become general director emeritus.
This marks the first time since Lyric’s founding 57 years ago that it has gone outside of its own ranks for a general director.
Calling Lyric “one of the great flagship cultural institutions of the world,” Freud said he will start spending “a great deal of time in Chicago immediately. I want to get to know as much as possible about the company and my new colleagues, but especially the city and its communities.”
"Making opera relevant"
At a press conference Thursday at the Civic Opera House, Freud stressed the need to “make a 400-year-old art form relevant for the 21st century.” Toward that goal, he hopes Lyric will explore the creation of smaller productions at various locations and settings, along with its full-scale presentations at the Civic Opera House. As he did in Houston, he hopes to engage Chicago’s diverse communities more fully. In Houston, Freud established a series called “HGOco” with major connections with the city’s diverse historic and immigrant communities. He also commissioned and staged operas dealing with immigration and using Texas blues, ranchera music and Asian artists and instruments.
But he intends to tailor his ideas to suit Chicago. “I have a lot of listening and learning to do,” he said Thursday. “I come here overflowing with ideas, but I have to see if they are the right ideas for this company and for Chicago and what other ideas should be considered or will come up.”
Freud and Mason have known each other since 1994, when Freud began an 11-year stint as head of the highly respected Welsh National Opera, and Mason was the late Ardis Krainik’s right-hand man at Lyric. Freud succeeded the legendary David Gockley in Houston in 2006, after Gockley wrapped up a 33-year run at HGO to head up San Francisco Opera. Along with Lyric, SFO ranks ahead of all but New York’s Metropolitan Opera in budget size and performance schedule for U.S. companies.
In Houston, Freud has led a fund-raising campaign that has gained commitments of $72 million since 2007, brought attendance up to almost 90 percent of capacity in the last three seasons, and has ended the last two years in the black on an annual budget of about $20 million.
Last fall, Freud had extended his contract in Houston, but said that he leaves the company with “the full understanding of the people [there].” As for complaints from Houston supporters about his leaving HGO soon after extending his contract there, Freud said Thursday he was “complimented by the implicit generosity that their disappointment in my leaving conveys.”
His appointment was officially announced Thursday by Lyric’s board president and CEO Richard P. Kiphart and executive vice chairman and search committee chair Kenneth G. Pigott, after an afternoon board meeting approving his contract. Kiphart praised Freud for his artistic, fiscal, and fund-raising leadership. Lyric is widely envied in the field for its rare financial conservatism and strength.
Other board members participated in the eight-month search, as did music director Andrew Davis and recently named creative consultant, soprano Renée Fleming, as well as Mason, all coordinated by the professional search firm SpencerStuart.
More than 40 candidates were interviewed from dozens of applications, Pigott said. He cited Freud’s “energy and focus,” as well as his “inclusive leadership style,” as major factors in the committee’s recommendation.
Highly regarded in Britain, Europe and the United States, Freud is the first person to head both the European and American opera industry groups, chairing Opera America since 2008.
London born and raised
A child of Hungarian Jewish parents, Freud grew up in Wimbledon in southwest London, where his parents settled after meeting in London after World War II. His father, a statistician, escaped from near Budapest in 1939 as the country was aligning itself with Nazi Germany.
His mother “was not so fortunate,” Freud said, and was deported from her native city of Györ and interned at Auschwitz. She survived that period as well as a death march from Auschwitz and was liberated by American troops at the end of the war in Minden, Germany.
“Out of all of this, I have been extremely fortunate to have had a very happy childhood and life and the full support of my parents as I was growing up and making my way,” Freud said.
Attracted to opera and theater as a child, he nonetheless trained as a lawyer at King’s College, University of London. “I picked it because it was half way between Sadler’s Wells [Theatre] and the National Theatre.”
He has spent his whole working life in opera and arts presentation. Starting in 1980 with four years as a manager at Sadler’s Wells, he went on to work eight years in administration and planning in his first round at Welsh National Opera in Cardiff and then spent two years as an executive producer at Philips Classics in Amsterdam. At Philips, he worked with such major artists as soprano Jessye Norman and conductor Bernard Haitink before being named to the top job in Cardiff in 1994.
Freud led the artistically adventurous WNO through the building and opening of its new home at the $210-million Wales Millennium Center in 2005. He also doubled the company’s contributed income, an especially tricky feat in countries that have lived off of government subsidy for decades and more.
In Houston, Freud kept up Gockley’s advocacy of new works and productions. In Chicago, Freud sees an important place for a return to Lyric’s history of mounting and commissioning American operas as well as its recently announced plans to mount a classic American musical each year outside its regular subscription season. “Presenting musicals in this way is something to be celebrated,” he said. “When we do so, though, it should be in a manner that benefits from our resources as an opera company. There should be a reason and a justification for each work we present.”
Freud and his longtime partner Colin Ure, currently the dramaturg at HGO, have engaged a real estate agent to buy a home here. “We plan to put down deep roots in Chicago,” he said.
About Anthony Freud
Anthony Freud | Kiichiro Sato~AP
Birthplace: London, England
Education: King's College School, Wimbledon. Law degree, University of London, King’s College
Partner: Colin Ure, dramaturg at Houston Grand Opera. Together 26 years.
Royal honor: Named an officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 in her 80th Birthday Honours. Entitled to use the initials OBE.
Favorite opera: “Whatever I happen to be working on at the moment.”
First opera attended: Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, at age 4
Early adapter: Began regularly attending opera, theatre, and ballet. In his early teens, started going alone three or four times a week. By age 14, he knew he “wanted to run an opera company.”