Lyric Opera of Chicago Celebrates 50th Anniversary

In February, 1954 a new opera company was born in Chicago. For much of the first half of the 20th century, Chicago had been the scene of glamorous operatic evenings (particularly with the tempestuous American diva Mary Garden). By the early 1950's, however, the city had been without a resident opera producing organization for nearly a decade. An unlikely trio banded together to form a new company - Carol Fox, a socially well connected former singer; Lawrence Kelley, a Texas millionaire; and Nicola Rescigno, an aspiring young conductor. With Rescigno on the podium the new Lyric Theater of Chicago gave two "calling card" performances of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" with a now legendary cast - Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in the title role; Italo Tajo as Leporello; Leopold Simoneau as Don Ottavio; Eleanor Steber as Donna Anna; Irene Jordan as Donna Elvira; and the great Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayo (in her final operatic appearances) as Zerlina. The following fall the new company's first full season opened with a major operatic coup - the American debut of Maria Callas as Norma. Callas would also be heard in "Aida," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "I Puritani," and "Madama Butterfly" (her only stage appearances in Puccini's opera).

In the seasons that followed the renamed Lyric Opera of Chicago would welcome such great vocal stars as Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe de Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Renata Scotto, Alfredo Kraus, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson, Anna Moffo, Placido Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi, Catherine Malfitano, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Rene Flemming, Ben Heppner, and Samuel Ramey. The great conductor Artur Rodzinski would make his final podium appearances leading a memorable production of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde." The legendary Italian maestro Tullio Serafin made his final American appearances at Lyric. The distinguished Russian conductor Kyril Kondrashin made his only American operatic appearances - directing "Madama Butterfly" and "Boris Godunov." While standard repertoire dominated in the early years, by the 1970's (under then artistic director Bruno Bartoletti, a Rodzinski protégé) 20th century operas by Britten, Penderecki, Prokofieff, Janacek, Shostakovich, Berg, and Berio were being staged. In the 1980's an American Opera Initiative brought productions of works by Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Dominick Argento, Kurt Weil, Carlisle Floyd, and John Harbison. Lyric commissioned and premiered new operas by Anthony Davis ("Amistad") and William Bolcom ("McTeague" and "A View from the Bridge"). On September 18, 2004 Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its 50th anniversary season with the same opera that started it all - "Don Giovanni" with Bryn Terfel in the title role, Christoph Eschenbach conducting. The gala season features the world premiere of a new opera by Bolcom (his third commission from Lyric) - "A Wedding," based on the film by the renowned American writer-director Robert Altman. Altman is the co-librettist (with playwright Arnold Weinstein) and the production's director. The cast includes Lauen Flanagan, Mark Delavan, Malfitano, Jerry Hadley, Anna Christy, Beth Clayton, and Patricia Risley, with contemporary music specialist Dennis Russell Davies on the podium. Other season highlights include a complete Wagner Ring cycle ("Das Rheingold," "Die Walkurie," "Siegfried." and "Die Gotterdamerung") conducted by music director Sir Andrew Davis. Davis also conducts Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen." Former Cleveland Orchestra music director Christoph von Dohnanyi leads Beethoven's "Fidelio" with Karita Mattila and Kim Begley Puccini's "Tosca" (with Fiorenza Cedolins and Aprille Millo sharing the title role) and Verdi's "Aida" with intriguing alternating casts: Andrea Gruber/Indra Thomas; Olga Borodina/Dolora Zajick; Richard Margison/Salvatore Licitra; Carlo Guelfi/ Nikolai Putilin. Semyon Bychkov and Richard Buckley share the conducting honors. For five decades Lyric Opera of Chicago has presented some of the best opera heard anywhere. Quality has been number one at Lyric. Happy 50th anniversary and many more!  

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