William Mason looks back on five decades at the Lyric Opera of Chicago

September 23, 2011

Bill Mason's final day as general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago was August 31. Photo: Dan Rest

If William Mason is melancholy or wistful about leaving the opera company that has been the center of his life for five decades, he’s hiding it extraordinarily well.

Speaking in his fourth-floor corner office last month in one of his final weeks as general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the 69-year-old administrator was relaxed, upbeat and expansive in talking about his long career at the Lyric..

Mason’s last day was August 31 and he is currently in San Marino, Italy, as a judge for the Renata Tebaldi Vocal Competition. (While his successor Anthony Freud does not officially succeed him as general director until opening night, October 1, Freud is clearly already on the job.)

People will debate the merits and faults of Mason’s tenure, but, say what you will, this is a man who genuinely loves opera. That enthusiasm was clear in a conversation in which Mason addressed criticisms of his tenure, discussed repertoire, the current state of opera, and recalled some of his most memorable nights at the Lyric Opera.

LAJ: So, how does it feel stepping away from the company after a lifetime at the Lyric Opera, the last 14 years as general director?

WM: It’s a lot of conflicting feelings. I think it’s time for the company to take on a new direction and new leadership. I will miss all the people and the ready access to music.

And at the same time, I’m looking forward to what lies ahead. I’ll be 70 in December and I don’t have any specific plans. You know, I’ve run this place for fourteen years. So, some time off would not be the worst thing. After the vocal competition, my wife and I are going away to Mexico for a week around Christmas. If something shows up fine, but if it doesn’t I’m not actively looking for anything.

LAJ: Would you be interested in consulting work?

WM: If there are companies that have money to hire a consultant and want to ask me, I’d be happy to do it.

LAJ: Will you be staying in Chicago or moving to Florida like everybody else does when they retire?

WM: No, no, I love Chicago. It’s my hometown, I’ve lived almost my whole life here. The apartment’s paid off. I’m a big Chicago booster.

LAJ: Have you given your successor Anthony Freud any specific advice or words of wisdom or experience as he takes the reins on October 1?

WM: I don’t really think I need to give Anthony much advice. I’ve known Anthony for some time. I like him. He is an eminently decent, extraordinarily competent good guy. People are going to like him, respect him and enjoy working with him. He’s successfully run two opera companies [Welsh National Opera and Houston Grand Opera] and he’s very bright. He will find his own way.

Not to be too grand about it but the company has been on a certain arc since its inception — Fox, Krainik, Mason — and it’s the end of an era. Now it’s time for a change and there should be a change. He will take the company in the direction he wants to take it. I have no doubt it will be an intelligent direction, and I feel good about it.

LAJ: What do you say about the criticism that the Lyric has become far too conservative and artistically cautious in your years as general director?

WM: People like the repertoire or they don’t like the repertoire, or they like this or that. But you know a lot of the people that criticize don’t get around that much. I see half of our performances, and that’s about forty performances a year. I see another twenty-five to forty performances a year elsewhere. So I flatter myself that I have a fair idea of what goes on in major opera companies around the world. And I think the night in and night out quality stands with the best companies in the world.

LAJ: During your tenure there were some offbeat operas or ambitious productions that were announced and then pulled for more populist repertoire, like Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre re and Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini. Any regrets about not doing these works and are there operas you wish you could have presented?

WM: I very much wanted to bring back Bill Bolcom’s McTeague. I thought it was a terrific piece but I thought it could have been improved. In some ways, [director] Bob Altman, God rest his soul, imposed a scenario on it with a lot of flashbacks like a movie and I felt those were not helpful. Bill had an idea about an additional scene he wanted to write, we did a little work with Frank Galati, and I thought we were on our way to doing something and then the money became an issue. In some ways that’s my biggest regret. But I also regret in these last few years that we couldn’t have been more adventurous.

And I know that’s a criticism that’s been leveled at me. We have a great board here. But it’s a Chicago, Midwestern [fiscally conservative] board. And also, you know, I was raised by my parents in the Depression, so I sort of grew up with the idea that you don’t spend money you don’t have. Critics will write things like “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead.” No, no, no, I’m sorry. When you’re talking about the long-term financial health of the institution, you don’t have it without some kind of financial stability.

LAJ: Did presenting a revised McTeague get far beyond the talking stages?

WM: We had some very good meetings, Frank Galati, Bill Bolcom and I. This would have been in 2006. It just wasn’t . . . however much certain people want to see new stuff done, a subscription audience is leery of it. They’ve been scared off by America opera.

My soapbox thing is that modern contemporary music got hijacked by composers who wrote for themselves and didn’t care about the public. And by critics who encouraged it. This is a small little group of people — like the initiated who “got it” and no one else did. But those people weren’t buying the tickets.

That applies particularly to an opera. If you put on a 15-minute piece by Elliott Carter, you can still put on a Brahms symphony. But when you’ve got a whole evening of an opera that nobody wants to listen to and you’re only doing eight operas a year, you’re really alienating a good portion of your public.

LAJ: But don’t you think that a lot of that gnarly atonal music was primarily in the 1950s and 1960s? And that many of the operas that came before and after that period are written in a much more accessible and melodic style?

WM: Yes, they started to be. But I do think that a lot of the composers, even after that in the 1970, were really writing for themselves, more than what I or the public wanted.

And another thing is a lot of composers don’t have the experience today of writing opera. They don’t write theatrically. I can think of things I’ve heard or that we’ve done where good composers just don’t have a theatrical sense. They don’t know how to underscore the drama, or the music has nothing to do with what’s going on onstage.

There’s also no chance for a composer to rework his piece. When you think that Butterfly premiered in January and by April Puccini revised it and it was done in a different city. Today you do something in 2011 and the next chance you’ll have to hear a revised version is in 2016. It’s a major investment for a composer and everything about it works against anybody wanting to write a new opera.

LAJ: But you didn’t have that much of a problem selling tickets in the 1990s when you were doing new operas and unusual repertory.

WM: Yeah, but in the 1990s we were pretty much selling a hundred percent.

LAJ: But the Marvin David Levy opera [Mourning Becomes Electra] and Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge did okay, right?

WM: I don’t remember the specifics but we were doing over a hundred percent over that season, so maybe the Levy and Bolcom did 98 percent. But it wasn’t 70 percent.

I mean, it’s very tough. A lot of people didn’t like the modern stuff when we did it. Sometimes it would be helped by a terrific production. But when we did stuff like Street Scene and Candide, some people didn’t think that was appropriate. When we did Berio’s Un re in ascolta, they didn’t like that because of the music.

But there’s no question that as people got tighter with their money because of the recession, you could see that those works were a drain on subscriptions. And if you’re a company where you’re selling a large portion of tickets on subscription, you can’t ignore that.

The ticket prices for Covent Garden vary because they don’t do subscriptions. So, when they do Tosca with Bryn Terfel they might sell the top price for two hundred pounds. When they did one of the Janaceks, the top price was sixty-five pounds.

LAJ: They reduce the price of the ticket based on the popularity of the opera? It’s not a bad idea.

WM: It’s not a bad idea but you can only do it if you’re doing all single tickets. When you’re selling by subscription you can’t do that.

LAJ: Do you think that the Lyric’s situation reflects that of most other opera companies in the country? That with the tight economy, people increasingly are less likely to shell out for an expensive subscription and instead just cherry-pick individual operas they want to see?

WM: People are less likely to want to plan where they’re going to be ten months in advance on a given night. And you have to accommodate people. Twenty years ago, you sold a subscription, and that was it. You didn’t have to do exchanges. Now you accommodate people because you have to. It’s an expectation and so you provide that service for them.

LAJ: People are more mobile and lives are more unsettled.

WM: The combination of the economy, the changing demographics, the changing expectations. So where it goes in the future is anybody’s guess.

LAJ: Do you think the Lyric’s initiative in presenting Broadway musicals, starting with Show Boat in January, will get more people in the theater and boost the bottom line?

WM: Well, that’s the hope. We’ll see how that goes.

You know, for years, I always thought that it was a pity that there was no organization or a repertory company based in New York, that would do three, four or five of the great musicals every year. You know, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein… I mean, there’s some great stuff out there.

LAJ: Like the National Theatre in England, except doing American musicals.

WM: Exactly. A place that either did strictly musicals or at least one or two of those pieces a year. And I think many of those pieces could be very well done by an opera company. So I think it’s a wonderful opportunity to introduce those works that people have not heard of or to bring back the works that people love but haven’t had a chance to see.

LAJ: If it does becomes successful, down the road, say in two or three seasons, could you see the Lyric saying, “Well, maybe now we’ll do two musicals a season”?

WM: I think that would be lovely.

LAJ: Really?

WM: I mean it’s not in the plans at this point but . . .

LAJ: But you can see how people will say it’s a slippery slope—that if the Lyric starts having more success with musicals then you’ll start doing fewer operas.

WM: The Oklahoma we’re talking about is in the post-season. It’s not in the season.

LAJ: Well, that is, but the Show Boat this year is in the season.

WM: Right. And a lot of people don’t want to see Show Boat in the season. So I can only hazard to guess as to how that will work out —whether things like Show Boat will find themselves done solely as post-season works or whether the company will feel comfortable bringing another one into the season. I think the thinking right now is that they will fall into the post-season category.

LAJ: A post-season series like the ballet?

WM: I think that’s the thinking right now. But that could change.

LAJ: But you’ll still be doing one less opera a season?

WM: No, we’ll still be doing eight operas a season.

LAJ: So, this coming season is an anomaly, with seven operas and one musical?

WM: In 2012-13 we’ll do eight operas and one musical. And that’s the idea for the future. But given the economics, everything is open in the future.

LAJ: Besides the economic situation, what is the greatest challenge facing opera companies today?

WM: Well, it’s the economy and it’s also the changing culture.

You know, I grew up and got interested in opera because of the movie, The Great Caruso. I wanted to sing like Mario Lanza! Mario Lanza had hit records. When I was a kid, Be My Love was on the top ten. But even the other music that was on the top ten — Perry Como or this and that — it wasn’t that far removed from classical music.

Right now what’s popular is so far removed. The gulf between so-called popular music and classical music is so enormous that it’s a big leap from one to the other. If you grew up, listening to Perry Como, it’s not a big jump to go to Puccini or Verdi. If you grow up listening to rap or some of this stuff today, it almost seems like an impossible gulf to bridge.

I mean, when you think of the history of opera — without Verdi, Wagner, Puccini, Mozart, you don’t have opera. That’s the backbone. Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Strauss and Handel. After that you have a lot of one-hit wonders.

So, maybe what we’re looking for is some genius to come along who will somehow find a way to produce an opera or music that somehow has a classical and popular appeal.

LAJ: You don’t think that there are some American operas out there with popular appeal?

WM: I think so. I think there are some people out there. Years ago we had a composer-in-residence program. And the first bunch of those [commissions] were all sort of the thornier music. The program was headed by Hugo Weisgall, God bless him, who was a lovely man but the composers that he selected were all in what I would call that thorny-type music.

After Hugo passed, we turned to things that were slightly more music theater. We came up with some composers who I think had a better chance of writing something [successful], but unfortunately the money ran out. We wound up doing one or two performances over at the Blackstone Theater — the Merle Reskin Theater now — and we lost a lot of money on it.

LAJ: You wouldn’t save money if you did more offbeat things at smaller off-site venues? Like if you went to the Harris Theater to do a contemporary opera for three or four performances?

WM: No, because you still have big expenses. Especially if you’re doing a new piece — you have enormous expenses. I mean, to go out and try to sell single tickets to a new work by a relatively unknown composer? You’d probably have to spend more publicizing it than you would take in at the box office, let alone the cost of producing it.

It’s tougher for a company like Lyric to do new works, although you want to do them because there’s a certain buzz when you do it. In some ways, the smaller companies have an advantage in producing these works. It’s less expensive for them, they have smaller audiences, and they don’t have to sell as many tickets. I think going out to try to hear something new at a smaller company and then giving that composer a second chance — a chance to revise it and then presenting it — maybe that’s the way to go.

LAJ: You mentioned McTeague but, given your druthers—and had the economy not tanked in recent years—-what were some other things you would have liked to have presented?

WM: I would have loved to have revived Vanessa. Again, traditional piece and a weak libretto but still good music. It would have been nice to be able to do Vanessa. I have to admit I kind of stopped investigating contemporary American composers that much.

When we got Bill Bolcom, Ardis and I went around and spoke to Christopher Keene, Dennis Russell Davies, Jim Conlon and a couple other American conductors and we asked them, “We want to hire someone to do an American opera. Who should we hire?” And to a man, they said Bill Bolcom.

So I would go that route again. I would talk to a lot of American conductors and ask, “Of all these people, who do you think has got the most theatricality?”

I’ve been listening to a lot of young composers because, as you know, Renée [Fleming, the company's creative consultant] is curating a new piece for us. But there’s a lot of stuff you listen to and you don’t sense evidence of people writing well for the voice. And even on those things when it’s not just written for voice and piano, you don’t sense a theatricality in the sound. I clearly haven’t listened to enough. There’s got to be someone who can do it.

And even finding a librettist who can do it — make a scenario and write the dialogue [is difficult]. It’s good to start with a play in some ways because you’ve got a scenario and you’ve got dialogue already set. When you take a movie or you take a book, you’ve got to fashion that into a singing play. And that in itself is a major piece of work.

LAJ: Let’s jump back to your very first experience at Lyric as a boy soprano singing the Young Shepherd in Tosca. Do you recall the details?

WM: Oh yeah, I remember very clearly. As I said, I got interested in opera when I saw The Great Caruso. I must have been nine. For my tenth birthday, my parents took me to a Rigoletto. This is before Lyric Opera — this was in the days when the New York City Center Opera, as it was called in those days, toured Chicago. It was December 9, 1951, and I saw Rigoletto with David Poleri. And that kind of cemented my love of opera.

Now in those days in Chicago before TV became really popular, there were a lot of amateur musical groups and small little opera companies that would put on opera with a piano.

And there was a woman in town by the name of Zerlina Mühlmann Metzger. Her father Adolf Mühlmann had been a bass-baritone at the Met at the time of Caruso. His was a fascinating story. He was a Russian Jew who through some remarkable circumstances found himself in Germany, then Vienna, changed his name, got to America and had a career at the Met for some ten, fifteen years. He’d sing things like Bitterolf and the king in Aida. Good style, secondary bass-baritone roles.

So his daughter Zerlina grew up loving music and she spoke Italian, French, German and played the piano. And she had a couple amateur groups and one of them was the All Children’s Grand Opera. So I saw an ad in the paper and my mother took me to see them and of all things they were doing Aida.

LAJ: Good Lord. Where were they located at?

WM: It was the Eleventh Street Theater where they performed and the rehearsal studio was in the Fine Arts Building. So I joined the group and then in the fall of ‘52 and ’53 I was in the children’s chorus when City Center Opera came here. When the Lyric was started in 1954, somebody at Lyric called Mrs Metzger to provide the children for the children’s choruses. And three of us auditioned for the role of the Shepherd and I got it.

I remember the opening night — I was standing backstage, downstage left and Maestro Lepore [the Lyric’s chorusmaster] conducted me. In those days you didn’t have monitors backstage, so you’d poke a hole through the scenery. Often you’d see all these little holes in the scenery. The assistant conductors always carried little knives with them. Because if all of a sudden someone onstage happened to step in front of the existing hole, they’d have to quickly cut another hole so they could still see the conductor.

And I remember being very nervous until I started to sing. Eleanor Steber was sitting in a chair waiting to go on and they were all very complimentary and nice to me. And then at the last performance Maestro Rescigno had me come out and take a bow. Every time I hear those horns that open the third act of Tosca it brings back that memory.

I did it again in ’56 and I became friendly with Ardis and people in the administration. I’d still go to performances and see Ardis.Then I went away to college and when I came back in the summer of 1962 I asked her if there was anything I could do in the season. She told me to come back at a certain day and when I did she put me with Maestro [music director Pino] Donati who became sort of my mentor and second father. He was the husband of Maria Caniglia who I also got to know quite well later. He spoke no English and, so I had to learn Italian. And that’s how it all started.

LAJ: What was your first job at Lyric?

WM: I was maestro’s assistant — I was just kind of a gofer. In those days we didn’t really have a long rehearsal schedule. There was no rehearsal department as such; it was just me and this other guy.

I typed up the daily schedule. I’d go out for coffee. And then I’d call the singers and go out to the airport to meet certain singers who needed a ride and bring them in.

And, of course, since I loved it so much I would just be here fifteen hours a day. The season was only eight or nine weeks in those days.

LAJ: How many operas did they do?

WM: They did eight but they would do just three or four performances of each.

LAJ: Eight operas in eight weeks? That must have been chaotic.

WM: I remember when we did Don Carlo in ’64 — with Gencer, Cossotto, Tucker, Gobbi and Ghiaurov — rehearsals started on Wednesday and nine days later on Friday we opened.

LAJ: And how many rehearsal weeks now?

WM: For a Don Carlo, easily three weeks. If it’s a new production, four or five.

You didn’t have piano dress rehearsals then. Staging rehearsal for principals and chorus was one scene, one rehearsal. Sopranos and altos over here, tenors and basses over there and then at some point they’d cross.

LAJ: Who were some of the artists from that era that stand out in your mind?

WM: The person that stands out more than anybody was Gobbi. He was mesmerizing. He was my hero. He was just so compelling.

The first thing I saw him in was Barber. And then you’d see him a week later as Germont in Traviata. And then Scarpia the next year and Rigoletto.

Everything he did, he was a different person. He was just a great stage actor. And the voice wasn’t — you know, it wasn’t a Leonard Warren voice. But you listen to him singing Di Provenza . . . six, eight or ten people can sing it more beautifully but you’ll never hear it sung with such feeling in the words and such pathos.

LAJ: Any other memories of great nights from that era?

WM: I saw the famous 1955 Trovatore with Björling, Stignani, Bastianini and Callas. There was so much stuff from those days. I remember the Manon Lescaut in ’57. It was Tebaldi and Björling but I remember I was really knocked out by the baritone, Cornell MacNeil. I said, “This guy is sensational!” The same season they did Pagliacci. Gobbi was Tonio and Mac was Silvio but he did the Prologue—just incredible.

LAJ: Any other memories of that era, good or bad?

WM: Boris Christoff was not a nice man. He was thoroughly unpleasant. The choristers would say that he would keep stepping on women’s toes and wouldn’t get off.

The thing that I most remember about him that was funny was in 1962 when they opened the season with Prince Igor. He was doing the two roles, Khan Konchak and Prince Galitsky.

Anyway he comes in and he’s got this live falcon on his wrists. And something happened at the first performance and the falcon opened up its wings and it was a great effect, everyone went crazy.

So he comes out at the second performance and give his wrist a shake. But the string wasn’t that secure and the falcon turned upside down and was hanging there just flapping around. That was good.

We’ve had other mishaps, things falling. A batten broke and almost killed Jon Vickers one night in Parsifal when it came down [in 1986]. Jon could be difficult but he just brushed that one off. He’d get annoyed about minor stuff but the fact that he could have gotten killed wasn’t a big deal.

LAJ: What about highlights from more recent seasons?

WM: The Billy Budd that we did in 2000 was a great, great production. The Ring was wonderful. The Handel we did last season [Hercules] was deeply moving.

Last year’s Lohengrin too. I mean, Johan Botha — that’s one of the greatest techniques I’ve ever heard. He’s a technical marvel, tasteful and it’s a beautiful voice. He’s a great, great singer.

There have been so many things over the years. I think that night in and night out the quality of this company has always been as good as anyplace in the world. We only do eight operas a year, and that gives you the time to really concentrate your attentions on it and do them well.

I loved the Hansel und Gretel that we did. In the scene with the fourteen angels, there’s a part where the little kids are sitting down at the banquet. There’s this big climactic musical moment where the waiters lift up the salvers and the kids see the food. I found that incredibly moving. It brought me to tears every night!

I mean, I love this stuff. I could go back every season and find so many evenings where there has been something that has just absolutely thrilled me — whether it’s orchestral playing, choral singing, great vocal performances, great moments of theater. I’ve always felt like they’re paying me to listen to music that I love.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opens its season October 1 with Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann. lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.


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