Fox, Carol (1926–1981)

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Fox, Carol (1926–1981)

American opera producer who co-founded and managed the Lyric Theater of Chicago, which was reorganized in 1956 as the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 15, 1926; died in Chicago, on July 21, 1981; only daughter of Edward (an office supply company executive) and Virginia (Scott) Fox; attended Girls Latin School in Chicago; studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena, California; studied voice with Edith Mason and Vittorio Trevisan in Chicago and Virgilio Lazarri and Giovanni Martinelli in New York and Italy; coached in operatic repertory by Fausto Cleva; never married.

Credited with restoring Chicago's pre-Depression operatic glory, Carol Fox was the cofounder and general manager of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, often called "La Scala West" because of its international reputation. Fox was largely responsible for the American operatic debut of Maria Callas and many European opera stars, and also helped establish the Lyric's apprentice artist program for American singers. Involved in every aspect of the company's operation, from the mailroom to casting, Fox was described by a colleague as "formidable," exuding "enough authority and confidence to give the word chutzpa a new meaning."

The only child of a wealthy couple, Fox was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 15, 1926, and encouraged in the performing arts by her mother Virginia Scott Fox , who had longed for a theatrical career. As a child, Carol studied voice, piano, ballet, drama, and opera, as well as several foreign languages. She passed the entrance exams for Vassar but convinced her father to let her study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse and take voice lessons instead. After two years in Italy, studying with voice coach Giovanni Martinelli and taking minor roles in some amateur opera productions, she returned to the United States intent on starting her own opera company.

In 1952, with seed money from her father and in collaboration with business promoter Lawrence Kelly and conductor Nicola Rescigno, Fox founded the Lyric Theater of Chicago and took over the empty Civic Opera House, which remains the company's home. Recruiting a group of 30 young people, called the Lyric Guild, Fox began fund-raising and promotion campaigns. In February 1954, the fledgling company presented a "calling card" performance of Don Giovanni. Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune later recalled the performance: "I could not believe that stage. The Lyric did not exist, except in faith, hope and a vast amount of charity. Yet on that … stage was true, luminous Mozart."

For the Lyric's first full season, Fox traveled to Europe and signed Maria Callas, Tito Gobbi, Giulietta Simionato , and Giuseppe de Stefano, none of whom had ever performed in the United States. Callas made her enormously successful American debut at the Lyric in November 1954, in the title role of Norma. (In a later performance during the Lyric's first three-week season, Callas drew a 12-minute standing ovation for her mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor.) That premiere season, the company played to 84% capacity. (In later years, capacity reached 99%, with audiences totaling more than 60,000.) In 1956, when Kelly and Rescigno left Chicago, the Lyric Theater was reorganized as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Fox as general manager.

Having established her company, Fox faced new hurdles, among them the aesthetic conservatism of her public and the fiscal caution of the board of directors. There were ongoing complaints that the repertory was dominated by older, particularly Italian, operas, with not enough balance of modern works. With new artistic co-directors, Pino Donati and Bruno Bartoletti, Fox attempted to include more adventuresome productions (Berg's Wozzeck, Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole, and Prokofiev's Angel of Fire) but found that they were enormously expensive to produce and were not particularly popular with audiences. She maintained that her first duty was to please the public, "to get them to come and bit by bit to indoctrinate them to the new. It takes some time to make someone enjoy an unknown piece, even a new boom-boom-boom piece." In the continuing battle to meet the Lyric's staggering $5 million annual budget, Fox developed into the consummate fund raiser and could be tightfisted when it came to spending. Attempting to cut costs, she entered into arrangements for the interchange of costumes and sets with other opera houses. Known as firm and exacting, Fox also had a generous heart. Each Thanksgiving, she held a huge dinner at her apartment and was always available to offer encouragement or listen to grievances. She made it a point to know everyone's name, down to the last stagehand.

In 1973, the Lyric inaugurated its apprentice program, taking into residence ten young American singers for a year of training and choral experience. Apprentice productions were showcased at a small theater next door. In 1974, the Lyric's 20th anniversary, the company hosted the Fourth International Verdi Congress, culminating in an all new production of Simon Boccanegra. That season also included Chicago premieres of Peter Grimes and Don Quichotte, as well as the first production in almost half a century of Götterdämmerung. In 1976, the Lyric enjoyed one of its most brilliant seasons with company premieres of Offenbach's Les Contes d' Hoffmann and Prokofiev's The Love of Three Oranges. In celebration of the American Bicentennial in 1978, the Lyric commissioned Krzysztof Penderecki's Paradise Lost.

Among numerous honors, Carol Fox received the Steinway Award and the Chicago medal of Merit. She was also recognized by Italian and American organizations for promoting goodwill between the two countries. Ill health and budgetary pressures forced her to resign in January 1981, just months before her death on July 21, 1981.


Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography 1978. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1978.

——. Current Biography 1981. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1981.

Warrack, John, and Ewan West. Oxford Dictionary of Opera. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts