Krainik, Ardis (1929–1997)

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Krainik, Ardis (1929–1997)

American opera administrator, under whose leader-ship the Lyric Opera of Chicago became one of the most important companies in the U.S. and a major force in world opera. Born in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, on March 8, 1929; died in Chicago on January 18, 1997; daughter of Arthur Krainik and Clara (Bracken) Krainik; never married.

During 16 years (1981–96) as general director of one of the world's leading opera houses, Ardis Krainik effected the rescue of the Lyric Opera from bankruptcy, bringing it to the heights of artistic quality and financial solvency. Although she would one day become a major figure in the musical life of the United States, music did not dominate her early years. Krainik was born in 1929 into a family of Norwegian, Czech and German ancestry. She was a gifted child who bored easily and would note years later, "My mother didn't know what to do with me." Homework was easy and left time for numerous activities, including swimming, tennis, and lessons in elocution, piano, and voice. She amused herself by singing opera arias, and sometimes danced in the basement to old recordings of Amelita Galli-Curci , but had little interest during these years in serious music.

Krainik attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and received a B.S. degree in drama in 1951. At first, she believed that a career as "a great dramatic actress" would present itself after graduation, but when reality intervened Krainik followed her father's wishes and took a job teaching drama at a high school in Racine, Wisconsin. Lonely in a strange town, she soon joined the choir of Racine's Congregational Church. The choir director spotted potential talent, insisting that Krainik not "just vegetate here in Racine," but instead take measures to "do something with this voice." That something turned out to be travel to Chicago, where Edgar Nelson of the Chicago Conservatory "flipped" when he heard Krainik sing. He not only accepted her as a student but also offered her a scholar-ship to his highly regarded special oratorio class. Soon, she was determined to become a professional singer and was busy learning such major operatic roles as Carmen and Isolde.

In 1953, Krainik quit teaching and became a graduate student at Northwestern University with hopes of emerging as a professional singer headed for an international career. As her skill grew, she appeared on stage on several occasions, including in the role of the Zia Principessa in a student production of Puccini's Suor Angelica. Krainik made her professional stage debut as the mother in Gian Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. Not yet prepared for a full-scale career, in 1954 she completed her studies at Northwestern and sought ways to support herself while looking for career opportunities. A job in a church choir earned her five dollars a week, but additional income was required for survival.

In 1954, the course of Krainik's life was changed when a friend suggested that she might find work with a newly founded and apparently "fly-by-night opera company" calling itself the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Windy City's first resident professional opera company since the Depression, the Lyric Opera had been founded that same year by the conductor Nicola Rescigno, businessman Lawrence V. Kelly, and Carol Fox . Its early days were stormy. After a power struggle among the founding trio, Carol Fox emerged in 1955 as general manager and undisputed master of the new company. Fox hired Krainik on the spot as a clerk-typist, noting that she was impressed by her "nice intelligent face" as well as the fact that she could already type. With this career move, Krainik became part of a great adventure in music.

At the start, she earned $55 a week typing. Within a year, Krainik had decided to audition with the company's chorus and was accepted. She soon stepped out of the chorus to appear in a number of small operatic roles including that of Giovanna, the duenna of Gilda, in Verdi's Rigoletto. Before long, she was regularly appearing in a string of supporting roles. "I sang everybody's maid or mother," she noted. She appeared on stage as Renata Tebaldi 's mother in Giordano's Andrea Chénier, as Leontyne Price 's slave girl in Massenet's Thaïs, and as the Valkyrie Rossweise. Krainik's voice, a lyric mezzo, was highly regarded and her acting skills were considered excellent. Nonetheless, even before 1960, when she became assistant manager of the Lyric Opera, she had abandoned her plans for a singing career. Management and administration, for all of their tensions and frustrations, made for a better career choice to Krainik, largely because she regarded the life of a professional singer as not only stressful but also lonely: "You're alone all the time. You study alone, you sit in your hotel room alone. And I love to be surrounded by people." Her by-now extensive knowledge of music and theater and her firsthand stage experience combined to give Krainik a broad understanding of the complex world of opera.

By the mid-1970s, her skill in financial matters had been revealed. Soon after starting with the company, she had become its office manager, with a budget of $5,000 that she never over-spent. Frugal by nature, Krainik enjoyed saving funds in one area in order to have money left over for emergencies, particularly for the production department, in which unforeseen expenses were not unusual. In 1975, having become an indispensable partner to Fox in the administration of the Lyric Opera, Krainik received another promotion and began serving as the company's artistic administrator. For a number of years, she had worked with Fox in drawing up singers' contracts, a job which became hers alone in 1976.

By the late 1970s, the Lyric Opera of Chicago had earned an international reputation for the quality of its productions. Under the regime of Carol Fox, however, costs had almost always been ignored. Ever larger sums were lavished on star performers, and Fox thought nothing of outbidding everyone, even New York City's Metropolitan Opera, for the world's top vocal talent. (Its star-studded casts and costs-be-damned attitude earned the Lyric Opera the not always complimentary title of "La Scala West.") The company's achilles' heel—its almost total indifference to the budgets of its much-praised productions—was bringing it to the brink of a financial crisis. Now in declining health, Fox could no longer function effectively but refused to relinquish any of her powers, let alone consider the possibility of retirement. The disastrous 1976 production of Paradise Lost, an opera by the contemporary Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki which ran nearly $1 million over budget, moved the Lyric Opera along toward fiscal ruin.

The company's financial problems, which were exacerbated by Fox's poor health and growing inability to focus on the day-to-day details of management, led to a lack of confidence on the part of Chicago's business community. While Fox refused to abdicate, mounting deficits made it increasingly difficult to raise any significant additional funds for the Lyric Opera, and the company's future became an open question.

Fox asked Krainik to run the entire production when the company toured Mexico in 1979, but the financial condition of the Lyric Opera remained in deep distress. Krainik, questioning whether her beloved company would survive the crisis, began to examine other professional opportunities at home and abroad. In December 1980, she flew to Australia for an interview with the Australian Opera, which was seeking a new general manager to work with conductor Richard Bonynge. She returned from Sydney to Chicago after having signed a "letter of intent to contract."

On January 5, 1981, the opera world was stunned when a seriously ill Carol Fox submitted her resignation to the Lyric Opera's board of directors. Fox would die only months later, on July 21, 1981. Offered the position of general director by the board, Krainik accepted it "instantaneously," and her appointment as impresario of one of the world's major opera companies was announced to the public on January 9, 1981.

The opera company she inherited was a pale shadow of its former glory, struggling with a deficit of $309,000 and having virtually no endowment (it had once been able to boast of nearly $3 million). The gravity of the situation was dramatized by the fact that the company's warehouse, which was full of largely obsolete costumes, sets, and props, had been mortgaged against a loan for current operating expenses. Within days of assuming power, Krainik instituted an across-the-board budget cut, slashing 1981 expenses by some $560,000. This move not only wiped out the deficit, but left the company with a sizable amount to use for dealing with the most pressing priorities. The endowment came back to life with a bequest of $500,000, and with 1982 ticket sales that filled the house to 97% of capacity (and turned out to be record-breaking), the Lyric Opera was resurrected and on the road to a full and lasting recovery. Artistic innovation linked to careful budgeting could be seen in the company's successful first operetta production, Lehár's Merry Widow in June 1982, which resulted in 80% box-office sales and a budget that was more than 20% below projected costs.

The Lyric Opera's sound fiscal footing was made possible by what Krainik described as "pinpoint budgeting." Every month—and more often during productions—she scheduled "budget responsibility meetings" in which the head of each of the company's departments, with computer printout in hand, went through each part of the budget line by line with her. In the margin of each printout, Krainik marked a letter "u," meaning unsatisfactory, if more was spent than budgeted. Such overspending, needless to say, required a full and convincing explanation. The Chicago press, reporting on the fiscal successes of her regime in its early years, nicknamed Ardis Krainik "Wonder Woman."

In her second season, Krainik produced a number of innovative but relatively low-budget productions. One was the opera La Voix Humaine by French composer Francis Poulenc. Attractive to any cost-conscious opera director because it is a one-act, La Voix Humaine is a one-character opera in which a jilted woman takes poison in a hotel room and then sings goodbye on the telephone to the man who betrayed her. Another work, Gilbert and Sullivan's classic The Mikado, was presented in a zany modernized version that was both popular with the public and cost-effective. In an interview, Krainik described it with obvious pride as having been "outrageous, courageous, and it came in under budget."

Artistically a woman of bold tastes, Krainik was unafraid to make hard choices. She showed her courage in 1989 when she dropped superstar Luciano Pavarotti from the Lyric Opera's company roster after he cancelled at short notice yet another date, a revival of Tosca (between 1981 and 1989, Pavarotti had bowed out of 26 of 41 scheduled Chicago performances). Krainik never asked Pavarotti back. In 1989, after less than a decade of management, Krainik announced an ambitious plan to stage more rarely heard 20th-century opera classics, as well as to commission and stage new pieces. One of the results of this policy was the triumphant 1992 premiere of William Bolcom's opera McTeague, with staging by Robert Altman. Krainik's enlargement of her company's repertory included a staging of Richard Wagner's Ring cycle; the Peter Sellars staging of Tannhäuser; an ambitious program of commissions for composers-in-residence; and the "Toward the 21st Century" artistic initiative, the goal of which was to bring 20 important contemporary works (including three premieres) into the Lyric Opera's repertory.

Because she appeared to be eternally cheerful and optimistic, some observers initially predicted Krainik would be a lightweight as the company's director. She was anything but that, first succeeding at keeping her company within budget and then slowly but surely building a solid endowment and running in the black on an

annual basis. By 1993, she had raised much of the $100 million needed to purchase and restore Chicago's Civic Opera House, the Lyric Opera's home. A skilled political infighter, she sat on the National Council of the Arts, which oversees the National Endowment for the Arts, and thus played a role in securing for the Lyric Opera a grant of $1 million for its "Toward the 21st Century" program. A committed Christian Scientist, Krainik credited God for her successes: "I go to church, I read the Bible, and I pray a lot. I know it's unfashionable to say, but it's those angel ideas that come from elsewhere—that still, small voice in the middle of the night—that has made Lyric what it is."

Greatly mourned by her colleagues, friends and opera lovers worldwide, Ardis Krainik died in Chicago on January 18, 1997. Writing in Opera News, Patrick J. Smith praised her many achievements and remarked: "She was irreplaceable." In her honor, Chicago's huge Civic Opera House was renamed the Ardis Krainik Theater.


"Ardis Krainik," in Opera. Vol. 48, no. 4. April 1997, p. 421.

"Ardis Krainik, 1929–97," in Opera. Vol. 48, no. 5. May 1997, pp. 533–534.

Belt, Byron. "There from the Start," in Opera News. Vol. 46, no. 4. October 1981, pp. 20, 22, 24.

Cox, Meg. "Born-Again Opera Company Hits a High Note," in Wall Street Journal. January 3, 1984, p. 32.

——. "Scaling Back: Under a New Manager, Chicago's Lyric Opera Thrives on a Shoestring," in Wall Street Journal. Eastern Ed. June 3, 1983, pp. 1, 19.

Kerner, Leighton. "Ardis Krainik, 1929–1997," in Village Voice. Vol. 42, no. 7. February 18, 1997, p. 70.

"Krainik, Ardis," in Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1991.

Smith, Patrick J. "Ardis Krainik 1929–1997," in Opera News. Vol. 61, no. 11. February 22, 1997, p. 50.

Walsh, Michael. "Making Opera Pay, the Chicago Way," in Time. Vol. 143, no. 6. February 7, 1994, pp. 65–66.

related media:

"As It Happened: Selected Backstage Stories from Lyric's 40 Years, as Told by Ardis Krainik and Danny Newman, with Norman Pellegrini" (audiocassette), Chicago: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 1994.

John Haag , Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia