Ardis Krainik Theatre - Civic Opera House


[Ardis Krainik Theatre - Civic Opera House (1929) Jules Guerin, designer; Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, architects /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Opera first appeared on the world stage as the 16th century edged its way into the 17th. The music from the first historically credited opera has been lost to the ages, so the oldest surviving intact opera award goes to Euridice, an opus performed in 1600 at the Pitti Palace in Florence when the King of France married Marie de Medici.


[Ardis Krainik Theatre - Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Some of the most elaborately decorated theater spaces constructed in Europe were built for opera - many of the them subsidized by royal patrons. When grand opera arrived on the shores of the United States, no city could make claim to be "cultured" without an opera house and Chicago was no exception. Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Theater put the city at the pinnacle of opera worthy auditoriums in 1889, and the Chicago Opera Company performed in the visually stunning space for the next 40 years. But by the mid-1920s however the aging Auditorium Building was in a financial free-fall, and the opera company began looking for a new home. In stepped utilities magnate and opera devotee Samuel Insull who led the board of trustees on their hunt for a new home.


[Ardis Krainik Theatre - Civic Opera House, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

Insull cobbled together a large piece of property, secured favorable terms for
$20,000,000 in financing, and built an office tower over two theaters - a large auditorium for opera and a smaller recital hall. In theory the substantial income generated by the office rentals would not only pay-off the building's debt but the surplus would be used to help make the opera company a self-sustaining entity. Architect Ernest Graham of Graham Anderson Probst & White, an opera donor and devotee, was given the job of designing the building while artist/designer Jules Guerin went to work on the decor of the house's 3,471-seat auditorium and lobby. Guerin had famously produced the illustrations for the Burnham/Bennett Plan of Chicago in 1909, and his masses of warm golden tones enhanced by a deep rosy red recalled the glistening auditorium that Sullivan had produced years earlier. By the time the box office opened at 9 a.m. on the morning of October 29, 1929 a line had formed that stretched down the sidewalk along the entire length of the city block and wrapped around the corner. The tickets, available at prices ranging from $6.00 for main floor seats and $1.00 for the upper balcony, sold like hot cakes. In New York City, on the same day, the stock market lost $16 billion of its value and the country entered into the worst economic depression in history.


[Ardis Krainik Theatre - Civic Opera House /Image & Artwork: designslinger]

The crash took its toll on Samuel Insull, the office rental market, and in 1932, the opera
company itself. Another company was formed and collapsed 3 years later, was reorganized, and lasted 5 years. Another attempt was made after that, but by 1946 Chicago could no longer brag about being a cultural capital when the curtain came down on the city's resident opera company for good. Then in 1951 an enterprising 27-year-old singer joined forces with a 28-year-old young insurance broker and a similarly aged conductor, and incorporated Lyric Theater. During the next four years while Lyric Theatre existed solely on paper, Carol Fox, Lawrence Kelly and Nicola Rescigno found enough money to mount a two night performance of Don Gionanni in Guerin's vast auditorium. The double night of opera was so successful that the 3 person team went ahead and made plans for a three week season the following year featuring none other than opera diva Maria Callas. They were on a roll. For the next 25 years Carol Fox led the Lyric Theater/Lyric Opera into becoming one of the top three opera companies in the nation. But money, the curse of many an arts organization, was Ms. Fox's undoing. By 1981 the Lyric had a $3.9 million deficit. Ill, and without the support of her board, Carol Fox resigned, and her assistant of the previous ten years Ardis Krainik, took over as general manager. By the following year, under Krainik's stewardship, the company wiped-out its debt, had $281,000 in the bank, and had sold 97% of its seats. During Krainik's sometime controversial penny-pinching run, Lyric Opera was not only able to sustain itself but in 1993 the general director initiated a campaign that raised $100 million for the purchase of the opera house space from the owners of the Civic Opera Building, and a top to bottom restoration and rehabilitation of the theater. In 1996 just after announcing her retirement due to ill health, a gala concert was held in her honor and the theater was officially named the Ardis Krainik Theatre.

See more about Insull and his office tower at the: Civic Opera Building.

 
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