Lyric Opera Giants

          Legendary Performers and Supporters




  Lyric’s 25th Anniversary Gala in 1979 brought some of mid-century’s great international stars to Chicago. Left to Right, Léopold Simoneau, Luciano Pavarotti, Sir Georg Solti, Carlo Cossutta, Sherrill Milnes and Giuseppe Di Stefano.

  By Megan McKinney



The following is a collection of vintage Lyric Opera of Chicago photographs gathered three decades ago for publication in Frank Sullivan’s AVENUE M magazine. Most of these images were acquired during one long, delightful afternoon at Lyric offices in the company of fabled director of press and public relations, Danny Newman, below, who was not the least of the forceful individuals who have propelled the vivid Lyric story.

The first group of formidable personalities had gathered by 1954, when 28-year-old Carol Fox—only child of a prosperous Chicago furniture manufacturer—was joined by insurance broker Lawrence V. Kelly, also 28, and Italian conductor Nicola Rescigno, 37, to produce a miracle.

Chicago had been without a resident opera for seven years, and during the preceding three and a half decades, companies carrying seven different names had come and gone.


By February 1954, Rescigno, Fox and Kelly—above left to right—had put together necessary funding to mount a “calling card” performance of Don Giovanni, starring Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Eleanor Steber and Bidu Sayão. The two-night preview was an immense success, and the great opera company the above trio was determined to create continues today to be a dynamic force not only in Chicago but also throughout the world.  

Plans were already under way for the first full season to be launched the following autumn. Eleven days after the triumph of Don Giovanni, Carol Fox boarded a plane for Italy to sign the great mid-century diva Maria Callas to star in Norma for $2,000 a night, double the fee paid by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. It would be the American debut for Callas.


Norma stars Maria Callas and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni made an historic curtain call on November 1, 1954, to open Lyric’s first great season.


The legendary Callas is shown above a year later, relaxing backstage at Lyric with Giuseppe Di Stefano during rehearsals for the 1955 production of I Puritani.



Maria Callas was a great mid-century star, but the Kennedy family soon eclipsed even her brilliance. Chinchilla-caped Carol Fox joined Mrs. Joseph Kennedy, the President’s mother—seated next to her in a mink stole—and Chicago residents Eunice and Sargent Shriver, the President’s sister and brother-in-law, far right, with guests in their box at the Civic Opera House.



Before serving 15 years as Lyric Opera general director, Ardis Krainik performed on the other side of the footlights. Here she is costumed for a role in Lyric’s 1956 production of Die Walküre. She also sang roles in the company’s productions of Rigoletto, La Traviata and La Forza del Destino during its early era.      


Chemical company magnate Alfred C. Stepan Jr. was president of Lyric Opera when photographed at the 1960 Annual Board Meeting. Stepan, known for his love of music—as well as his towering success as an entrepreneur—was also a significant supporter of the Ravinia Festival. 



Irving Kupcinet and Lee Phillip were master and mistress of ceremonies for the opening night celebration of the 1961 season. Behind them stand a vintage trivia spotter’s dream collection of stars from both the international artistic world and Chicago’s establishment.



General Robert E. Wood was interviewed by Lee Phillip before a 1961 performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. General Wood capped a multilayered 20th century military and business career with the presidency and chairmanship of Sears, taking the company from a mail-order business serving the rural population to the world’s largest merchandiser.



The Metropolitan Opera’s Rudolf Bing, backstage at the Lyric, was in a pensive mood atop a stack of caterers’ boxes before speaking to the 1965 Annual Meeting.



The Annual Meeting of the Lyric Opera board of directors was traditionally followed by dinner onstage. The second act set from La Bohème provided the scenery surrounding the 1973 dinner. Operatic license was exercised, adding visual drama, by borrowing a fence from another set of the Giacomo Puccini favorite.   



Mrs. B. Edward Bensinger, longtime benefactress of the Lyric at the 1974 Annual Meeting with Maestro Bruno Bartoletti, at the time Lyric artistic director and principal conductor. The charmingly lively Linda was also known for her own informal singing with friends.



Gifted scenic designer Pier-Luigi Pizzi, Lyric Opera supporter Mrs. Richard Simmons and director Giorgio de Lullo formed an ebullient trio in the 1974 opening night parade of stars.



Mayor Michael Bilandic and his wife, Heather, led a group of first night listeners through a backstage passage on Opening Night 1977. They heard a new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore.



Broadway’s Hal Prince was the fortunate focus of two of Chicago’s most delightful women of the era—Mrs. Louis Goldblatt and Mrs. Brooks McCormick, at 1978’s Opening Night. They had just heard a new production of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.



Former Chicago Sun-Times publisher James Hoge chatted with Mr. and Mrs. Henry D. Paschen Jr. at the 1979 Annual Meeting. Maria Tallchief Paschen was founder of the Chicago City Ballet, which then provided ballet sequences for Lyric Opera productions.



A Lyric photographer captured this image of the exquisite Mrs. Edward Byron Smith in her box during intermission on Opening Night 1979.



Ben Gingiss, founder and former board chairman of Gingiss Formalwear, was the man who created the concept of white-tie and black-tie rental during the Great Depression. Here he is appropriately attired for the 1976 Annual Meeting of the Lyric board in a three-piece pinstriped suit.



Mr. and Mrs. William O. Beers were interviewed for WTTW by Lee Phillip during the 25th Anniversary Gala.


Next week in Classic Chicago, Dining with the Vintage Lyric Stars.


Photo Credit: Lyric Opera of Chicago

Author Photo: Robert F. Carl