When you walk into Lyric Opera general director William “Bill” Mason’s fourth-floor corner office in the building that surrounds the imposing Civic Opera House, he is polite and accommodating as he walks over from his desk, smiles, shakes your hand firmly, invites you to sit down on the couch at the other end of his office and offers you refreshment on a hot Chicago fall day. He asks how your summer was, tells you about his summer travels and operas and singers he has recently heard. You can’t help but notice that though his suitcoat is off and his gray tie is ever-so-slightly loosened, not a wrinkle mars his perfectly tailored gray Italian suit pants nor his sparkling white dress shirt. His designer black shoes are shiny enough to pass a military inspection. It’s hard to believe that you’re sitting across from the diva-demolition expert himself, right in his own lair, but recent events say otherwise: Romanian superstar soprano Angela Gheorghiu was publicly fired by Mason on September 28 for behavior that Mason clearly considered unbecoming, even to a diva.
“The facts are very simple,” Mason insists, firmly but politely, “and contrary to a lot that you may have read, there was no backstage drama. [Gheorghiu] came here, we expected her to rehearse because we had been told that she was willing to do that. She rehearsed very little, and the final straw was that she left town, which she was not allowed to do contractually unless she received written advance permission from the company. She neither requested it, nor was granted it. She just left. There’s no backstage drama. She was not unpleasant when she was here, she is a pleasant person, but when you plan an opera and have eight operas a year, you want them to be good, and that means that everybody involved has to have some fairly serious commitment to the work, and when one artist doesn’t, it makes it a difficult situation.”
Certainly no one would question Mason’s serious commitment to Lyric Opera, a company that he has been involved with professionally in one way or another virtually since its founding, ever since he made his singing debut as the shepherd boy in Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1954 as boy soprano extraordinaire “Billy” Mason. Now 65 years old, Mason worked his way up through the management ranks of the company, working as assistant to founding general director Carol Fox’s co-artistic director Pino Donati, whose austere photo stares at you on the table next to Mason’s office couch (“my mentor,” Mason says proudly, when you can’t help but notice), while Mason was studying voice at Roosevelt University’s Chicago Musical College. After graduating, Mason went on to serve as a production assistant and stage manager for Fox and as artistic and production director of operations for sixteen years under Fox’s successor Ardis Krainik, before taking over for Krainik as general director when she died in 1997. Company founder Fox and high-profile visionary Krainik have been tough acts to follow, but Mason has held his own at the helm of one of the most successful opera companies on the planet.
Mason shepherded the company through one of the greatest crises that it has ever faced following the sudden drying up of funds in the arts-unfriendly economic climate following 9/11 by canceling company plans deemed too expensive and tightening Lyric’s belt, while never allowing the artistic quality of what did end up on the stage to suffer as a result. And slowly but surely, the company has recovered financially—and has even strengthened its fiscal health, says Mason—by naming its well-respected training center for young singers after a donor, and has been able to begin its syndicated national radio broadcasts again after a six-year absence from the airwaves (by naming those after a donor as well). And though some might balk at the fact that the Italian warhorse repertoire that makes up the bulk of company fare these days tips like the Tower of Pisa more toward the company’s initial Fox “La Scala West” reputation than the more balanced and diverse Krainik era, what else would Lyric’s nearly 35,000 subscribers expect from a guy who unabashedly says that Verdi is his favorite composer and who made his company debut singing Puccini? Mason has now been in charge of the company for ten years, though with last month’s death of superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti, whom his predecessor Krainik had publicly fired in 1989, and Mason’s own public firing of Angela Gheorghiu, he has had more media attention in the last four weeks than he has had over the entire last decade.
Tenor Jon Vickers’ famously said, “What counts are results, not backstage antics.” Vickers was referring to soprano Maria Callas, a diva as legendary for her temperament as for her singing and acting abilities who made her American debut with Lyric Opera in 1954—the same year that Mason was singing boy soprano with the company—but Vickers could have just as easily been describing Gheorghiu. Following last week’s opening of Puccini’s “La bohème,” in which Gheorghiu’s understudy went on in her place following the firing, the question had to be asked: was Mason ever genuinely concerned either that Gheorghiu would not go on to perform as scheduled, or that if she had, that the results would have been anything less than spectacular? “The issue was never quality,” Mason admits. “When [Gheorghiu] showed up for rehearsals—and she missed six out of ten of them—things were fine and she was always very professional while she was here.”
Gheorghiu herself released a statement through her management to the Associated Press following the firing on September 30 saying that “My husband Roberto [Alagna] is singing two major roles at the Metropolitan Opera. I asked Lyric Opera to let me go to New York for two days to be with him and they said ‘no.’ But I needed to be by Roberto’s side at this very important moment. I have sung ‘bohème’ hundreds of times, and thought missing a few rehearsals wouldn’t be a tragedy… Coming back from New York, I caught a cold—a most unfortunate coincidence. I saw the company doctor when I returned and he prescribed antibiotics. I just wanted to get well. My colleagues knew about this and were supportive. Of course, I’m very sad that this has happened as I was very eager to sing in Chicago.”
“‘La bohème’ is not easy,” Mason contends. “Everybody thinks that because it is so familiar, that it is easy, but it would be easier for a conductor and a singer to face each other for the first time in a performance of something like [Wagner’s] ‘Meistersinger’ or ‘Götterdammerung’ where it’s pretty straight forward, but ‘bohème?’ Puccini operas are tough.”
Perhaps this is why Wagner, which Mason’s predecessor Ardis Krainik—and indeed most impresarios—would say were the most challenging, taxing and defining works that an opera house could put on, has been noticeably off the Lyric roster for three consecutive seasons now. “We’re giving Richard Strauss a chance,” says Mason and, indeed, while the company was busy presenting one Wagner work a season and a remount of its elaborate Wagner “Ring” cycle over several seasons, there was no Richard Strauss to be heard. Lyric may be the only major opera house that would insist on alternating between two major German opera composers one season each while its current season is presenting no less than two Verdi operas, a Puccini and a Rossini opera each along with a Handel work written in Italian about a Roman (Julius Caesar). No Mozart, no French opera: now, that’s Italian.
“When we do audience surveys,” Mason says, “this is the repertoire that we are told our subscribers want to hear. I don’t believe that we should be a slave to surveys, but it is a major consideration in our planning. After all, we’re in the entertainment business and you have to please your public with the core bread and butter works that they want to hear. But two out of our eight operas each season are unfamiliar works, and that is the right balance: this year, that would be John Adams’ ‘Doctor Atomic’ and Handel’s ‘Giulio Cesare,’ last year it was ‘Dialogue of the Carmelites,’ a French opera that the company had never done, and Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Tauride.’ Since we only do eight operas a year, I think you have to look at any three-year period of time as illustrative of the balance and diversity of repertoire that we carefully strive to achieve. As for Wagner and Richard Strauss, it’s rare a company other than the Met would do both in the same season because of the enormous expense of hiring such a huge orchestra, which most companies can really only afford to do once a season. For us, this season, that will be for Strauss’ ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ [“The Woman without a Shadow”].”
Still, European houses do Wagner and Strauss routinely, and San Francisco, a company very similar in size and reputation to Lyric, is doing both, and even Lyric did it during the Krainik regime. “Not very often,” Mason counters, “but times were different then. And if San Francisco wants to go into debt to do both composers in a single season, that’s their choice. That’s not how we do business here. Being artistically responsible has to go along with being fiscally responsible.”
Such insights make you realize that a welcome, if unintended, result in firing Gheorghiu might have been cost containment, since it is obviously far less expensive to go on with an understudy for scale than with a top-tier operatic superstar who reportedly earns in the upper five-figures per performance. There have also been various reports about the timing of the Gheorghiu firing and how much of a role that retired Italian soprano Renata Scotto might have had in it. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that hiring Scotto, a great diva of a bygone era, to direct reigning diva Gheorghiu, was bound to spark backstage fireworks. After all, Mimi, the tragic heroine of “bohème” that Gheorghiu was contracted to sing, is a role that Scotto has had a deep emotional attachment to for decades, having sung it throughout her long career. In fact, it was the role that Scotto made her American debut with at Lyric Opera back in 1960. That, taken with the fact that this was the first time that Scotto had been engaged to direct a production here combined with Gheorghiu’s notorious temperament sounded like a recipe for dueling divas.
“Obviously,” says Mason, “both [Scotto] and [Lyric music director] Andrew [Davis] were concerned and upset that we were going to be putting on a ‘bohème’ where the principals would be insufficiently rehearsed in an ensemble manner, and both were one hundred percent behind the decision [to fire Gheorghiu]. They were involved in the discussion, and I didn’t just spring this upon them.”
A message was then hand-delivered to Gheorghiu’s assistant at her hotel.
It wasn’t until the following afternoon, however, that Lyric Opera decided to go public with the details of the decision in a stunning press release that began with the header, “Lyric Opera Fires Soprano Angela Gheorghiu.” The classical music world and the opera world in particular are usually so hush-hush about inner workings and backstage dramas that such a press release, complete with juicy details of exactly what had transpired, along with the magnitude of the star involved, virtually guaranteed international headlines. The timing of that release coincided with the final dress rehearsal of “La bohème” that afternoon—a rehearsal that Gheorghiu had flown back to Chicago to participate in—where spontaneous booing occurred after Gheorghiu’s understudy, Cuban-American soprano Elaine Alvarez and Italian tenor Roberto Aronica sang the famous Act I “bohème” love duet. Lyric has long made attending its final run-through dress rehearsals a patron perk for donors and benefactors, and the house was unusually crowded that day to hear superstar Gheorghiu.
“I personally didn’t hear it because I was too busy applauding,” Mason says. “Other people did, however, and it was uncalled for and not justified. I don’t know whether it was meant to be a ‘boo’ or something else, because I didn’t hear it. But it became distracting enough that I did feel the need to say something. I said something because Mr. Aronica [the tenor performing as Rodolfo] was not happy about it. It was a rehearsal, not a performance. When you come to a performance for which you have paid money and you want to boo—we don’t think it’s justified that often—but you’ve paid your money and you’re entitled. But when you come to a dress rehearsal for free, I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
Did Lyric decide to go public with the firing in an effort to gain sympathy for the company and to ensure that the following Monday night’s opening of “bohème” would not be greeted by similar boos, particularly when being broadcast live on classical music radio? Mason categorically rejects such a notion, but the fact remains that coverage of the incident was generally positive towards the company and that the backstory seems to have colored at least some critics’ assessment of what they may have been hearing. One of the dailies proclaimed, “Lyric finds a real diva in the wings,” with a sidebar detailing a history of temperamental episodes of both Gheorghiu and Alagna, as if to equate good behavior with good singing. One attendee, a Lyric subscriber for decades, put it best in summing up Alvarez’s performance: “She was okay, but after all of this, I really wanted her to be great.”
Opera lovers have to wonder, though, if Chicago is being well served when Lyric Opera management takes actions that prevent the city from hearing the greatest voices of our time, a list that at any given moment is a very short one. It goes without saying that neither Gheorghiu nor Alagna will ever agree to perform at Lyric again, even Mason himself concedes that “My imagination doesn’t extend that far.” But erratic behavior from opera superstars is nothing new, only that under the Mason regime, it is no longer being tolerated at Lyric Opera. The most infamous backstage Lyric incident came in 1956 when Maria Callas was served with a subpoena after her first and only staged performance of “Madama Butterfly.”
“When Callas originally came to Chicago,” Lyric longtime and now retired public relations counsel Danny Newman told me with relish a decade ago, “she came through Canada. She was being sued by a gentleman who claimed she had signed a contract with him back in 1946 for a percentage of her future earnings, something which she vehemently denied. Nonetheless, he thought so, and sued her through the Federal Courts. She escaped the subpoena during her first season here because she had entered the country through Canada, but at the end of her final ‘Butterfly’ bow, she was served with that subpoena, which enraged her. She looked at us and screamed, ‘You can’t do this to me!’ and never sang with Lyric again because she felt that we should have somehow protected her from having been served with that subpoena. She loudly shut the door of her dressing room, and she also shut the door of her career at Lyric Opera.”
But even while Callas was still singing here, there was plenty of diva mischief, such as the night that Callas actually tried to prevent baritone Tito Gobbi from taking a curtain call after Act II of Verdi’s “La traviata.” “She grabbed him,” Mason’s predecessor, late Lyric general director Ardis Krainik told me in 1996, laughing out loud about it, “but of course, he walked out anyway to thunderous applause, as well he should have. Maria was so mad that she stormed back to her dressing room and wouldn’t come out for the next act. Carol [Fox, Lyric’s founding general director] pleaded with her through the door to come out, and finally, after over an hour of brooding and Carol begging, she did.” And then there was the notorious Callas feud with Renata Tebaldi: “Renata was a very humble and gentle person and she never considered that the two were having a feud,” Krainik recalled, “but Maria definitely did not like being in the house when Tebaldi was appearing, that’s for sure. They were both the great reigning sopranos of their time, and in Maria’s eyes at least, the house wasn’t big enough for both of them.”
But tantrum intolerance is not the only reason why opera superstars may shun Lyric Opera. “Rest assured,” says Mason, “there is no well-known singer of quality on the planet that we are not doing our best to get.” Lyric has been courting Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli for years, but Mason admits that she has no intention of singing here. “She came out to the house about ten years ago when she sang at a CSO opening night gala and walked out onto the stage,” Mason recalls, “looked out into the house and simply shook her head.” Lyric’s cavernous Civic Opera House seats more than 3,500, nearly three times the size of most European opera theaters, a negative consideration in an art form where amplification is never used to project the natural voices of singers. Late soprano Arleen Auger, whose protégé Renée Fleming is one of the last operatic superstars who will still sing at Lyric, told me when she was here in 1994 with the Chicago Symphony that she steadfastly refused to sing at Lyric Opera because the company “epitomized the American approach of throwing a handful of ‘names’ together with inexperienced singers and inadequate rehearsal time and hope for the best. I told them that I would only come if two or three productions were being done in repertory with the same ensemble of singers who really wanted to hone their craft.”
The career lifespan of a top opera singer is much like a prime athlete, and the opera world is very unforgiving when those once beautiful voices begin to tarnish. It’s a rare singer who, like the late legendary soprano and subsequent arts manager Beverly Sills, can retire at the height of a spectacular operatic career and leave memories and legends totally in tact. Bass Samuel Ramey and soprano Catherine Malfitano, once such Lyric Opera pillars that each moved to Chicago, simply stopped singing here, not even small roles, no explanations. “We hire the best cast that we can at any given moment,” Mason says, and leaves it at that. Tenor Jerry Hadley, who Mason says had performed at Lyric Opera more than any other tenor in the company’s history, committed suicide over the summer at the age of 55 because he was reportedly having to take smaller and smaller roles at major opera houses—such as his bit part in the world premiere of William Bolcom’s “The Wedding” at Lyric in 2005, his last performance here, a long way from his starring role in John Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” a mere five seasons earlier—and was only able to get the star roles that made him famous at regional companies on name recognition alone, having even gone as far as Australia last spring to sing “bohème.” No mention was made of the manner of Hadley’s death in the tribute that appeared in the Lyric Opera program to Verdi’s “La traviata” that opened the current season, but did Mason know of Hadley’s situation? “We hadn’t been in touch in a while,” Mason admits, “but even when we were, we really didn’t sit down and talk about his personal problems.” Is there too much stress and pressure in the opera world? “I don’t think so,” says Mason, with surprising ease and quickness. “You think opera singers have stress? What about working behind the counter at an airport these days?”
Another fact of life for opera singers is travel, but the more a singer is in demand, the more choosy a singer can be about where to perform. It makes little sense for opera superstars who are based in Europe to come to America, let alone Chicago, since when they perform virtually anywhere in Europe, they can go home at night. Mason concedes that superstar Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel, who made his American debut with Lyric and around whom the company produced a new “Falstaff” in 1999 that it is reviving later this year without him, “wants to be with his family and makes very few American appearances anymore.” And then there’s that unpredictable Chicago weather, which wreaks havoc on vocal cords particularly during Lyric’s season, which is centered across the winter months. Siberian baritone Dmitry Hvorostovsky, who will perform at Lyric later in the season, loves to tell the story that when he made his company debut, his parents flew in to hear him from Siberia during the middle of the winter only to find that Chicago was going through such a sub-zero cold spell that it was actually warmer back in Siberia.
With so many such obstacles and difficulties in attracting the world’s best voices to Lyric Opera, could the Angela Gheorghiu incident have been handled more diplomatically? Could the backstage drama have been avoided? “Yes,” says Mason, “if [Gheorghiu] hadn’t gone out of town. Once she did, that was such a rupturous contractual breach: finito.”
The timing of the Gheorghiu firing follows on the heels of a media blitz of Mason interviews following the September 6 death of superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti, when, despite Lyric having issued a very conciliatory press release upon his death about the tenor’s many memorable performances at the company, no mention whatsoever was made of the fact that when the celebrated tenor canceled two Lyric Opera season-opening productions in 1987 and again in 1989, Lyric subscribers who had bought their subscriptions on the promise of hearing the Great One—only to be told that he had canceled and a replacement would be singing in his place—became such an angry mob and accused the company of “bait and switch” tactics that Mason’s predecessor Ardis Krainik decided that rather than offer exchanges or refunds—a Lyric Opera no-no—she would use the incident as a magnificent company publicity stunt by issuing a public “ban” on future Lyric Opera Pavarotti appearances.
Pavarotti, who was flat on his back with a damaged sciatic nerve when the news broke in headlines across the globe, was stunned that Krainik, a person whom he had considered such a dear friend and trusted confidant, could betray him so publicly. At issue for Pavarotti was not being “fired” from a house that he rarely sang at in any case, particularly when he could literally have his choice of singing anywhere in the world any night of the year. Nor was the issue the astronomical sums of money he had raised for the company over years of performing special benefit recitals and concerts, but rather having been kicked by a friend when he was down, and in public no less. Krainik made several attempts to reconcile with Pavarotti, and regularly sent him flowers and congratulatory notes after other non-Lyric performances, but the two never spoke again (Krainik died in 1997). Before what turned out to be Pavarotti’s last public appearance in Chicago, at the United Center in February of 1998, he told me in an exclusive interview that he had even joked with Krainik at the time about the absurdity of his predicament. “My voice was fine,” he said, “but I was flat on my back and could not move. In [Puccini’s] ‘Tosca,’ you are shot by a firing squad in the last act. I said, ‘What do you want to do, shoot me in a stretcher?’ ” Actually, Krainik had suggested a chair.
The first American “Tosca” that Pavarotti ever sang was at Lyric Opera, and he admitted in 1998 that he still had a bent nail from the stage of Lyric that a stage hand found for him from that 1976 opening night, “for good luck,” and that he believed in every superstition that there is about live performing. “If people want to make jokes about my canceling, what can I do? It is easy for them because they think it is a matter of one person deciding whether or not I can sing on a particular night. The spirit is always willing to sing, and you always plan in good faith. But sometimes you wake up in the morning, and the voice is simply not there. If you go on without your voice, then you really have a problem. I have done it. This is a passionate art form and people want you at your best. When you are not, they ‘boo’ and throw things, and I don’t blame them. Which is worse? Not coming at all, or opening your mouth, and nothing is there?”
Looking up after reading these quotes to Mason, his arms are folded and he has a wide, cynical smile on his face. “I don’t buy it,” says Mason, who was working closely with Krainik at the time as director of operations for the company. “We were informed by a telex from his manager that he was canceling, it was all very impersonal.” Like firing a diva via a message delivered to her hotel? Are divas, in fact, becoming endangered at Lyric Opera?
“I’ve been doing this over forty years,” says Mason with a sigh, “and have worked with Freni, Scotto, Nilsson, even the later days of Tebaldi, all of the major sopranos of our time, no one ever did anything like this, or would have even thought of doing anything like this, let alone actually doing it: going out of town on a stage orchestra day for a reason like that. If anyone thought they were going to do something that off the wall, they might be discouraged from coming here, but this is a very pleasant place to work, if you talk to singers.”