Mason to retire as Lyric Opera chief after 2011-2012 season

Wed Jul 07, 2010 at 8:15 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

William Mason

William Mason, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, will retire at the end of the  2011-2012 season, when his contract expires.

Mason, 68, has been with the company for more than four decades and has served as general director since 1997.

“I think two years from now will be the right time to turn the reins over to a new general director,” Mason said in a statement released by the company. “And I look forward to working with the Board on finding a successor to lead this great company.

“I am privileged to have spent my professional life doing what I love best, which is producing grand opera at the highest international level. I followed two exceptional general directors at Lyric: Carol Fox, who founded the company and established its artistic pedigree from day one, and Ardis Krainik, who continued that commitment to excellence while at the same time making Lyric a great civic institution and a model of fiscal responsibility.”

The Lyric Opera, like many arts institutions and classical performing organizations, has faced major challenges in the current economic era.  The company has operated in the black for 22 of the past 23 years,  and managed to break even last season but had to draw $2.7 million from its reserve fund to do so.

With a strike threatening opening night of the 2009-2010 season, Mason skillfully handled a tough contract negotiation with the Lyric Opera musicians union, getting the union to agree to significant concessions.

Still, there was a significant drop in subscriptions sales in 2008-2009, which Mason largely blamed on the recession. Next season due to decreased ticket sales, the Lyric is cutting its number of performances by 11% from 77 to 68.

Mason has served the Lyric as a gifted and adroit administrator and maintained the Lyric’s artistic reputation as one of the world’s leading opera houses. If there is one criticism to be made about his tenure, it’s that the Lyric Opera has become increasingly conservative in its repertoire in recent seasons, with Krainik’s commitment to American opera and staging new works put aside as the economy has stumbled.

Mason, a Chicago native, succeeded Krainik, who served as general director from 1981 until her death in 1997. He joined the Lyric administration in 1962 under Carol Fox, Lyric’s founding general manager.

Prior to his appointment as general director, Mason served as Lyric’s director of operations, artistic, and production for 16 years. He was production director from 1974 through 1978.

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